Qualcomm's next chips will help smartphones think for themselves

Qualcomm teased the prospect of smartphones that learn a couple of years ago, and it's now much closer to making them a practical reality. The chip designer has revealed its next big mobile processor, the Snapdragon 820, will be one of the first that can handle its Zeroth cognitive computing platform. In short, it'll let your phone learn about you (and the world around you) to take action on its own. You should see photo apps that detect whole scenes, security tools that protect against unknown viruses and interfaces that depend more on expressions and head movement than button taps. It gets more ambitious than that, though. Zeroth allows for always-on sensors that detect your surroundings (such as through motion or sound) and help your phone anticipate what you want.

There aren't many details about the Snapdragon 820 itself at the moment, although it'll use a new, custom 64-bit architecture (Kryo) and will be based on a more efficient manufacturing process. The big mystery right now is when you'll get your hands on it. Qualcomm isn't going to start delivering 820 samples to companies until the second half of the year, and it'll take a while after that before it's sitting in a phone you can buy. Zeroth will also depend on support from device makers, so there's no guarantee that you'll have a "thinking" handset right away.

Thankfully, you won't have to wait that long to check out Qualcomm's other big news. The company has taken the wraps off of Sense ID, a 3D fingerprint-scanning technology that could do away with conspicuous readers on devices. It uses ultrasound instead of capacitive touch, so it can detect your print through glass, metal and other surfaces -- you could rub against the edge of your phone to sign in, for instance. Sense ID can also spot subtler details in your fingers, like sweat pores, making it less likely that someone can fake your digits. Companies are already testing the platform now, and it should be in real, honest-to-goodness hardware later in the year.

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[Image credit: David Becker/Getty Images]