Mobile AI is Huawei's not-so-secret weapon

An AI-centered processor could be its best hope against Apple and Samsung.

Smartphone makers are betting on camera features to help their flagship devices stand out. Samsung launched its first dual cameras on the Note 8, Sony introduced super slow-mo video recording on its XZ Premium and XZ1 series, and LG equipped the V30 with a glass lens that boasts a wide f/1.6 aperture. But Huawei has chosen a different route. In lieu of a new phone, the company showed off its Kirin 970 chip at IFA 2017, calling attention to the chipset's AI capabilities. The Kirin 970 will power Huawei's next flagship phone, the Mate 10, which is set to launch at a separate October event in Munich.

In addition to a slew of high-end features like powerful graphics performance (integrated 12-core GPU), better power management (10nm structure) and improved LTE capability (Cat 18 support), the Kirin 970's standout feature is its embedded neural processing unit (NPU). With the NPU, Huawei's next smartphone will dedicate power to AI-based tasks like recognizing and sorting images or optimizing your phone's performance.

This has several benefits, including improved performance and better battery life. The Kirin 970 "processed 2,000 images per minute, which was faster than other chips on the market," according to Huawei's press release. In real life, the Kirin 970 will likely speed up AI-based tasks if the apps invoke the NPU, which developers can do using either Huawei's own APIs, Google's TensorFlow and Facebook's Caffe 2. This means that things like facial recognition or real-time computer vision (like detecting objects on your screen) will be faster and consume less power than they do on other phones. Plus, your privacy will be better protected, because the information is being processed on the device instead of being sent to the cloud.

Huawei's focus on AI is different from its rivals' in several important ways. First, the company isn't simply sticking a digital assistant in its phone and calling it a day like others are doing. While it may not have an anthropomorphic form, Huawei's take on AI is a more deeply integrated one. That also means it's harder to evaluate the benefits of the behind-the-scenes AI improvements, since there are many other factors that affect a device's performance. (To be fair, though, Huawei's phones in China have an assistant called Xiao E, or "small E" in Chinese, while in the US the Mate 9 supports a limited version of Amazon's Alexa.)

Because it makes its own CPUs and phones, Huawei is also uniquely able to create an AI system that uses both hardware (chip) and software for better results. Although competitors like Samsung and Xiaomi also make their own chips for their own phones, we haven't seen them take advantage of that greater control other than to cut costs and reduce dependency on third-party suppliers. On the other hand, Huawei already launched its first AI-powered phone, the Mate 9, last year, which uses machine learning software to control hardware resources. That phone was designed to optimize performance by learning your habits over time and dedicating power to the apps it predicts you'll next use, before you even launch them -- even if it was hard to tell when the AI kicked in to help manage resources on the Mate 9.

Pursuing a different route is a clever, and arguably necessary, strategy for Huawei. Despite its status as the third largest smartphone maker in the world, it still struggles to find a place in the US, hampered in part by its hard-to-pronounce name and an apparent lack of support from American carriers. Huawei has not yet released a Kirin-powered phone on a US carrier. But the company's head of software marketing, Christophe Coutelle, told reporters here in Berlin to "stay tuned," adding that the "US market is very important."

Coutelle told Engadget that he believes the company's investment in a dedicated chip for AI shows its position and respect for privacy. That might help allay consumers' concerns that the Chinese company is relaying information to the foreign government.

Huawei has a long way to go before it can sway some of the fans who are firmly ensconced in Apple and Samsung's camps, but the company said besting the two tech giants isn't the main objective. The Chinese brand wants to focus on creating devices that help people communicate, and it is staying away from making home appliances and the like for now. This decision to hone in on phones (and the occasional tablet and laptop), along with the pursuit of deep AI integration, could differentiate Huawei from its rivals or at least add to its credibility as a leader in mobile technology. We'll learn more about whether the Kirin 970's benefits are truly meaningful this October. Until then, Huawei will continue to linger in the shadow of Samsung and Apple until it finds a way to convince us of its worth.

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