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Interview: The Snapdragon 865 will make today’s smartphones look downright basic

Artificial intelligence (A.I.) has become an increasingly important part of our digital lives. While it manifests in obvious ways — like the fact that your phone can now book you a restaurant reservation without your help — it plays a massive role behind the scenes, too. In fact, A.I. plays a role in almost every aspect of the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 865, the latest mobile platform that will power the highest-end Android flagship phones in 2020.

There’s a good reason for that. A.I. doesn’t just help make your smartphone smarter; it also makes devices more power-efficient, powers cutting-edge features, and facilitates technology to complete tasks in the background, leaving us to focus on more important things.

Sound helpful? It is. And the Snapdragon 865 is perhaps the most artificially intelligent mobile platform to date. The new chipset was unveiled at the annual Snapdragon Summit, which Qualcomm flew me out to.

The Snapdragon 865 features Qualcomm’s latest-and-greatest 5th-generation A.I. Engine, which itself is powered by a new Hexagon Tensor Accelerator. The new A.I. Engine can deliver 4x the Tera Operations Per Second (TOPS) performance over the previous-generation A.I. Engine — so it’s a pretty massive improvement. And it can do all that with 35 percent better power efficiency.

The Sensing Hub

The most interesting aspect of how the Snapdragon 865 handles A.I. may be the new Sensing Hub, which, according to Qualcomm, essentially allows the device to be contextually aware of its surroundings. That could come in handy for things like automatically switching to Do Not Disturb when you’re driving, detecting when you’re sleeping to silence certain notifications, and more.

The Sensing Hub draws information from a ton of different hardware, and does so efficiently. According to Qualcomm, the Sensing Hub runs at less than 1mA of current, so it shouldn’t have a significant impact on your battery. It’s able to get data from audio and video sensors as well, using that data to determine where it might be, what you might be doing, and more.

Samsung note 10 plus vs pixel 4 xl camera
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Of course, to use a camera with the sensing hub, that camera needs to be always on — which does raise some privacy and security concerns. In an era of hacks and spying, it’s hard to imagine many people wanting a camera on their device that’s always on and working in the background. Qualcomm is quick to point out that the camera has a super-low resolution and all data remains on-device. Not only that, but manufacturers have to build a specific camera lens into the phone to work with the Sensing Hub, and it’s currently unclear if that will actually happen.

“Even though it’s an always-on camera, this is not something that has a very high image quality,” Ziad Asghar, vice president of A.I. at Qualcomm, told Digital Trends. “This has a lower resolution so that it can detect a face, for example, or it can read a QR code. It’s not going to be able to see a face from a long distance in a dark room, as an example.”

The Sensing Hub is yet another instance of our phones becoming more aware, and though privacy is always a concern, if done correctly, our phones could take an important step toward knowing what we need before we do.

A.I. everywhere

The Sensing Hub is just the tip of the iceberg. Artificial intelligence can be found throughout the Snapdragon 865, from the Snapdragon X55 5G modem, to the new Spectra 480 ISP (image signal processor), and even the Kryo 585 octa-core CPU. Combined with the different components of the chipset, the Snapdragon 865 enables a range of extra features.

The new A.I. Engine, combined with the Spectra 480, could come in handy when you’re video chatting. For example, Asghar notes that you could replace yourself with an avatar in real time, without the need for facial-recognition tech like that found in the iPhone X and later iterations of Apple’s phone. Alternatively, you could replace your background and keep yourself in the picture, in case you’re in a messy environment. That’s good news for those who work from home.

Apple’s Clips background removal app Image used with permission by copyright holder

There are other use cases too. Snapchat, for example, offers features that leverage A.I. to transform images in real time through the Snapchat camera, and says that leveraging the 5th-generation A.I. Engine speeds up that process by four times compared to the CPU alone, and 2.2 times compared to using just the GPU.

Of course, a major use case for A.I. is in audio. For starters, there’s the voice-recognition tech required for voice assistants. But the Snapdragon 865 will be able to go a step further too. Notably, the chipset will be able to power solutions for real-time voice-to-text, real-time translation, and more without an internet connection — much like the Live Transcribe and Live Caption features we’ve seen from Google.

The A.I. Engine also works in collaboration with the Snapdragon 865’s X55 5G modem.

“You have a lot of these devices, like connected cameras, or it could be a car or smartphone. All of these really have a certain degree of A.I. enablement in them, so they can make decisions to ensure your privacy,” Asghar said. “But then you have this amazing new link, which is our 5G link that we’re pretty much driving as a company, with very low latency and very high throughput, meaning that those tasks that are not concerning from a privacy perspective can be sent off to an edge server.”

Next-level efficiency

Qualcomm is also placing a much heavier emphasis on efficiency for the Snapdragon 865 — and that’s always helpful. By being more efficient, the chipset is able to not only use less battery, but also process more information and data.

There are a few ways that the chipset is able to be more efficient. Notably, the company has developed a new technology that it calls “Deep Learning Bandwidth Compression,” or DLBC.  According to Qualcomm, the tech is able to compress data by almost 50 percent.

“There are two benefits of that,” Asghar told Digital Trends. “Number one, it frees up bandwidth for other IP blocks that are pinging the data or memory, for being able to get more information from it. And then secondly, the less data that you have move back and forth, the less power you consume.”

There’s good reason for Qualcomm wanting to make the chipset more capable in Deep Learning. Google and other companies are slowly moving things back onto the device to help alleviate privacy concerns. The new version of Google Assistant, for example, largely lives on-device. Asghar says this is unlikely to change — but that both cloud-based and on-device systems will be important.

“What is also happening is that there are some use cases that can be far more involved, which means that there’s a lot of power consumption that might come into play,” Asghar said. “5G can kind of come in the middle as a link, and you can envision that you can have some of this processing on the cloud.”

The end result

So, what does all this mean for you? Well, as has always happened, your phone is getting smarter and more efficient — a whole lot more, in fact — and it’s A.I. that’s powering it all. When you think of artificial intelligence, Google Assistant or Alexa may come to mind, but A.I. is playing a growing role in the behind-the-scenes work of your smartest and most-trusted devices. With the proliferation of 5G and the move toward more of your data staying safe with you — and only you — Qualcomm is preparing our phones to play a big part in not only keeping our data safe, but fast and smart, too.

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Christian de Looper
Christian’s interest in technology began as a child in Australia, when he stumbled upon a computer at a garage sale that he…
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