The phone in your pocket is an irreplaceable device. For now. From being able to take calls to browsing the internet to taking photos, the palm-sized device is an all encompassing, omnipresent and ever prevalent. But smartphones aren’t the future. Or to put it in another way, smartphones aren’t going to be alone in shaping the future. Smart speakers have already started invading our houses and while autonomous cars are still some time away, automotive technology has been evolving at a rapid pace. And after missing out on the early smartphone boom, MediaTek, the Taiwanese chipset supplier is already eyeing the emerging IoT market.
The Taiwanese fabless chipset seller has its fingers deep in the smartphone market. In fact, in 2016, it was adjudged
the third largest fabless chipset design houses in the world with a 17.6 per cent year over year growth. According to the company, over 1.5 billion devices shipped globally are powered by MediaTek. Now that smartphone growth has plateaued globally, MediaTek is placing its bets in this year’s most-used buzzword — AI.
A democratic AI
“It’s an AI world, after all”, reads MediaTek’s website. At least, that’s the world MediaTek envisions. The company made access to machine learning hardware much easier by integrating an APU or AI Processing Unit in their chipsets. The Helio P60 and the P22 launched this year houses the APU that is designed in-house by the Taiwanese giant. The P-series are aimed at mid-range and entry-level devices which means the dedicated AI processor is currently the most affordable. But hardware is only one part of the whole. Without active development, the hardware isn’t leveraged to its full potential. To that end, MediaTek debuted its AI platform at the sidelines of Computex in Taiwan, named Neuropilot.
Kevin Jou, the company’s Chief Technology Officer announced that the new platform is compatible with the most popular AI frameworks, including Google’s Tensorflow, Python-based Caffe, and more. The platform will leverage the APUs in MediaTek chipsets and give developers the tools to make the most of it. It is a common platform to develop all kinds of smart products. Neuropilot can deliver computer vision used for image recognition, voice assistants and security.
Neuropilot is positioned more as an ecosystem. It will be a means to perform Edge-AI, a term that is Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s favourite. It means that the AI processing will be done within the device itself instead of relying on the cloud.
The APU itself is being hailed as one of the most efficient in the market. The one in the Helio P60 takes 18 milliseconds to process machine learning tasks. MediaTek drove the efficiency further home through a demo of face detection by the Oppo F7 (powered by the Helio P60) in comparison to the Samsung Galaxy S9 and the iPhone 8 Plus. It was indeed visibly faster than the other two and the APU was leveraged to help improve the background light of the subject in the frame.
“It’s an AI world, after all.”
But as I said before, smartphones are going to accompanied by other smart devices as well. MediaTek is planning to tread into those markets. AI-assisted automobiles, smart speakers and displays and other smart devices are on the rise and MediaTek wants to capitalise on them. In fact, it’s chipsets already power Amazon’s Alexa-enabled Echo devices. That already makes MediaTek the largest player in the smart speaker market. The efficient APU allowed Echo devices to be cross-compatible with thousands of other smart devices including smart lights, locks, cameras, and more. The 18ms computing speed also helps. Alexa doesn’t take long to answer and do what it’s asked. But it’s not as fast as it should be.
What’s holding back these smart devices isn’t the AI hardware. It’s the connectivity. 4G is fast, but not fast enough for IoT devices to talk to each other and perform tasks seamlessly. Which is why there is a rush to make 5G a reality. The proposed technology will apparently deliver speeds in gigabits. The lightning fast speed is especially important for autonomous cars and cars that will rely on AI to assist driving. It needs split-second operations all the time, without a hitch. 5G promises all that.
In that regard, MediaTek today announced the Helio M70, a 5G ready modem that will hit the markets sometime later this year or in 2019. The modem will be leveraged by IoT devices and smartphones to achieve speeds up to 5Gbps. MediaTek said it is actively testing the modem in collaboration with Nokia, NTT Docomo and Huawei and will support all carriers globally.
5G+AI = The Future
Together with 5G and AI, MediaTek plans to invade homes and garages. MediaTek’s AI will help cars perform automatic emergency braking, lane departure and forward collision warning, detect moving objects and blind spots and more. AI can control the vehicle’s trajectory and speed using the APU. The underlying technology include SLAM (simultaneous localisation and mapping) which is essentially the car’s ability to map and interpret its surroundings simultaneously, and environmental modelling.
That sounds a lot like autonomous cars. But MediaTek is too shy to admit the possibility. After all, driverless cars have been getting into all sorts of accidents these days. But at the core of the company’s ambition for AI-powered automobiles are a bunch of sensors and well, AI. The sensors include cellular modems, radars, lidars and cameras. The sensors will collect and feed the data to the APU that can deliver high computing power with low power consumption. The current APU in the Helio P60 only consumes 20 milliampere of power. The APU will then leverage the data to control the wheels, brakes, accelerator and the lights.
It’s certainly a lot more complicated than it sounds. And MediaTek isn’t the only protagonist in this story. Waymo, owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet has been dabbling with autonomous cars for quite some time now. It’s cars are even being allowed to drive passengers to their destinations in the United States. There’s Qualcomm, MediaTek’s bitter rival that’s also making some headway into smart devices and autonomous cars. Tesla Motors’ AI-assisted cars are being actively sold in the market and even Uber is working on self-driven cars. The competition is certainly intense, but MediaTek has an edge over the others. The company promises the technology to be more affordable and like its chipset business, it will be offered as a turnkey solution to manufacturers. While Waymo, Tesla, Uber and the likes will have its own fleet of cars, MediaTek’s strategy might soon see the company be more widespread in that space by offering the technology to car makers.
MediaTek lost out on the first mover advantage that its rival Qualcomm had in the smartphone market. It arrived late and its strategies kept the company behind the scenes. Snapdragon processors are widely used in marketing materials for phones. MediaTek, not so much. But with the next wave of tech innovation knocking at the doors, the Taiwanese giant doesn’t want to commit the same mistakes. In fact, it will be lot more pervasive, lot more present and a lot more active in the coming years. There is a wind of change coming, and MediaTek plans to fly high.
MediaTek sponsored the writer’s travel and stay at Taiwan for Computex 2018.