Huawei’s HiAI initiative opens up the Kirin 970 NPU to third-party developers

By Digit NewsDesk | Published on 18 Jul 2018
HIGHLIGHTS

Huawei wants more developers to come build their AI applications leveraging the company's dedicated NPU in the Kirin 970 chipset.

Huawei’s HiAI initiative opens up the Kirin 970 NPU to third-party developers

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In a session with journalists, Huawei outlined its plans for democratising and opening up its AI platform. This will allow third-party developers to take advantage of the NPU in the HiSilicon Kirin 970 SoC and the company’s AI APIs. James Lu, Huawei’s Director of AI Product Management spoke about how Huawei plans to open up its AI APIs to nurture an ecosystem for Huawei and Honor smartphones.

The Kirin 970 chipset was launched last year and is developed in-house by Huawei. The chipset is the first to introduce a dedicated co-processor to handle AI-tasks without stressing the CPU and the GPU. That allowed the Honor 10, Huawei P20 Pro, Honor View 10, which are powered by the Kirin 970 SoC, to offer AI features. All of the company's current flagships have touted AI-powered cameras that knows, for instance, when you’re taking a photo of your pet and applies the relevant parameters to make it appear more vibrant. The AI can also offer 10X zoom with higher clarity than any other phone right now and can make portrait shots more beautiful.

The same NPU also helps in offline voice commands and translations. It can perform natural language processing to convert your speech to text, which is then translated into actions. The same NPU also allows the phone to reply back. Lu said Huawei will be launching its own voice assistant (only in Chinese, for now) that can take commands conversationally. Over time, Lu said Huawei’s AI will be able to make using smartphones more natural.

Huawei agrees that there are only a handful of application phone vendors can develop for AI. The developers have many more unique ideas of using AI in phones, but don’t have the resources or the skills to leverage these capabilities. By opening up the company’s APIs, Huawei aims to bridge that gap and offer more diverse applications of AI. The initiative has already roped in popular image editing app Prisma. Earlier, Prisma used to send the photo to its servers where the effect was applied and then sent back. That would require an active internet connection and use more battery. By allowing Prisma to use the NPU on the Kirin 970 SoC,  the app was able to do the same in a matter of just two seconds, in comparison to ten seconds it took to do the same on the iPhone X.

Developers dabbling in the field of AI lack the computational resources to build their own APIs. There’s also a dearth of skills which stretches the development period of an AI app. The app would require data collection, training and UX optimisation. Furthermore, if every third-party developer came up with their own APIs, it would give rise to a fragmented ecosystem.

To aid developers, Lu announced Huawei’s HiAI initiative to help developers build apps from the ground up. At the chipset level, developers will be able to leverage Kirin 970’s NPU to accelerate their program. Secondly, at the device level, HiAi will allows developers to integrate the AI features Huawei has developed into their apps. Finally, Huawei will push out the services to the users allowing developers to maximise the reach of their apps.

However, the NPU remains quite restricted. Developers can only use the APIs Huawei makes available. For now, the NPU’s advantage for third-parties is the acceleration it is going to provide to their apps, which otherwise tends to have a slower output since they are hosted on the cloud. The NPU allows the apps to perform on-device computation, speeding things up significantly.

Instead of building walled gardens around AI, Huawei’s plans of opening the platform up to independent developers have a high chance of offering newer applications of AI in smartphones. For now, we have only seen applications in the camera and few more in the UI. Through democratisation of its technology, Huawei could be doing the same thing Apple did to mobile apps when it opened the App Store back in 2008.

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