In the near future, smartphonesmay work like your brain
By For several years now, chipmaker Qualcomm and Brain Corp, a separate company that it has invested in, have been working on a combined hardware and software platform that attempts to mimic the processes of the human brain. They call the platform, ‘Zeroth’.
The goal of Zeroth is for it to do more than just perform pre-programmed tasks. It will also be able to learn and adapt accordingly. The technology driving Zeroth is based on a family of algorithms called Deep Learning, which has also been used by Google subsidiary DeepMind to program a computer to play Atari video games at a superhuman level. Deep Learning software is loosely modelled on the way the human brain works: it can be trained to recognize certain objects in images by processing many example photos through a network of artificial ‘neurons’ arranged into hierarchical layers. In other words, it recognizes images by comparing them to other images in its memory, similar to the way you can identify objects, even if you’ve never seen that same exact object before, based on your own past experiences.
At MWC 2015 last month, Qualcomm showed off the first working prototype of Zeroth. When integrated into a smartphone, it demonstrated how Zeroth could improve a smartphone’s camera app by being able to successfully recognize individual elements of what you’re taking a picture of, such as food, a city skyline or a group of friends, even if it had no prior experience with the actual subject matter you’re shooting. The app would then automatically adjust the camera settings to ensure you take the best possible picture. The app was even capable of live tagging the names of your friends in real time by referencing previous photos you’ve taken of them.
Qualcomm also said that, as well as processing images, the Zeroth software could allow phones to recognize speech or other sounds, and to learn to spot patterns of activity from a device’s sensors. Computing at this level, which requires more than just simple task operations, generally requires Cloud Computing to accomplish, but Qualcomm says that all such computation will be performed on the phone itself. By keeping all operations at a local level, not only will Zeroth remove the requirement of Internet connectivity, it will also enable faster feedback and action to be taken from data received from the device’s sensors. Qualcomm has suggested that one of the first practical applications of Zeroth’s predictive learning skills will be extending device battery life by tracking the way a person uses their phone and learning when it can safely power down to save energy without affecting the user experience.
The Zeroth software is being developed to launch with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 system-on-a-chip, which will enter production later this year, meaning it should be available in consumer devices in early 2016. Qualcomm has also announced that as well as smartphone manufacturers, the Snapdragon 820 and the Zeroth software will be aimed at manufacturers of artificial intelligence drones and robots. Hopefully, the platform lives up to its name - it’s taken from science fiction author Isaac Asimov’s ‘Zeroth Law of Robotics’: “Robots must not harm humanity.”