We’re still living through the paradigm shift of desktops and laptops to tablets and smartphones, but that is a device-level shift.  Is there any sub-device level evolution going on?

In my previous article I argued that effective processor speed has plateaued.  Other than reduced form factors, are we seeing any shift in device technology?  Certainly power consumption is now the new holy grail instead of raw performance, but other than power considerations is any innovation going on with processors?

Well yes.  We’re all carrying these mobile devices and they’re equipped with sensors.  Sensors meaning cameras, microphones, GPS radios and the like.  Ordinary computing processors can poll sensors, but the use of sensors invites a new paradigm, a new way of computing.  That new way is neural networks or neural network processing.

Neural networks are computational models that mimic how our central nervous system operates.  Data from a sensor arrives and is processed by a network of processors.  The idea is that data is compared to an array of “weights” and is recognized or not.  Does the luminance level of a certain color match this pixel or not?  The new data can be recognized or not, or if in learning mode it can affect the weights used to recognize the next data.

In this manner a pre-trained neural network can recognize data.  The key to using neural network processors is whether you have sensor data as input or not.  Since we’re now carrying sensors and will soon be wearing them with wearables, there will be a stream of data coming in.  How will we interpret this data stream?

That is the opportunity for neural processors.  The new sensor stream of data invites a departure from von Neumann architectures.  Qualcomm recently announced their own neural network processor or NPU.   NPUs can be used to recognize data from an incoming sensor stream.  This will be the new computing element to arise and augment, though not quite replace, the traditional von Neumann processor.

So this is good news to both Qualcomm and Intel.  New processors are needed for our mobile devices, but not traditional CPUs, new NPUs — neural processing units.

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