Neural Processing

 This week Microsoft held its build conference. Among all the announcements was one about the Neural Processing Unit (NPU). Even those people who know little about technology have heard of the Central Processing Unit (CPU). This has been at the centre of computer power for decades. Microsoft would like you to get interested in the NPU.

Way back in 1981, when the PC first came out of IBM, the power user of the PC wanted, quite literally, more power. One of the first ideas for financial analysis on spreadsheets was a numeric co-processor. A second chip specialising in maths. Calculations could be passed from the CPU to the co-processor for quick answers. This left the CPU doing all the other tasks.

Over time, as graphics became more sophisticated, the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU), became part of the PC. You could have onboard, built-in graphics on the motherboard, however the fastest response came from a separate dedicated graphics processor. Taking the load off the CPU.

The next innovation is the Neural Processing Unit (NPU). This is to provide artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). Want to scan a face with an infrared camera? An NPU can make this easier. Microsoft think that “on device” processing will be complemented by using it’s own cloud processing to provide a full AI and ML environment for developers.

The code you write for a PC can then, if needed, harness Microsoft cloud services to help the processing.

To bring this all to life is new hardware designed by Microsoft’s Surface Team and Qualcomm. Named Project Volterra, the first implementation will be for software developers. It all sounds good and looks a little like an Apple Mac Mini in appearance.

The issue is that there is no pricing and availability. The previous Qualcomm adventures into Windows PCs have resulted in underwhelming slow expensive computers. The hope is that this will be different.

Even if it comes with a competitive price and is fast the questions don’t stop. This is a ARM powered PC. In the current market 99% or more of PCs run on Intel processors. Project Volterra is specifically built around the idea that the silicon mixes up the high-performance cores, with efficiency cores and fast transfers of data. Copying the ideas in the Apple M1 chip.

I think it’s difficult to see where this is going. Microsoft have dipped their foot into the ARM processor sea on more than one occasion. Windows RT more than 10 years ago right up to the Surface Pro X. None have displaced the PCs with Intel processors. Microsoft don’t seem to be taking the leap of going big on ARM processor devices as the way forward for Windows. This big announcement may just be another stumble on the a journey towards a dead end.


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