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1 Potential Detail of Apple Inc.'s New AI Chip Emerges

By Ashraf Eassa – Jul 7, 2017 at 12:30PM

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It might be a separate chip, after all.

Back in May, Bloomberg's Mark Gurman broke the news that Apple (AAPL 1.21%) is working on a specialized processor "devoted specifically to AI-related tasks."

Late last month, I suggested that the Apple Neural Engine wasn't a stand-alone chip. Instead, it sounded more like a processor that would be integrated into Apple's A-series applications processor.

Apple's iPhones in a "mosaic.".

Image source: Apple.

After all, Apple's A-series processors is what is known as a "system-on-a-chip," or a chip that integrates many different pieces of functionality. For example, the A-series processors today integrate a whole host of technologies such as CPU cores, graphics processors, memory controllers, image processors, and even a motion co-processor.

However, based on what Gurman said in a recent article, it sounds as though the upcoming Apple Neural Engine is, in fact, a stand-alone chip.

The evidence of a stand-alone chip

"In addition to the face unlock feature, Apple is testing next-generation iPhone prototypes that include a dedicated chip for processing artificial tasks," Gurman said.

At this stage of the game, the Apple A11 Fusion system-on-a-chip should already be in mass production, and even if mass production hasn't yet commenced, the design must have been finalized quite a long time ago.

If the Apple Neural Engine is integrated into the A11 Fusion, then I wouldn't expect Apple to be "testing" anything -- it'd be good to go for the soon-to-be-launched iPhone models.

This wording, then, leads me to believe that the Apple Neural Engine is, in fact, a stand-alone chip that's separate from the A11 Fusion applications processor.

Alternatively (though, I think less likely), the Apple Neural Engine might be included in the A11 Fusion chip, but Apple is now deciding if it wants to enable it.

A sensible move, but the future is still integrated

If the Apple Neural Engine was a relatively risky/ambitious piece of silicon, then it could make sense that Apple wouldn't want the development schedule of the A11 Fusion chip -- a chip that's critical to the functionality of the new iPhone -- to be put at risk due to the Apple Neural Engine.

So, for a first iteration of this new, unproven, and -- at least, right now, inessential -- technology, building it as a separate chip is sensible.

However, because stand-alone chips take up precious logic board space and can lead to additional cost and power consumption overhead relative to technologies integrated into the main processor, I wouldn't expect the Apple Neural Engine -- if it really is a stand-alone chip -- to remain a stand-alone chip forever.

Think, for example, of Apple's M-series motion co-processors. The first M-series motion co-processor, known as the M7, was a stand-alone chip, and so was its successor, the M8. However, the M9, M10, and presumably all future M-series co-processors are all integrated directly into the A-series silicon.

Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me a bit to see future iterations of the Apple Neural Engine (there's no way Apple doesn't improve it, and perhaps dramatically so, in the coming years) integrated directly into the A-series processors. Perhaps such integration could come as soon as next year. 

Ashraf Eassa has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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