Source: Qualcomm.

Our smartphones are pretty amazing devices already. But when it comes to understanding their surroundings, anticipating our preferences, or learning new tasks, they're not that adept. That's because the processing chips inside of most of our devices are made to handle specific tasks they can calculate, as opposed to processing information similar to the way we think -- by observing our surroundings and putting different pieces of information together.

Chipmaker Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) is hoping to change that. This week at the Mobile World Congress, the company talked more about its years-long research into cognitive processing for mobile chips -- called the Zeroth platform. Zeroth is combination of Qualcomm's new high-end Snapdragon 820 processor and built-in software that could make smartphones much more intelligent as early as next year.

Here's how it works
Zeroth will allow smartphones and tablets to identify and categorize objects, remember preferences, and interact with their users in a much more dynamic way than Apple's Siri or Microsoft's Cortana work today. Qualcomm outlined seven major cognitive capabilities of Zeroth:

  • Visual Perception: On-device deep learning paired with smart cameras will allow devices to identify scenes, objects, and read text and handwriting -- and then categorize content automatically. 
  • Intelligent Connectivity: Devices will find the fastest wireless Internet connection possible autonomously.
  • Intuitive Security: Using behavioral analysis, devices will be able to detect and protect against new malware, or ask users for more authentication.
  • Always-on awareness: Sensors paired with machine learning and algorithms to allow devices to be aware of their surroundings.
  • Immersive multimedia: Media and audio function that will adapt based on head movements and facial recognition. 
  • Speech and audio recognition: Always-on listening that allows devices to react to environmental sounds, commands, and sound identification, and remember which task to act out when it hears them. 
  • Natural device interactions: Mobile devices that can adapt and personalize interactions with users based on gestures, expressions, and faces.

A simple example of some of Zeroth's capabilities would be that, if a user snapped a picture of his or her friends, the phone would learn to recognize who the friends are, create a photo album specifically of them, and then automatically add new photos to the album without the user having to set up all the settings to make it happen.

Zeroth could use the same technology in smartphones to understand when a user wants the phone on silent, when to send an automatic reply text, or when to upload an image to Facebook based on the users' previous preferences. In short, the phone would learn what you want, and continue to get smarter at knowing what you need.

How this benefits Qualcomm
Qualcomm could take two different approaches with Zeroth. Obviously, the first is to sell the Zeroth platform on its latest chips, as it's already planning to do some time later next year. This could give Qualcomm a leg up in the processing market by providing cognitive learning for mobile devices in addition to robust 64-bit processing.

But Qualcomm also makes a significant amount of its revenue from patent licensing, and it could follow the same path for the Zeroth platform. Licensing the cognitive learning would give Qualcomm an ongoing revenue source at a time when its patent dominance has just taken a hit. The company recently settled for $900 million with the Chinese government over antitrust problems related to licensing, and had to modify how it makes deals with Chinese vendors, as well.

Whichever way Qualcomm chooses to make money with Zeroth, it appears consumers and the company's investors have much to look forward to.