Intel would like you to believe that its latest processors have ushered in a new era of personal computing.
As the chipmaker puts it, this is the age of the “AI PC,” in which dedicated neural processors help to run large language models, generate artwork, and perform a slew of other machine learning tasks. By boosting on-device AI, Intel believes we’ll see new applications that were either cost-prohibitive or too much of a privacy nightmare to run in the cloud.
The company may be right, but it’s also not the first to make the feature possible. Much of what Intel demoed at this month’s CES trade show was just catching up to what already exists on Apple chips, which have included neural processing units since 2017 on iPhones and since 2020 on Macs. Intel’s just being a lot louder about AI’s potential—and perhaps a bit savvier about ratcheting up the hype around it.
Intel’s AI app push
One of Intel’s most notable CES demos came from Rewind, a startup whose software aims to capture pretty much everything you do on your computer, including what you type, look at, and listen to. It then uses AI to search through all that activity and surface relevant snippets and summaries.
On-device processing is crucial to Rewind’s service, as users may not want to send their entire computing history to the cloud. But Intel isn’t the only chipmaker to enable this. Rewind first launched more than a year ago on MacOS, with CEO Dan Siroker citing Apple’s M-series processors as a key enabler. (For Windows, Rewind says it’s technically developing a separate app called “Superpower” that will also launch on MacOS, but it’s unclear how this will be different from the existing Rewind app.)
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Echoes of what Apple already offers were evident elsewhere in Intel’s demos. Microsoft, for instance, now offers a suite of “Studio Effects” features for webcams on PCs with neural processing units, including background blur and automatic framing. Apple offers similar features such as Center Stage and Portrait Mode on Macs with M-series processors. Another demo of Audacity separating vocal and instrumental tracks is reminiscent of how Apple Music Sing uses on-device AI to enable karaoke on any song.
Linn Huang, a PC industry analyst for IDC, notes that Intel isn’t alone in pushing AI PCs. AMD is making similar moves with its latest Ryzen chips, and Qualcomm is talking up the AI capabilities in its forthcoming Snapdragon X Elite chips for PCs. But as of now, he says, it’s too early to differentiate between them in terms of capabilities.
“The silicon is only the enablement part,” Huang says via email. “How the AI runs and how it will be used is a matter of software.”
Robert Hallock, Intel’s senior director of technical marketing, argues via email that the company’s AI offerings aren’t merely about what the hardware can do, but the work Intel is doing around it. He points to the company’s AI PC Acceleration Program, which connects hardware and software vendors that want to build AI features together, and notes that Intel has already working with more than 100 software companies.
Hallock also calls out Intel’s OpenVINO, a deep learning toolkit that’s been developed over the last eight years, and which now helps enable on-device AI applications. The open-source image editor GIMP, for instance, uses it for AI features such as Stable Diffusion image generation and super-resolution upscaling. Vistry, which offers AI assistants for retail workers, is also using OpenVINO to offer an offline version for PCs in areas where connectivity is unreliable.
“Ultimately, it takes more than hardware—software, partnerships, ecosystem enablement—to ensure the success of AI on a given platform,” Hallock says.
Preaching the AI gospel
Therein lies the real purpose of Intel’s AI PC push: It’s about conveying that the company is all-in on generative AI and its role in personal computing’s future, and about rallying the rest of the PC industry behind it.
Microsoft is naturally on board, and the PC makers seem bought into the idea as well. Tom Butler, Lenovo’s executive director for worldwide commercial portfolio and product management, says we’re at the start of an inflection point for PCs, and that a wave of AI apps will soon follow.
“All software companies are now rapidly looking at what they can do to take advantage of this additional engine on board,” he says. “It’s the beginning of this wave, and everything’s going to become an AI PC over time.”
Apple has been more muted about the concept. The company is reportedly developing new AI features for its products this year, but CEO Tim Cook told Forbes contributor David Phelan that it’s fully aware of generative AI’s downsides and doesn’t feel an urgency to be first in the category. He also noted that when Apple offers AI features, it focuses more on what they can do than the fact that AI is involved.
Intel’s taking the opposite approach, even though it may ultimately end up in the same place.