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(Image courtesy of Apple).

Chipmaker in its Own Right, Apple Creates Swathes of Custom Silicon

Apple cultivated large swathes of silicon for its latest generation of smartphones, etching 4.3 billion transistors onto a tiny slab that can carry out the complex math behind augmented reality and machine learning.

On Tuesday, the Cupertino, California-based company announced that the processor used six computer cores and three graphics cores built from scratch for the new iPhone 8 models. Apple has arranged for the A11 Bionic to take advantage of the advanced camera and crown of sensors in the premium iPhone X.

The company said that the computer split tasks between two performance cores 25% faster and four efficiency cores 70% faster than its previous generation of A10 processors. It is also significantly faster while multithreading, in which it chews on small sets of code at different stages of execution to cut down on processing time.

The custom graphics run around 30% faster than the A10, the company said in a statement. It musters the same graphics performance while using half the battery power to organize images, compose photos, and enhance augmented reality apps, which overlay digital images on scenes seen through the smartphone.

Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, said the “neural engine” embedded in the silicon enables the iPhone X to recognize faces. The Face ID program reads faces to unlock the screen and authorize mobile payments – something that would normally need to be done in data centers but that now can be done independent of the cloud.

These algorithms boil inside the neural engine, which uses two processor cores to perform 600 billion operations per second without burning through battery life. The new section of silicon is a product of Apple’s chip division, which is led by senior vice president of hardware technologies Johny Srouji.

This custom silicon for machine learning could make augmented reality games more responsive and help Apple's personal assistant Siri answer questions faster. Keeping data on the smartphone preserves privacy and saves battery life that would be used to talk wirelessly to the cloud.

In June, the company released a set of programming tools called CoreML, which helps developers infuse applications with machine learning code. The tools could be a natural fit with the Bionic chip, which will run “specific machine learning algorithms,” including Face ID and another feature called Animoji, which analyze facial expression and recreate them on animated pandas, robots, and unicorns.

Other companies are also trying to inject machine learning into gadgets. Huawei has built what it calls a neural processing unit to sort photos, translate text, and understand speech in smartphones. Qualcomm, as a stepping stone to its own custom silicon, released tools that optimize applications for machine learning.

Arm is also rethinking its basic chip technology used as a starting point for Apple and Qualcomm. The technology, called Dynamiq, allows them to create chips with separate cores for tasks like speech recognition while reserving others for lower power tasks. It can also assign the ideal cores for particular applications.

The neural engine is only one of Apple’s unique silicon etchings. For the new iPhones, it also built an image processor and video encoder from scratch, so that the cameras can better estimate lighting conditions and autofocus faster in low light, as well as provide motion analysis to optimize videos.

Apple revealed its custom graphics technology after it vowed in April to phase out graphics licensed from Imagination Technologies in its smartphones, watches, and tablets. Imagination tried to curb the financial fallout by putting other business units up for sale, but it eventually threw in the towel.

Imagination is now trying to sell itself completely and Apple was viewed as an unlikely but possible destination. The company had used Imagination’s graphics since the first iPhone came out a decade ago, and it poached engineers from the firm’s ranks. But after Tuesday’s announcement, an acquisition seems unlikely.

Developing silicon is nothing new for Apple, one of the world’s largest chip makers thanks to its smartphone sales. Industry analysts speculate that the company is pouring money into its semiconductor team, which could be why Apple’s research and development bills have doubled to $11 billion since 2013.

Updated September 15th, 2017: This article was updated with additional information about the neural engine embedded in Apple's latest processor. The title has also been updated to reflect the changes.

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