We’ve become used to sharing files between the cloud and our local PCs, so much that we often don’t think about where a file physically resides. It sounds like Microsoft wants us to start thinking about our computing resources in the same way — and start considering AI when buying a new PC or processor, too.
In the future, an app you use will make a decision between whether to use the power of your local CPU; a local “neural processing unit,” or NPU; or the cloud to get your task done fast.
“We’re entering a world where every Windows computer will draw on the combined power of CPUs, GPUs, NPUs, and even a new coprocessor, Azure Compute, in this hybrid cloud-to-edge world,” said Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella during his keynote address at the Microsoft Build conference, held virtually. “You will be able to do large scale training in the cloud and do inference at the edge and have the fabric work as one.”
What does this mean? Today, we buy beefy X86 processors to run games, Microsoft Excel, and other intensive applications on our PCs. What Microsoft is trying to accomplish is to bring new classes of applications to the PC, “magical experiences” that increasingly depend on artificial intelligence. These apps will use the CPUs and GPUs that are already in your PC, but also tap into the resources like the cloud and an AI processor like an NPU to help out, too.
What Nadella is proposing is that developers — Nadella mentioned Adobe by name — build in more intelligent capabilities into their own apps. (Think Photoshop’s “Magic Select” tool, which can, well, magically select an object by guessing that’s what you’re highlighting.) Those apps would be trained and improved in the cloud, teaching the apps through machine learning how to get smarter. They would then be tested — “inferencing,” in AI-speak — on your PC.
In other words, Microsoft sees the evolution of apps as one where the cloud will interact with the local PC in two ways. You’ll save files on your PC (or on a backup drive or USB key) and on OneDrive; and you’ll run apps on your local CPU and GPU, as well as Azure. The wild card will be the NPU, an AI coprocessor that has been somewhat ignored by X86 chipmakers like AMD and Intel, but prioritized by Arm. Deciding between what to use — CPU, GPU, NPU, or the cloud — is what Microsoft calls “the hybrid loop,” and it will be an important decision your Windows PC will have to make. From your perspective, however, it should just work.
More to come at Microsoft Build
At its Build developer conference, executive vice president and chief product officer Panos Panay will talk about a “vision for a world of intelligent hybrid compute, bringing together local compute on the CPU, GPU, and NPU [neural processing unit] and cloud compute with Azure,” the company’s cloud technology.
“In the future, moving compute workloads between client and cloud will be as dynamic and seamless as moving between Wi-Fi and cellular on your phone today,” Panay wrote in a blog post titled “Create Next Generation Experiences at Scale with Windows,” that accompanied the opening of the Build conference.
“We’re building on the GPU, the CPU, the MPU, and in essence, and in essence, we’re introducing a fourth processor to Windows with Azure Compute — using Azure, one of the world’s most powerful computers, to enable rich local experiences on Windows.” Panay said at the Build conference.
We don’t know exactly what AI-powered apps these will be, but Microsoft itself has provided a few past examples, such as:
…and PowerBI, which can work with Excel to identify trends.
So far, all of these applications depend on your local PC’s processor, such as automatic captioning of local video. Others, such as automatic scheduling of meetings in Outlook, can certainly use your own local processing power, but they could also use the Azure cloud that powers Outlook.com. The point is: you don’t know, and you don’t care. It just gets done.
As to what those applications might be? We don’t know, though Microsoft is clearly trying to rally developers to build those applications using Build as inspiration. We know Microsoft would really love for you to start incorporating its Azure cloud into your computing experiences, even if you don’t think of “Azure” as something you’d sign up for. Microsoft’s Xbox cloud gaming? The “Windows in a cloud,” or Windows 365? Outlook on the Web? All of these heavily depend on Microsoft Azure, and they simply can’t be replicated without a cloud subscription backing them up.
A strong endorsement for Arm
What’s somewhat surprising, however, is that how strongly Microsoft seems to believe that Arm PCs will be necessary to enable this future. “Increasingly, magical experiences powered by AI will require enormous levels of processing power beyond the capabilities of traditional CPU and GPU alone. But new silicon like neural processing units (NPUs) will add expanded capacity for key AI workloads,” Panay wrote.
Put another way, “in the future, the speed of your computer will be measured by the power of its neural processor,” said Microsoft technical fellow Steven Bathiche, at Build.
Both AMD and Intel have made noises about AI capabilities within their processors, beginning with Intel’s 10th-gen “Ice Lake” chip. There, Intel showed off how AI could be used to filter out background noises in conference calls, accelerate photo-editing tools, and more. But AI hasn’t really been a focus in subsequent presentations. For their part, AMD executives mentioned that Ryzen 7000 would have specific AI instructions that they would talk about later, and that was that.
Arm and its licensee Qualcomm, however, have made AI an enormous priority, and its recent Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 chip contains what Qualcomm calls its 7th-gen AI engine, with a 3rd-gen Sensing Hub that works on a low level to filter out audible noise along with other features. In smartphones, the impact of AI is more immediately felt, with “portrait” images and video using AI to set off the subject from the background, and apply filters. Qualcomm may refer to it as an “AI engine,” but it’s an NPU by any other name. And Microsoft seems to want them on the PC.
In a demonstration, Bathiche showed off how a face tracker algorithm would require more than 20 watts on a traditional X86 CPU, while on an NPU it took only 137 milliwatts.
And how is it going to do all this? It’s not exactly clear. Surprisingly, one name that we haven’t heard anything about is Windows ML, an AI API that we first heard about in 2018 to bring to AI to Windows…then sort of disappeared.
Mark Hachman / IDG
On one hand, Microsoft hasn’t called out Arm specifically as a preferred NPU provider. But we’ve seen a continued push to support Arm over the past few years, dating from the first Windows on Arm implementations to 64-bit app support. Unfortunately, in a world where Microsoft (and customers) didn’t care so much about AI, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips were forced to try and differentiate themselves on battery life, an advantage that X86 chips cut into. AMD claimed that the longest-lasting laptop, as measured by MobileMark, now runs on a Ryzen for example.
Microsoft hasn’t given up. At Build, the company announced Project Volterra, a new device powered by Snapdragon chips. (Microsoft representatives declined to comment on the exact specifications.) Volterra, pictured in the image at the top of this story, will be used as a way for developers to create these “magical apps” that use NPUs — on Arm.
“With Project Volterra you will be able to explore many AI scenarios,” Panay wrote. “And because we expect to see NPUs being built into most, if not all future computing devices, we’re going to make it easy for developers to leverage these new capabilities, by baking support for NPUs into the end-to-end Windows platform.”
Mark Hachman / IDG
Right now, you’re probably working on a PC that uses an X86 processor of some type, either from AMD or Intel. And you probably rely on the power of that PC to accomplish whatever task you wish to complete. Microsoft certainly doesn’t dictate the future of the personal computer, as we’ve learned from the failures of Windows 10X, the Surface Neo, and so on. But it does have significant influence, and the power of the cloud has already touched your life in subtle but meaningful ways. Microsoft appears to be trying to tug the PC into a direction that puts cloud connectivity plus local AI at the head of the table, with Azure as the main dish.
Will the PC industry follow suit? PC makers have generally been willing to experiment with Cortana buttons and Surface-like tablets and Windows 10 in S Mode and the like. But they’re quick to steer back towards what makes them money, too, ruthlessly cutting experiments that don’t pan out. Still, there’s no denying that Microsoft has staked a claim with a fresh vision for the future of the PC, and that’s worth watching.
This story was updated at 3:08 PM with comments from Microsoft executives Panos Panayand Steven Bathiche.