Can artificial intelligence make the PC cool again?


New AI-powered Surface notebooks displayed following Microsoft’s briefing on upcoming plans and devices for AI in Redmond, Wash., on Monday, May 20, 2024. Can AI make the PC cool again? Microsoft, HP, Dell and others unveiled a new kind of laptop tailored to work with artificial intelligence. Analysts expect Apple to do something similar. — The New York Times

REDMOND, Washington: The race to put artificial intelligence everywhere is taking a detour through the good old laptop computer.

Microsoft on May 20 introduced a new kind of computer designed for artificial intelligence. The machines, Microsoft says, will run AI systems on chips and other gear inside the computers so they are faster, more personal and more private.

The new computers, called Copilot+ PC, will allow people to use AI to make it easier to find documents and files they have worked on, emails they have read or websites they have browsed. Their AI systems will also automate tasks such as photo editing and language translation.

The new design will be included in Microsoft’s Surface laptops and high-end products that run on the Windows operating system offered by Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo and Samsung, some of the largest PC makers in the world.

The AI PC, industry analysts believe, could reverse a longtime decline in the importance of the personal computer. For the past two decades, the demand for the fastest laptops has diminished because so much software was moved into cloud computing centres. A strong Internet connection and web browser was all most people needed.

But AI stretches that long-distance relationship to its limits. ChatGPT and other generative AI tools are run in data centres stuffed with expensive and sophisticated chips that can process the largest, most advanced systems. Even the most cutting-edge chatbots take time to receive a query, process it and send back a response. It is also extremely expensive to manage.

Microsoft wants to run AI systems directly on a personal computer to eliminate that lag time and cut the price. Microsoft has been shrinking the size of AI systems, called models, to make them easier to run outside of data centres. It said more than 40 will run directly on the laptops. The smaller models are generally not as powerful or accurate as the most cutting-edge AI systems, but they are improving enough to be useful to the average consumer.

“We are entering a new era where computers not only understand us, but can anticipate what we want and our intents,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at an event at its headquarters in Redmond, Washington.

Analysts expect Apple to follow suit next month at its conference for software developers, where the company will announce an overhaul for Siri, its virtual assistant, and an overall strategy for integrating more AI capabilities into its laptops and iPhones.

Whether the AI PC takes off depends on the companies’ ability to create compelling reasons for buyers to upgrade. The initial sales of these new computers, which cost more than US$1,000 (RM4,692), will be small, said Linn Huang, an analyst at IDC, which closely tracks the market. But by the end of the decade – assuming AI tools turn out to be useful – they will be “ubiquitous,” he predicted. “Everything will be an AI PC.”

The computer industry is looking for a jolt. Consumers have been upgrading their own computers less frequently, as the music and photos they once stored on their machines now often live online, on Spotify, Netflix or iCloud. Computer purchases by companies, schools and other institutions have finally stabilised after booming – and then crashing – during the pandemic.

Some high-end smartphones have been integrating AI chips, but the sales have fallen short because the features “are still not sophisticated enough to catalyse a faster upgrade cycle,” Mehdi Hosseini, an analyst at Susquehanna International Group, wrote in a research note. It will be at least another year, he said, before enough meaningful breakthroughs will lead consumers to take note.

At the event, Microsoft showed new laptops with what it likened to having a photographic memory. Users can ask Copilot, Microsoft’s chatbot, to use a feature called Recall to look up a file by typing a question using natural language, such as, “Can you find me a video call I had with Joe recently where he was holding an ‘I Love New York’ coffee mug?” The computer will then immediately be able to retrieve the file containing those details because the AI systems are constantly scanning what the user does on the laptop.

“It remembers things that I forget,” said Matt Barlow, Microsoft’s head of marketing for Surface computers, in an interview.

Microsoft said the information used for this Recall function was stored directly on the laptop for privacy, and would not be sent back to the company’s servers or be used in training future AI systems. Pavan Davuluri, a Microsoft executive overseeing Windows, said that with the Recall system users would also be able to opt out of sharing certain types of information, such as visits to a specific website, but that some sensitive data, such as financial information and private browsing sessions, would not be monitored by default.

Microsoft also demonstrated live transcripts that translate in real time, which it said would be available on any video that streams across a laptop’s screen.

Microsoft last month released AI models small enough to run on a phone that it said performed almost as well as GPT-3.5, the much larger system that initially underpinned OpenAI’s ChatGPT chatbot when it debuted in late 2022.

(The New York Times sued OpenAI and Microsoft in December for copyright infringement of news content related to AI systems.)

Chipmakers have also made advances, like adjusting a laptop’s battery life to allow for the enormous number of calculations that AI demands. The new computers have dedicated chips built by Qualcomm, the largest chip provider for smartphones.

Though the type of chip inside the new AI computers, known as a neural processing unit, specialises in handling complex AI tasks, such as generating images and summarising documents, the benefits may still be unnoticeable to consumers, said Subbarao Kambhampati, a professor and researcher of artificial intelligence at Arizona State University.

Most of the data processing for AI still has to be done on a company’s servers instead of directly on the devices, so it’s still important that people have a fast internet connection, he added.

But the neural processing chips also speed up other tasks, such as video editing or the ability to use a virtual background inside a video call, said Brad Linder, editor of Liliputing, a blog that has covered computers for nearly two decades. So, even if people don’t buy into the hype surrounding artificial intelligence, they may end up getting an AI computer for other reasons. – The New York Times

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