“Hello, Computer” – Intel’s New Mobile Chips Are Always Listening

Tablets and laptops coming later this year will be able to constantly listen for voice commands thanks to new chips from Intel.

Better speech recognition could change how people use computers.

A new line of mobile chips unveiled by Intel today makes it possible to wake up a laptop or tablet simply by saying “Hello, computer.” Once it has been awoken, the computer can operate as a voice-controlled virtual assistant. You might call out “Hello, computer, what is the weather forecast today?” while getting out of bed.

New processors: A silicon wafer etched with Intel’s Core M mobile chips.

Tablets and lightweight laptops based on the new Core M line of chips will go on sale at the end of this year. They can constantly listen for voice instructions thanks to a component known as a digital signal processor core that’s dedicated to processing audio with high efficiency and minimal power use.

“It doesn’t matter what state the system will be in, it will be listening all the time,” says Ed Gamsaragan, an engineer at Intel. “You could be actively doing work or it could be in standby.”

It is possible to set any two- or three-word phrase to rouse a computer with a Core M chip. A device can also be trained to respond only to a specific voice. The voice-print feature isn’t accurate enough to replace a password, but it could prevent a device from being accidentally woken up, says Gamsaragan. If coupled with another biometric measure, such as webcam with facial recognition, however, a voice command could work as a security mechanism, he says.

Manufacturers will decide how to implement the voice features in Intel’s Core M chips in devices that will appear on shelves later this year.

The wake-on-voice feature is compatible with any operating system. That means it could be possible to summon Microsoft’s virtual assistant Cortana in Windows, or Google’s voice search functions in Chromebook devices.

The only mobile device on the market today that can constantly listen for commands is the Moto X smartphone from Motorola (see “The Era of Ubiquitous Listening Dawns”). It has a dedicated audio chip that constantly listens for the command “OK, Google,” which activates the Google search app.

Intel’s Core M chips are based on the company’s new generation of smaller transistors, with features as small as 14 nanometers. This new architecture makes chips more power efficient and cooler than earlier generations, so Core M devices don’t require cooling fans.

Intel says that the 14-nanometer architecture will make it possible to make laptops and tablets much thinner than they are today. This summer the company showed off a prototype laptop that is only 7.2 millimeters (0.28 inches) thick. That’s slightly thinner than Apple’s iPad Air, which is 7.5 millimeters thick, but Intel’s prototype packed considerably more computing power. 

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From the latest smartphones to advances in quantum computing, the hardware behind today's digital age is rapidly changing.

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