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Smartphones

The day I drove a Porsche using AI and a Huawei smartphone, dodging obstacles in the FC Barcelona car park

With just a telephoto-lens camera attached to the top of a Porsche Panamera to feed road footage to a Huawei Mate 10 Pro, the phone’s neural processing unit (NPU) was able to identify objects and react to them accordingly

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 March, 2018, 3:47pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 March, 2018, 7:46pm

Although Chinese mobile-phone giant Huawei unveiled flagship smartphone models in its P series at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in both 2016 and 2017, it decided to keep its latest handset, the P20, out of this year’s show in Barcelona.

It’s not because the device – believed to be a major upgrade on the previous model with a radical three-camera set-up – wasn’t ready. It’s because the Shenzhen-based tech company already had enough to flaunt at the world’s largest mobile phone trade show, including another of its flagship phones, the Mate 10 Pro, which was released in October last year.

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A source within Huawei says a big reason for the P20’s delayed unveiling is to give the Mate 10 Pro more time to shine. That definitely seemed to be the case at MWC, where the handset was the centre of a headline-grabbing showcase: it drove a Porsche.

I got the chance to ride in the AI-driven car in the car park at Camp Nou, the stadium of Football Club Barcelona. It was a short distance, at a relatively slow speed of 48 kilometres per hour (30 miles per hour), but the experience was still impressive.

With just a telephoto camera attached to the top of a Porsche Panamera that fed the Mate 10 Pro road footage, the phone’s neural processing unit (NPU) was able to identify three different objects – life-size cardboard cut-outs of a cyclist, a dog and a football – and react to them accordingly based on preset commands given by me, such as swerve right or stop.

Arne Herkelmann, Huawei’s European head of handset portfolio and planning, is quick to point out the company is not going into the driverless car market – it just wanted to show off the prowess of the Mate 10 Pro’s NPU.

“When the phone came out last autumn, some journalists were sceptical about the NPU and dismissed what it could do,” Herkelmann says. “I don’t blame them – AI is such an overused buzzword. But the difference between an NPU running AI and a typical CPU running AI is clear in an exercise like this.”

An NPU, he says, is “purpose-built to run deep learning and parallel processing. A CPU or GPU can only do linear or sequential processing.”

The demonstration was a controlled ride going a short distance; this technology isn’t ready for real- world use yet. But when it is, driverless cars are likely to be reliant on NPUs, not the standard CPUs and GPUs found in other devices today.

Huawei’s showcase highlights that the Mate 10 Pro is more future-proof than other smartphones right now, even if the real-world benefits in early 2018 are still minimal.

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The continued advancement of AI is reliant on fifth-generation (5G) mobile phone networks, as current network speeds do not process data fast enough. At MWC, Huawei showed it is a leader on that front too, with the introduction of the world’s first 5G chip set for mobile phones.

The company claims the chip set, named the Balong 5G01, can achieve download speeds of up to 2.3 gigabits (288 megabytes) per second and is fully compliant with the newly accepted industry standard for 5G technology. The chip set will be ready to roll out in commercial devices by 2019.

This is what gives Huawei an advantage over many of its peers. In addition to making mobile devices, it also makes its own chipsets and is a major telecommunications provider to most of the world (except the United States, because of security concerns).

Huawei’s pop-up camera on new laptop wows the MWC crowds

Huawei did show one new product at MWC. The afternoon before the event began, the company announced a new laptop, the MateBook X Pro. It is mostly an iterative update of last year’s model, so it lacked an immediate wow factor. Upon testing the device for a couple of hours, however, I think there’s a lot to like.

The MateBook X Pro has the slimmest bezels seen yet on a laptop, with an industry-best 91 per cent screen-to-body ratio. Its 8th-gen Intel Core i7 8555U processor, meanwhile, is top of the line, and the whole package is lean and light at 1.33kg.

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But the feature that impressed most – drawing an audible gasp from the crowd during the launch event – is that the laptop has a pop-up camera that resides within the keyboard.

Huawei says it came up with that creative camera placement because there was simply no room on the display bezels to house a camera module.

But there’s an added benefit: the laptop can’t be accused by the US government of being a potential spying tool because the camera is completely recessed and blocked when not in use.