The hidden expenses of integrating AI into your smartphone

Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

Currently, the smartphone industry is in a strange position. It’s experiencing a period of transition where we can see all the advantages of generative AI knocking at the doors, but the various manufacturers seem to have conflicting ideas on how to integrate them into smartphones despite bold promises.

For instance, Qualcomm, which introduced the Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 chipset, lauded its futuristic generative AI capabilities. The chipmaker referred to it as the “first mobile platform designed with Generative AI in mind,”.

The company promoted a faster virtual assistant using Meta’s Llama 2 language model, the world’s fastest text-to-image generation courtesy of Stable Diffusion, the ability to manipulate images using AI, and more.

Interestingly, we now have multiple phones powered by the same chipset on the market, yet they don’t seem to offer those advantages in the same manner that Qualcomm showcased.

We merit more than mere dialogue

Nadeem Sarwar / Digital Trends

Rival chipmaker MediaTek, which has been on a massive market surge lately, found itself making similar claims.

It touted AI features that even surpassed Qualcomm’s best with the Dimensity 9300 and Dimensity 8300 silicon. Yet, when Digital Trends approached one of the smartphone companies that has started selling a Dimensity 9300-based phone about the absence of these generative AI tricks, it declined to comment.

Qualcomm and Samsung were contacted by Digital Trends for insights about the situation, but no responses were received. Samsung has implemented some neat AI features on the new Galaxy S24 series phones, but they don’t appear to be the same type or of the disrupting magnitude promised for the underlying chip.

Finbarr Moynihan, vice president of corporate marketing at MediaTek MediaTek

Finbarr Moynihan, MediaTek’s vice president of corporate marketing, sat down with Digital Trends for an interview to explore the conundrum. “MediaTek is focused on creating the best silicon possible that is ready for all AI possibilities,” he stated, emphasizing that the company worked with every stakeholder in the chain to deliver an optimized solution.

It’s definitely not going to be a complimentary meal.

The question was raised as to where MediaTek sees the AI-on-smartphone debate shifting. Will smartphone companies develop apps or include AI features in their existing apps? Will it be Google, as the operating system’s overseer, that will take the final call on offering these AI features? The responses are complex and incomplete.

The issue of fees

Google

Will the AI labs offer their standalone apps for tasks like image generation and manipulation behind a fee? “We are still waiting to see how it unfolds. Right now, we are in the very early stages of generative AI tools being implemented on phones,” Moynihan said. “We likely have to wait as more smartphone brands decide to add AI features to their devices and see what strategy sticks.”

At the end of the day, someone is collecting an AI fee, but how exactly it is changing hands, we don’t know. The mystery deepens with Samsung’s tight-lipped approach to the origins of its AI features. Did Samsung conjure up this tech wizardry on its own, or was it a magical collaboration with the likes of Google, Qualcomm, and various AI labs?

Nadeem Sarwar / Digital Trends

Knowing who played what part in this innovation saga is not merely a matter of curiosity; it’s about figuring out who gets to pass around the hat and collect the AI fee from the eager Galaxy S24 enthusiasts. MediaTek didn’t provide any concrete answer here, despite working closely with the likes of Meta and Stability to prep its silicon for their Llama 2 language model and Stable Diffusion tech, respectively.

It seems it goes back to the smartphone manufacturer — and more specifically, the cost of the device — that dictates whether generative features are worth the added financial hit. “MediaTek Dimensity 9300-powered devices support the Stable Diffusion, but it depends on [manufacturers] whether the device has this feature or not,” Anku Jain, managing director at MediaTek India, told Digital Trends.

What AI will you pay for?

Digital Trends

Are these generative AI features rewarding enough to be worth paying a fee, either through a subscription or increased sticker price for the phone? That depends on the audience. Moynihan, who has spent over a decade at MediaTek, says these AI features need to be understood from the audience’s perspective as well.

Pointing at the Chinese market, where Baidu’s AI models have already arrived on phones, he tells Digital Trends that the younger audience appreciates text-to-image generation for making memes, creating cool social media content, and just having fun in group chats. MediaTek India’s Jain also mentioned “personalized visual storytelling, quick meme creation, or generating images for social media” as lucrative use-case scenarios.

“While it may demand more resources, the practical value lies in enhancing user engagement and expression,” Jain tells Digital Trends. At MWC 2024 later this month, Moynihan says MediaTek will showcase some more advanced capabilities, such as an image-to-GIF version. Once again, it’s a fun feature to have, but not a quality of life addition.

However, there will be a cost to it all. Samsung, the market leader, has already made that abundantly clear. Google, which did not even use Qualcomm’s AI-ready silicon on its Pixel phones, is a bit more forthcoming about the price we pay for AI features.

The unique position of Google AI

Andrew Martonik / Digital Trends

Google is in a rather unique position. It has one of the world’s best AI tech stacks. The PaLM 2 language model is one of the most advanced out there. The company has also showcased tricks like image generation, media manipulation, AI-assisted search, and more. Plus, it also happens to be the guardian of the Android operating system, so there’s that.

But Google is not shying away from hawking those features at a premium. The company has announced standalone Gemini (formerly Bard and Duet AI) experiences for Android and even iOS devices. Notably, the features don’t need your phone to be running atop one of Qualcomm or MediaTek’s white-hot, AI-embracing processors.

Even Amazon is adding a powerful AI chatbot to its app without any silicon requirements. Amazon

We’re seeing a generative AI implementation that brings meaningful features to your phone and doesn’t need a specific chipset, but a token fee to access them. But instead of subjectively gimmicky tricks, it makes the Google Assistant smarter in ways that are tied to basic tasks like setting up a reminder, on-screen intelligence, making calls, and more.

I — and I am sure many others — would be more inclined to pay for tricks like context-aware on-screen content interpretation and content generation than gimmicks like expanding my photo or creating an original meme every once in a while. After all, if AI doesn’t play well with chores that are a core part of my daily routine, why bother paying for it?

The AI tax could be voluntary — or not

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