Intel envisions smarter autonomous cars with Altera FPGAs

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich provides clarity on how the company plans to use Altera FPGAs

For decades, Intel processors have powered most of the world's PCs. But the company is now looking outside its conventional chips to FPGAs, or field programmable gate arrays, as it searches for ways to advance computing.

As part of that effort, Intel is in the process of buying FPGA specialist company Altera for a whopping US$16.7 billion. The FPGAs could find a place in IOT devices and also in autonomous cars, said CEO Brian Krzanich at the company's annual investor conference Thursday.

FPGAs are unlike CPUs that power laptops and desktops today; for one thing, they can be easily reprogrammed to run specific functions. FPGAs are 25 times faster than CPUs and will allow Intel to build more functionality into devices and cars without requiring more power, Krzanich said.

The FPGAs can be loaded with vehicle-related algorithms, which could define how cars function and react. A lot of that reaction will be based on sensors, whose data can be processed on FPGAs in the car. Cars need to react immediately, especially when it comes to avoiding accidents, and FPGAs can provide the processing power to quickly deliver results. Conventional CPUs don't have that level of processing speed.

Massive amounts of data will also be collected from IoT devices and sent to servers in the cloud, which FPGAs can then quickly analyze. In addition, Krzanich envisions FPGAs helping to analyze health data, and said the processors are being used in a current project: Intel is working with a cardiovascular research group on a program to collect data from the smartwatches and scales of 500 participants. Intel is collecting 300 million data points a day for the project, and algorithms on FPGAs are helping to  deliver analyses.

With technologies like RealSense, a 3D camera, Intel is also hoping devices will recognize objects and people. In conjunction with RealSense, FPGAs could be used for image recognition in robots.

Microsoft is currently using FPGAs to speed up the delivery of text, image and other search results from servers. Next year, Intel will start shipping server chips with FPGAs. 

Because of their limited functionality however, FPGAs will supplement CPUs, Intel's bread and butter business. The company will put FPGAs next to CPUs, speeding up processing by avoiding  the necessity of having data be routed through various components on a motherboard. However, it's not clear whether Intel will put FPGAs in laptops and desktops.

Many believe Intel overpaid when it announced the purchase of Altera in June. The biggest question was how Intel would use FPGAs, considering they could possibly draw a lot of power on account of their processing speed. But when used for the right applications, FPGAs have the promise of freeing up processing load from CPUs, ultimately improving the power efficiency of computers, especially servers.

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