Quad core chips are a flagship smartphone feature right now, but Intel is planning for the future: within the next decade, the company sees processors in smartphones and tablets with as many as 48 cores all working in parallel, enabling features and applications that would be impossible today.
Intel, we should point out, already has a 48-core processor that it has been messing around with since back in 2009. Each core in this prototype was effectively a low-power Atom processor (running at something like 1.6 GHz), and while that theoretically gives you the equivalent of a 75 GHz processor (!), the tricky part is writing operating systems and software that can actually utilize all of those cores. Even now, on commercially available eight core processors, you rarely find more than six cores being used at once.
What we've just learned from Intel is that it expects this prototype chip to actually be inside mobile electronics in five to 10 years. All 48 cores worth. But more importantly, Intel also expects that by that point, people will have figured out how to get all those cores working together to enable our electronics to do crazy new stuff. As one analyst speculates:
"Five to 10 years is somewhat of an eternity in technology time. If we're going to have this technology in five to 10 years, [the smartphone] won't have just one camera. It would have two to three cameras that are always on. It could build a three-dimensional map of what it's looking at and do object recognition. You could finally do things that take way too much processing power today."
Even that is pretty tame, however. Where we see this going (and Intel seems to be taking this route as well) is using massive portable computing power to serve as a local cloud for some tasks. Like, you know all of that fancy stuff that Google and Apple do with voice and image recognition? None of it can be done on your phone itself, it all has to go back and forth to the cloud. A 48-core processor might be able to handle it, though, meaning that things like mobile augmented reality could become instantaneous and seamless. Basically, just think about all the stuff that requires a desktop or a cloud connection or even a modestly sized supercomputer, and start picturing how your live would be vastly improved by stuffing all of that processing power into your pocket phone.