Sony's beaten its competitors to the punch with the announcement of the first-ever image sensor with integrated AI capabilities, according to The Verge. Instead of relying on external hardware, the IMX500 sensor can perform machine learning tasks all by itself. Despite having business-focused applications in mind for the new sensor right now, Sony already supplies image sensors for current iPhones and Pixels, so future generations of Apple and Google's smartphones could get the smart sensors, too.
A new era for image sensors — The IMX500 sensor has its own processing power and memory, allowing it to perform tasks like facial and object recognition, video analysis, or simply boosting image quality. Currently, Sony is particularly interested in retail-based image processing applications, specifically for Amazon’s cashier-less Go grocery stores. The 12.3MP sensor could be placed on shelves to track inventory or, in a more likely Amazon use case, track shopping habits.
Good for privacy, or surveillance — Widespread use of the new sensor could also be a boon for privacy when it comes to facial and object recognition. If subject recognition is performed on device, it doesn’t need to be processed on a remote server where a company — or law enforcement — could store it indefinitely. Of course, law enforcement could also employ the technology to infringe people's privacy via real-time bodycam facial recognition, or a commercial entity could use it for Clearview AI-esque mischief.
The on-board processing power would also advance robotics by making it easier to slot robots into daily life. Instant recognition of a human popping up unexpectedly could help a robot to react by providing another safety measure beyond motion / proximity sensors. Though the IMX500 can only handle simple algorithms now, it can still apply ones for image recognition in 3.1 milliseconds while rival solutions take at least hundreds of milliseconds.
But what about your phone? — Sony’s existing image sensors play a key role in enabling the impressive images that come out of Apple’s current iPhones and Google’s Pixel phones. Apple and Google's software does the rest. The addition of this new chip to their respective combinations of photographic hardware and software could dramatically affect image quality and HDR processing... just don't expect to see it in this year's models. It's going to take a while for the technology to find its way into consumer products. But considering the potential applications, it's likely only a matter of time before it does.