Huawei Steps Up AI Game, Testing U.S. Dominance
SHANGHAI—Huawei Technologies Co. unveiled two new computing chips aimed at powering artificial-intelligence applications, marking the Chinese telecommunications giant’s first major push into high-end technology dominated by U.S. chip giants.
Huawei’s Ascend line of semiconductors includes a chip that is installed on servers and performs complex AI tasks like programming algorithms, as well as a second chip for more routine functions on smartphones and other devices.
With the AI chips, Huawei, the world’s biggest maker of telecommunications equipment and a major smartphone vendor, is challenging American companies like Nvidia Corp. , Intel Inc. and Qualcomm Inc.
The new components align with broader efforts by China to reduce its dependence on advanced U.S. technologies and develop such products domestically. Under Beijing’s Made in China 2025 development plan, semiconductors and AI have emerged as key areas that authorities want to develop at home.
“Computing power is the foundation of AI,” said Eric Xu, Huawei’s chairman, at a conference in Shanghai on Wednesday. “We need to provide more abundant and affordable computing power.”
Other Chinese companies are also pouring resources into developing AI chips, which typically feature unique designs optimized for processing large amounts of data at once. Last month, e-commerce giant Alibaba Holdings Ltd. announced plans to launch an AI chip next year, while Chinese startups like Bitmain Technologies Ltd and Cambricon Technologies Corp. are also working on such components.
Huawei already manufactures an AI-enabled chip for its smartphones under its Kirin brand. The company is likely to find a willing market for the new components in its home market of China, but it will face challenges in unseating rivals elsewhere around the world, said Mo Jia, an analyst at technology consulting firm Canalys.
“Huawei is likely to use a lower-price entrance strategy similar to its infrastructure or server business” to break into the market, Mr. Jia said. “In the future, I think Huawei’s AI market will mainly be in the Chinese market.”
Currently, the market for powerful chips capable of advanced AI processes like deep learning is led by American companies like Santa Clara, Calif.-based Nvidia. Google also offers a similar chip called a tensor processing unit, while companies like Qualcomm make AI chips built into devices.
However, unlike those chip makers, Huawei won’t be selling the chips directly to customers, Mr. Xu said. Instead, the chips will be sold as a part of servers, modules and via its existing cloud-computing business to Huawei customers, he said.
The AI effort follows success for Huawei in its mobile-phone business, which earlier this year overtook Apple Inc. as the world’s No. 2 vendor of smartphones after Samsung Technologies Co.
At the same time, Huawei is weathering increased scrutiny this year from authorities in the U.S., where its telecom gear has been banned due to security concerns.
Such fears led Australia to bar Huawei from its fifth-generation wireless rollout, while officials in Japan are studying similar moves. Huawei has long said it isn’t a security threat and that it is owned by its employees and operates independently of Beijing.
Huawei is the world’s biggest maker of telecoms equipment and a major smartphone vendor.