Lat­est AI chips a startup suc­cess story

China Daily European Weekly - - Business -

China is nur­tur­ing do­mes­tic tech firms to re­duce reliance on for­eign prod­ucts

“In the past 10 years, we have never seen so many com­pa­nies emerge at the same time for a sin­gle seg­ment in China,” says Xiang Li­gang, a chip ex­pert and CEO of tele­coms in­dus­try web­site Cc­time.

In April, Bei­jing’s Hori­zon Ro­bot­ics, founded by veter­ans of in­ter­net search com­pany Baidu Inc, said it was clos­ing a new round of fi­nanc­ing that would hit $100 mil­lion, after un­veil­ing two tai­lor-made AI pro­ces­sors to as­sist self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles last year.

ThinkForce, which at­tracted 450 mil­lion yuan ($70 mil­lion; 59 mil­lion euros; £52 mil­lion) from in­vestors in 2017, is work­ing on AI chips that can be em­bed­ded in de­vices such as smart­phones, watches and home ro­bots.

Huawei is col­lab­o­rat­ing with Cam­bri­con on AI chips for phones and other de­vices.

“AI pro­ces­sor star­tups are the lat­est dar­lings among in­vestors in China. This was def­i­nitely im­pos­si­ble sev­eral years ago, as the semi­con­duc­tor busi­ness is so cash-in­ten­sive and de­mands long-term in­vest­ment to see any re­sults,” says Liu Wei­wei, gen­eral man­ager of the AI depart­ment at Galaxy In­ter­net. The Bei­jing-based in­cu­ba­tor helps star­tups se­cure cap­i­tal and other re­sources.

Ac­cord­ing to Liu, ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists today see an op­por­tu­nity for Chi­nese star­tups to es­tab­lish a pres­ence in the mar­ket, as de­mand for tai­lor­made AI chips grows ex­po­nen­tially and it be­comes less com­pli­cated to de­sign such pro­ces­sors.

Ex­ist­ing chips that run AI soft­ware, such as Nvidia’s graph­ics chips, are ex­pen­sive and hard to de­ploy into de­vices.

That’s why com­pa­nies like DeePhi are march­ing into the sec­tor. The Bei­jing-based startup is work­ing against the clock to pro­duce AI chips that can help self-driv­ing au­to­mo­biles rec­og­nize pedes­tri­ans in a cost-ef­fec­tive way.

“The com­plex­ity in­volved in de­sign­ing AI chips is about one-tenth of that of de­sign­ing cen­tral pro­cess­ing units. But com­pa­nies that only make chips will not be able to win in fu­ture. The key is to build a sys­tem by com­bin­ing chips with soft­ware,” says Yao Song, CEO of DeePhi.

The startup raised $40 mil­lion from in­vestors in­clud­ing Sam­sung and Alibaba’s Ant Fi­nan­cial last year. It has al­ready un­veiled a set of soft­ware prod­ucts, and its chips are de­signed to pro­vide in-house so­lu­tions to help its prod­ucts achieve bet­ter per­for­mance and lower pro­duc­tion costs.

“It is dif­fi­cult for a sin­gle Chi­nese com­pany to take on Nvidia, given our cur­rently limited chip tal­ent pool and man­u­fac­tur­ing tech­niques. A more likely pic­ture is that about 10 Chi­nese com­pa­nies com­pete with the US chip gi­ant in 10 spe­cific niches,” Yao says.

Ac­cord­ing to him, AI chips are a golden op­por­tu­nity for China to sur­pass the US in high-tech, and 2018 will be a crit­i­cal year.

“This year will see whether we are re­ally as good as we have promised and can come up with com­pet­i­tive, com­mer­cially ma­ture prod­ucts,” he says.

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