From M.I.T. Technology Review: “This chip was demoed at Jeff Bezos’s secretive tech conference. It could be key to the future of AI.”

MIT Technology Review
From M.I.T. Technology Review

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Photographs by Tony Luong

May 1, 2019
Will Knight

Artificial Intelligence

On a dazzling morning in Palm Springs, California, recently, Vivienne Sze took to a small stage to deliver perhaps the most nerve-racking presentation of her career.

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MIT’s Sertac Karman and Vivienne Sze developed the new chip

She knew the subject matter inside-out. She was to tell the audience about the chips, being developed in her lab at MIT, that promise to bring powerful artificial intelligence to a multitude of devices where power is limited, beyond the reach of the vast data centers where most AI computations take place. However, the event—and the audience—gave Sze pause.

The setting was MARS, an elite, invite-only conference where robots stroll (or fly) through a luxury resort, mingling with famous scientists and sci-fi authors. Just a few researchers are invited to give technical talks, and the sessions are meant to be both awe-inspiring and enlightening. The crowd, meanwhile, consisted of about 100 of the world’s most important researchers, CEOs, and entrepreneurs. MARS is hosted by none other than Amazon’s founder and chairman, Jeff Bezos, who sat in the front row.

“It was, I guess you’d say, a pretty high-caliber audience,” Sze recalls with a laugh.

Other MARS speakers would introduce a karate-chopping robot, drones that flap like large, eerily silent insects, and even optimistic blueprints for Martian colonies. Sze’s chips might seem more modest; to the naked eye, they’re indistinguishable from the chips you’d find inside any electronic device. But they are arguably a lot more important than anything else on show at the event.

New capabilities

Newly designed chips, like the ones being developed in Sze’s lab, may be crucial to future progress in AI—including stuff like the drones and robots found at MARS. Until now, AI software has largely run on graphical chips, but new hardware could make AI algorithms more powerful, which would unlock new applications. New AI chips could make warehouse robots more common or let smartphones create photo-realistic augmented-reality scenery.

Sze’s chips are both extremely efficient and flexible in their design, something that is crucial for a field that’s evolving incredibly quickly.

The microchips are designed to squeeze more out of the “deep learning” AI algorithms that have already turned the world upside down. And in the process, they may inspire those algorithms themselves to evolve. “We need new hardware because Moore’s law has slowed down,” Sze says, referring to the axiom coined by Intel cofounder Gordon Moore that predicted that the number of transistors on a chip will double roughly every 18 months—leading to a commensurate performance boost in computer power.

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This law is increasingly now running into the physical limits that come with engineering components at an atomic scale. And it is spurring new interest in alternative architectures and approaches to computing.

The high stakes that come with investing in next-generation AI chips, and maintaining America’s dominance in chipmaking overall, aren’t lost on the US government. Sze’s microchips are being developed with funding from a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program meant to help develop new AI chip designs (see The out-there AI ideas designed to keep the US ahead of China).

But innovation in chipmaking has been spurred mostly by the emergence of deep learning, a very powerful way for machines to learn to perform useful tasks. Instead of giving a computer a set of rules to follow, a machine basically programs itself. Training data is fed into a large, simulated artificial neural network, which is then tweaked so that it produces the desired result. With enough training, a deep-learning system can find subtle and abstract patterns in data. The technique is applied to an ever-growing array of practical tasks, from face recognition on smartphones to predicting disease from medical images.

The new chip race

Deep learning is not so reliant on Moore’s law. Neural nets run many mathematical computations in parallel, so they run far more effectively on the specialized video game graphics chips that perform parallel computations for rendering 3D imagery. But microchips designed specifically for the computations that underpin deep learning should be even more powerful.

The potential for new chip architectures to improve AI has stirred up a level of entrepreneurial activity that the chip industry hasn’t seen in decades (see The race to power AI’s silicon brains and China has never had a real chip industry. AI may change that).

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Big tech companies hoping to harness and commercialize AI including Google, Microsoft, and (yes) Amazon, are all working on their own deep learning chips. Many smaller companies are developing new chips, too. “It impossible to keep track of all the companies jumping into the AI-chip space,” says Mike Delmer, a microchip analyst at the Linley Group , an analyst firm. “I’m not joking that we learn about a new one nearly every week.”

The real opportunity, says Sze, isn’t building the most powerful deep learning chips possible. Power efficiency is important because AI also needs to run beyond the reach of large datacenters and so can only rely on the power available on the device itself to run. This is known as operating on the “edge.”

“AI will be everywhere—and figuring out ways to make things more energy efficient will be extremely important,” says Naveen Rao, vice president of the Artificial Intelligence group at Intel.

For example, Sze’s hardware is more efficient partly because it physically reduces the bottleneck between where data is stored and where it’s analyzed, but also because it uses clever schemes for reusing data. Before joining MIT, Sze pioneered this approach for improving the efficiency of video compression while at Texas Instruments.

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