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China Enters the AI Chip Race with Alibaba’s Hanguang 800

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Alibaba announced on Tuesday that they have released their first artificial intelligence (AI) chip called the Hanguang 800. This new chip will be able to process and compute certain tasks at a faster rate. This new development brings to light China’s pursuit to get involved in the semiconductor industry and artificial intelligence. 

According to the company, they are able to complete certain tasks in five minutes that used to take one hour. They are using it within their business operations and in areas such as product search, automatic translation, and advertisement. The chip brings a new level of efficiency to these tasks that require high computing. After being used within business operations, it will eventually be available to Alibaba Cloud customers. 

According to Jeff Zhang, Alibaba’s chief technology officer, “In the near future, we plan to empower our clients by providing access through our cloud business to the advanced computing that is made possible by the chip, anytime and anywhere.”

The new chip can be critical in reducing Chinese companies’ dependence on U.S. technology. This comes at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and China. The current trade war is complicating relationships and business partnerships between tech companies from each nation.

The new chip could play a role in expanding Alibaba Cloud into other markets outside of China, where it is the current leader. Other companies such as Microsoft, Amazon, and Google are the leaders in areas like the Asia-Pacific region. 

T-Head is responsible for creating the new Hanguang 800. They are a group within Alibaba DAMO Academy, which is a global research and development initiative. Alibaba has invested more than $15 billion into the initiative. 

“The launch of Hanguang 800 is an important step in our pursuit of next-generation technologies, boosting computing capabilities that will drive both our current and emerging businesses while improving energy-efficiency,” Jeff Zhang said. 

As reported by the Financial Times, Alibaba is now joining the chip-making industry as a non-traditional creator. Others in that group include Chinese tech companies like Baidu and Tencent, along with Google and Facebook. All of these companies are in a worldwide race to develop the most powerful chips. These will play a huge role in increasing computing power and the new AI developments which are coming.

According to He Wei, a researcher at Tsinghua University’s department of precision instruments, “There’s a trend now for non-traditional chip companies to start developing chips, especially for AI chips, where there isn’t a clear leader.” He continued to say, “There will of course be some encouragement from the [Chinese] government for companies doing this.”

China is not on par with the United States when it comes to the development of high-end processor chips, but they are closer with AI chips. The Chinese government has been focusing resources on developing chips and manufacturing them within their own borders. Their goal is to create semiconductor self-sufficiency. 

One of the big forces behind these developments in chips is the use of open-source chip architecture such as RISC-V. This makes it cheaper, and there is no need to pay big licensing fees to companies that design the chips. 

These new developments show that China is going to be a major player in the chip industry. With the increasing tensions brought on by the trade war, one can expect more developments like these in the future. Whichever companies are able to develop the most powerful computing chips are going to have the upper hand in an array of industries such as artificial intelligence.

 

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Alex McFarland is a historian and journalist covering the newest developments in artificial intelligence.