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Microsoft Partners with Startup Graphcore to Develop AI Chips

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Microsoft hopes that its Azure cloud platform will catch up in popularity with Amazon and Google, so as Wired reports, it has partnered with a British startup Graphcore to come up with a new computer chip that would be able to sustain all-new artificial intelligence developments.

As Wired notes, Bristo, UK startup Graphcore “has attracted considerable attention among AI researchers—and several hundred million dollars in investment—on the promise that its chips will accelerate the computations required to make AI work.” Since its inception in 2016, this is the first time that the company is publicly coming up with its chips and testing results.

Microsoft’s invested in Graphcore in December 2018 “as a part of a $200 million funding round”, as it wants to stimulate the use of its cloud services to a growing number of customers that use AI applications.

Graphcore itself designed its chips from scratch “to support the calculations that help machines to recognize facesunderstand speechparse languagedrive cars, and train robots.” The company expects that its chips will be used by “companies running business-critical operations on AI, such as self-driving car startups, trading firms, and operations that process large quantities of video and audio, as well as those working on next-generation AI algorithms.”

According to the benchmarks published by Microsoft and Graphcore on November 13, 2019, “the chip matches or exceeds the performance of the top AI chips from Nvidia and Google using algorithms written for those rival platforms. Code is written specifically for Graphcore’s hardware maybe even more efficient.”

The two companies also stated that “certain image-processing tasks work many times faster on Graphcore’s chips,” and that “ they were able to train a popular AI model for language processing, called BERT, at rates matching those of any other existing hardware.”

Moor Insights AI chip specialist Karl Freund is of the opinion that the results of the new chip show that it is “cutting-edge but still flexible,”  and that “they’ve done a good job making it programmable,” an extremely hard thing to do.

Wired further adds that Nigel Toon, co-founder, and CEO of Graphcore, says the companies began working together a year after his company’s launch, through Microsoft Research Cambridge in the UK. He also told the publication that his company’s chips are especially well-suited to tasks that involve very large AI models or temporal data. Also, one customer in finance supposedly saw a 26-fold performance boost in an algorithm used to analyze market data thanks to Graphcore’s hardware.

Some other, smaller companies used this occasion to announce that “they are working with Graphcore chips through Azure.” This includes Citadel, which will use the chips to analyze financial data, and Qwant, a European search engine that wants the hardware to run an image-recognition algorithm known as ResNext.

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Former diplomat and translator for the UN, currently freelance journalist/writer/researcher, focusing on modern technology, artificial intelligence, and modern culture.