[News] New Focus in the US-China Tech War! Can China Overtake with Silicon Photonics?

2024-01-24 Semiconductors editor

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in the United States published a new article on the January 12th, 2024, suggesting that the new battleground in the US-China tech war could be silicon photonics technology. This technology aims to enhance transmission efficiency, reduce latency, and reshape the competition landscape between the US and China in semiconductors and AI. 

According to TechNews’ report citing the author Matthew Reynolds’ notes in the article, unlike electronics, photonics uses photons instead of electrons to transmit information. When combined with electronic technology, photonics has the potential to create large-scale computing systems with higher bandwidth and energy efficiency, surpassing the physical limitations of traditional electronic chips.

However, the Chinese government has recently shown interest in photonics, seeing it as one way to bypass Western technological controls. Photonics technology is mentioned in China’s Outline of the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) for National Economic and Social Development and Vision 2035.

Yao Yang, the director of the National Development Institute at Beijing University, believes that US semiconductor restrictions are a “shooting themselves in the foot” because photonic chips will eventually make electronic chips obsolete.

He also sees this as an opportunity for China to overtake, asserting that China has the capability to take the lead in this emerging technology, as mentioned in his recent article.

However, Matthew Reynolds believes that it’s unlikely for photon chips to replace electronic chips, at least not in the near future. Photonics and electronics are more likely to coexist, forming a symbiotic relationship.

What is certain, though, is that silicon photonics technology holds the potential to become a breakthrough for China in advancing to the forefront of semiconductor manufacturing.

Reportedly, the most direct application of silicon photonics technology is in optical interconnects, replacing the copper wiring in circuits with photonics to speed the transmission of information between processors and/or memory, reducing the input/output bottlenecks currently plaguing AI computing.

In addition to optical interconnects, another application area for silicon photonics is in the emerging field of optical computing. Photon processors utilize light instead of electrons for computation. While their range of computational types is limited, they show significant promise in performing matrix multiplication operations, a crucial component, especially in large-scale language models, constituting over 90% of inference computations.

Chinese economist Chen Wenling from the China Center for International Economic Exchanges (CCIEE) stated in an article addressing the anti-American blockade that silicon photonics is the technology that China can use to overtake.

“China is preparing to build a photonic chip production line, which is expected to be completed in 2023, which means that China will be at the forefront of the world in terms of photonic chips, and even completely change the chip technology route. Photonic chips have many technical advantages. Its calculation speed is faster and its information capacity is larger, which will be more than 1,000 times higher than the current silicon-based chips.” Chen expressed.

Lightelligence, a U.S.-based optical computing company, previously received funding from the Chinese government and has recently launched the AI accelerator “Hummingbird.” Hummingbird utilizes optical interconnect components, connecting to chips manufactured by TSMC using 28-nanometer process.

Although this process may not be at the forefront of current technology, it aligns with China’s semiconductor manufacturing capabilities. Lightelligence even claims that its latency and efficiency metrics surpass those of competitors in certain AI tasks.

Additionally, Lightelligence has introduced the “Photonic Arithmetic Computing Engine” (PACE), an optical computing system. PACE integrates photonic and electronic components on a single chip and, in certain compute-intensive applications, boasts processing speeds 25-100 times faster than Nvidia’s high-end GPUs.

China’s SinTone Microelectronics is in the process of establishing a silicon photonics chip production line. Sui Jun, the president of SinTone Microelectronics, indicated that China has the capability to produce photon chips domestically because the manufacturing process does not require the use of extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography machines, which are subject to U.S. sanctions. 

Simultaneously, a research team at Tsinghua University in China announced a breakthrough in overcoming the traditional physical limitations of chips, presenting a new computational framework that integrates optics and electronics. They successfully developed the world’s first all-simulated optoelectronic intelligent computing chip (ACCEL).

In terms of computational power for smart visual target recognition tasks, ACCEL exceeds current high-performance commercial chips by over 3,000 times. In the realms of smart visual target recognition tasks and computations for unmanned system scenarios, its energy efficiency surpasses existing high-performance chips by more than 4 million times.

While the commercialization timeline for ACCEL remains uncertain, researchers believe it holds the potential for applications in unmanned systems, industrial inspection, and AI large-scale models in the future.

Silicon Photonics Poised to Transform the US-China Tech War and AI Landscape

Matthew Reynolds believes that silicon photonics is the foundation and driving force behind advancements in optical interconnects and optical computing, reshaping the competitive landscape in the semiconductor and AI industries between the US and China.

While US export measures aim to sever China’s capabilities in advanced chip manufacturing, silicon photonics appears to be a new opportunity for China to take a different path.

However, Matthew Reynolds notes that despite the promotion of photon processor performance, its current applicability remains relatively narrow, contrasting sharply with the universality of electronic processors.

Additionally, the application of silicon photonics technology still faces numerous technical challenges, requiring software development in operating systems and applications to enhance performance in optical computing.

Therefore, achieving optical computing may still require several years, or even decades. Given the current pace of AI development, any delays could have serious consequences. Leading semiconductor companies in the United States and allied nations are also investing heavily in silicon photonics. It remains uncertain whether China can secure a leadership position.

Matthew Reynolds points out that regardless, new technologies and architectures are likely to redefine the components of advanced chips. They may weaken the impact of existing control measures or reshape the competitive landscape.

The US export controls may inadvertently stimulate China to allocate more resources to emerging technologies, positioning itself as a key player in the next generation of semiconductors, especially as Moore’s Law approaches its limits and demand for AI computing continues to grow.

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(Photo credit: iStock)

Please note that this article cites information from CSIS and TechNews.