[News] AI Market: A Battleground for Tech Giants as Six Major Companies Develop AI Chips

2024-02-20 Semiconductors editor

In 2023, “generative AI” was undeniably the hottest term in the tech industry.

The launch of the generative application ChatGPT by OpenAI has sparked a frenzy in the market, prompting various tech giants to join the race.

As per a report from TechNews, currently, NVIDIA dominates the market by providing AI accelerators, but this has led to a shortage of their AI accelerators in the market. Even OpenAI intends to develop its own chips to avoid being constrained by tight supply chains.

On the other hand, due to restrictions arising from the US-China tech war, while NVIDIA has offered reduced versions of its products to Chinese clients, recent reports suggest that these reduced versions are not favored by Chinese customers.

Instead, Chinese firms are turning to Huawei for assistance or simultaneously developing their own chips, expected to keep pace with the continued advancement of large-scale language models.

In the current wave of AI development, NVIDIA undoubtedly stands as the frontrunner in AI computing power. Its A100/H100 series chips have secured orders from top clients worldwide in the AI market.

As per analyst Stacy Rasgon from the Wall Street investment bank Bernstein Research, the cost of each query using ChatGPT is approximately USD 0.04. If ChatGPT queries were to scale to one-tenth of Google’s search volume, the initial deployment would require approximately USD 48.1 billion worth of GPUs for computation, with an annual requirement of about USD 16 billion worth of chips to sustain operations, along with a similar amount for related chips to execute tasks.

Therefore, whether to reduce costs, decrease overreliance on NVIDIA, or even enhance bargaining power further, global tech giants have initiated plans to develop their own AI accelerators.

Per reports by technology media The Information, citing industry sources, six global tech giants, including Microsoft, OpenAI, Tesla, Google, Amazon, and Meta, are all investing in developing their own AI accelerator chips. These companies are expected to compete with NVIDIA’s flagship H100 AI accelerator chips.

Progress of Global Companies’ In-house Chip Development

  • Microsoft

Rumors surrounding Microsoft’s in-house AI chip development have never ceased.

At the annual Microsoft Ignite 2023 conference, the company finally unveiled the Azure Maia 100 AI chip for data centers and the Azure Cobalt 100 cloud computing processor. In fact, rumors of Microsoft developing an AI-specific chip have been circulating since 2019, aimed at powering large language models.

The Azure Maia 100, introduced at the conference, is an AI accelerator chip designed for tasks such as running OpenAI models, ChatGPT, Bing, GitHub Copilot, and other AI workloads.

According to Microsoft, the Azure Maia 100 is the first-generation product in the series, manufactured using a 5-nanometer process. The Azure Cobalt is an Arm-based cloud computing processor equipped with 128 computing cores, offering a 40% performance improvement compared to several generations of Azure Arm chips. It provides support for services such as Microsoft Teams and Azure SQL. Both chips are produced by TSMC, and Microsoft is already designing the second generation.

  • Open AI

OpenAI is also exploring the production of in-house AI accelerator chips and has begun evaluating potential acquisition targets. According to earlier reports from Reuters citing industry sources, OpenAI has been discussing various solutions to address the shortage of AI chips since at least 2022.

Although OpenAI has not made a final decision, options to address the shortage of AI chips include developing their own AI chips or further collaborating with chip manufacturers like NVIDIA.

OpenAI has not provided an official comment on this matter at the moment.

  • Tesla

Electric car manufacturer Tesla is also actively involved in the development of AI accelerator chips. Tesla primarily focuses on the demand for autonomous driving and has introduced two AI chips to date: the Full Self-Driving (FSD) chip and the Dojo D1 chip.

The FSD chip is used in Tesla vehicles’ autonomous driving systems, while the Dojo D1 chip is employed in Tesla’s supercomputers. It serves as a general-purpose CPU, constructing AI training chips to power the Dojo system.

  • Google

Google began secretly developing a chip focused on AI machine learning algorithms as early as 2013 and deployed it in its internal cloud computing data centers to replace NVIDIA’s GPUs.

The custom chip, called the Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), was unveiled in 2016. It is designed to execute large-scale matrix operations for deep learning models used in natural language processing, computer vision, and recommendation systems.

In fact, Google had already constructed the TPU v4 AI chip in its data centers by 2020. However, it wasn’t until April 2023 that technical details of the chip were publicly disclosed.

  • Amazon

As for Amazon Web Services (AWS), the cloud computing service provider under Amazon, it has been a pioneer in developing its own chips since the introduction of the Nitro1 chip in 2013. AWS has since developed three product lines of in-house chips, including network chips, server chips, and AI machine learning chips.

Among them, AWS’s lineup of self-developed AI chips includes the inference chip Inferentia and the training chip Trainium.

On the other hand, AWS unveiled the Inferentia 2 (Inf2) in early 2023, specifically designed for artificial intelligence. It triples computational performance while increasing accelerator total memory by a quarter.

It supports distributed inference through direct ultra-high-speed connections between chips and can handle up to 175 billion parameters, making it the most powerful in-house manufacturer in today’s AI chip market.

  • Meta

Meanwhile, Meta, until 2022, continued using CPUs and custom-designed chipsets tailored for accelerating AI algorithms to execute its AI tasks.

However, due to the inefficiency of CPUs compared to GPUs in executing AI tasks, Meta scrapped its plans for a large-scale rollout of custom-designed chips in 2022. Instead, it opted to purchase NVIDIA GPUs worth billions of dollars.

Still, amidst the surge of other major players developing in-house AI accelerator chips, Meta has also ventured into internal chip development.

On May 19, 2023, Meta further unveiled its AI training and inference chip project. The chip boasts a power consumption of only 25 watts, which is 1/20th of the power consumption of comparable products from NVIDIA. It utilizes the RISC-V open-source architecture. According to market reports, the chip will also be produced using TSMC’s 7-nanometer manufacturing process.

China’s Progress on In-House Chip Development

China’s journey in developing in-house chips presents a different picture. In October last year, the United States expanded its ban on selling AI chips to China.

Although NVIDIA promptly tailored new chips for the Chinese market to comply with US export regulations, recent reports suggest that major Chinese cloud computing clients such as Alibaba and Tencent are less inclined to purchase the downgraded H20 chips. Instead, they have begun shifting their orders to domestic suppliers, including Huawei.

This shift in strategy indicates a growing reliance on domestically developed chips from Chinese companies by transferring some orders for advanced semiconductors to China.

TrendForce indicates that currently about 80% of high-end AI chips purchased by Chinese cloud operators are from NVIDIA, but this figure may decrease to 50% to 60% over the next five years.

If the United States continues to strengthen chip controls in the future, it could potentially exert additional pressure on NVIDIA’s sales in China.

Read more

(Photo credit: NVIDIA)

Please note that this article cites information from TechNewsReuters, and The Information.