The light-based chip can only perform selected tasks at present such as image recognition, but can operate much faster than current products on the market. China is currently scrambling to catch up with the US in the AI race after being denied access to some key pieces of technology, writes ‘The South China Morning Post’.
Chinese scientists have produced a chip that is significantly faster and more energy efficient than current high-performance AI chips when it comes to performing some tasks such as image recognition and autonomous driving, according to a new study.
The country is scrambling to catch up in the AI race with the United States after Washington introduced a series of curbs on China’s access to technology, including advanced chips.
The new chip – known as the All-Analogue Chip Combining Electronics and Light (ACCEL) – is light-based and uses photons, a type of elementary particle, for computing and transmitting information to achieve a faster computing speed.
The idea of a light-based chip is not new, but the chips currently in use rely on electric current for calculation because photons are more challenging to control.
In a laboratory test, the new chip reached a computing speed of 4.6 PFLOPS (peta-floating point operations per second), 3,000 times faster than one of the most widely used commercial AI chips, Nvidia’s A100. The Chinese chip also consumes 4 million times less energy, researchers found.
The A100 is subject to US sanctions on China and it, along with other advanced AI chips, are produced with advanced lithography machines to which China does not have access.
The new chip was instead built by China’s Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation using a cheap 20-year-old transistor fabrication process
“The performance [of the chip] could be further optimised through improvements in the building process or by adopting more expensive fabrication processes under 100 nanometres,” the research team from Tsinghua University’s automation and electronic engineering departments wrote in the paper published last week.
Unlike semiconductor chips, photonic chips use the intrinsic physical properties of light by replacing transistors with ultramicroscopes and electrical signals with light signals.
Tsinghua also said that using light signals greatly increased energy efficiency and “the energy required to operate existing chips for an hour could power ACCEL for over 500 years”.
According to Tsinghua, Dai Qionghai, one of the co-leaders of the research team: “Developing a new computing architecture for the AI era is a pinnacle achievement. However, the more important challenge is to bring this new architecture to practical applications, solving major national and public needs, which is our responsibility.”