|To Compete with New Rivals, Chipmaker Nvidia Shares Its Secrets |
Five years ago, Nvidia was best known as a maker of chips to power videogame graphics in PCs. Then researchers found its graphics chips were also good at powering deep learning, the software technique behind recent enthusiasm for artificial intelligence.
The discovery made Nvidia into the preferred seller of shovels for the AI gold rush that’s propelling dreams of self-driving cars, delivery drones and software that plays doctor. The company’s stock-market value has risen 10-fold in three years, to more than $100 billion.
That’s made Nvidia and the market it more-or-less stumbled into an attractive target. Longtime chip kingpin Intel and a stampede of startups are building and offering chips to power smart machines. Further competition comes from large tech companies designing their own AI chips. Google’s voice recognition and image search now run on in-house chips dubbed “tensor processing units,” while the face-unlock feature in Apple’s new iPhone is powered by a home-grown chip with a “neural engine”.
Nvidia’s latest countermove is counterintuitive. This week the company released as open source the designs to a chip module it made to power deep learning in cars, robots, and smaller connected devices such as cameras. That module, the DLA for deep learning accelerator, is somewhat analogous to Apple’s neural engine. Nvidia plans to start shipping it next year in a chip built into a new version of its Drive PX computer for self-driving cars, which Toyota plans to use in its autonomous-vehicle program.
Why give away this valuable intellectual property for free? Deepu Talla, Nvidia’s vice president for autonomous machines, says he wants to help AI chips reach more markets than Nvidia can accommodate itself. While his unit works to put the DLA in cars, robots, and drones, he expects others to build chips that put it into diverse markets ranging from security cameras to kitchen gadgets to medical devices. “There are going to be hundreds of billions of internet of things devices in the future,” says Talla. “We cannot address all the markets out there.”
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