The chips that will add AI to any gadget

A computer chip is crunching data from a nearby camera, looking for faces stored in a database. Seconds later, the same chip, called Thinker, is handling voice commands in Chinese. Thinker is designed to support neural networks. But what’s special is how little energy it uses — just eight AA batteries are enough to power it for a year.

Thinker can dynamically tailor its computing and memory requirements to meet the needs of the software being run. This is important since many real-world AI applications — recognizing objects in images or understanding human speech — require a combination of different kinds of neural networks with different numbers of layers.

Computer chips are key to the success of AI, so China needs to develop its own hardware industry to become a real force in the technology.

While it is possible to run AI software using existing chips such as the powerful graphics chips or FPGAs (a kind of blank chip that can be reconfigured on the fly), those designs are expensive and do not lend themselves to small devices that use batteries. That’s why Yin’s team at Tsinghua developed Thinker.

For now, Chinese chip researchers have many problems to solve: how to commercialize their chip designs, how to scale up, and how to navigate a world of computing being transformed by AI. What’s not lacking, though, is ambition.

“As chip researchers, we all have dreams,” “We’ll see how far we can leap.”