Bloomberg Businessweek

CHIP FOR BRAINS

Graphcore’s “intelligence processing units” have attracted attention from just about everyone who’s going to need superfast AI

Simon Knowles, chief technology officer of Graphcore Ltd., is smiling at a whiteboard as he maps out his vision for the future of machine learning. He uses a black marker to dot and diagram the nodes of the human brain: the parts that are “ruminative, that think deeply, that ponder.” His startup is trying to approximate these neurons and synapses in its next-generation computer processors, which the company is betting can “mechanize intelligence.”

Artificial intelligence is often thought of as complex software that mines vast datasets, but Knowles and his co-founder, Chief Executive Officer Nigel Toon, argue that more important obstacles still exist in the computers that run the software. The problem, they say, sitting in their airy offices in the British port city of Bristol, is that chips—known, depending on their function, as CPUs (central processing units) or GPUs (graphics processing units)—weren’t designed to “ponder” in any recognizably human way. Whereas human brains use intuition to simplify problems such as identifying an approaching friend, a computer might try to analyze every pixel of that person’s face, comparing it to a database of billions of images before attempting to say hello. That precision, which made sense when computers were primarily calculators, is massively inefficient for AI, burning huge quantities of energy to process all the relevant data.

When Knowles and the more business-minded Toon founded Graphcore in 2016, they put “less precise” computing at

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