Alibaba will manufacture its own artificial intelligence and quantum chips

Last week at the Cloud Computing Conference in Hangzhou, about 2 hours southwest of Shanghai, Alibaba officially announced its intention to develop its own processors to accelerate AI and Machine Learning applications on the Alibaba Cloud. The firm also reported on its efforts to develop a complete quantum computing platform (including processor manufacturing, simulator, operating system and software development).

The growing Alibaba Cloud recently overtook Google by revenue (according to IDC) to become the world’s third largest IaaS cloud provider. Alibaba Group’s cloud division’s revenue rose 93% year-over-year to $710 million in its latest fiscal quarter, which ended June 30.

Based on its Chinese growth, the firm has also started an ambitious internationalization process with the production of presence zones in the USA and Europe (in Frankfurt). This internationalization should be further strengthened with the opening of data centers in France and Great Britain in the coming months. Alibaba Cloud’s stated goal is to achieve 50% of its turnover internationally.

Learning from the sanctions imposed on ZTE

By designing its own processors, Alibaba aims to stay competitive against rivals like Google (which develops its own chips to speed up machine learning applications, TPUs). The Chinese supplier also intends to protect itself from possible American restrictions or sanctions. Undoubtedly, Alibaba has learned from the industrial accident suffered by ZTE, when the United States imposed heavy sanctions on China’s number two telecommunications equipment maker, denying it all access to US-designed components.

Alibaba’s ML and AI accelerator chips are expected to combine AI and Machine Learning work at Damo University, the supplier’s R&D arm, with processor maker Zhongtian Microsystems (also known as C-SKY microsystems), which was acquired by Alibaba in April. They will be manufactured by Ping-Tou-Ge Semiconductors, the new semiconductor division of the Chinese giant.

According to Alibaba Group CTO Jeff Zhang, the first Ali-NPU chip produced by PingTouGe is expected to be released in mid-2019. It should allow to speed up image recognition operations by 40 times and will include functions to speed up applications based on artificial neural networks. Alibaba didn’t provide many details about the capabilities of its future chips, but it’s likely that its “Ali-NPUs” will build on Zhongtian’s know-how in RISC-V cores and expand gaming. Instruction and AI with special acceleration functions for ML.

After IBM, Google and Microsoft, Alibaba starts quantum computing

For quantum computing, Alibaba’s goal is to own its own technology. Since February 2018, Alibaba has partnered with the Chinese Academy of Sciences to offer a quantum computing service on its cloud. The service is currently based on an 11-qubit experimental platform.

But the long-term goal is to own the entire technology chain. As Jeff Zhang explains, “before you can manufacture a chip, you need a simulator. We have built our own quantum laboratory and are developing our own simulator. After that, we will have our own chip and programs to take advantage of it.”

The ultimate goal is to integrate the quantum computing platform into the Alibaba cloud to make it available to businesses. It should be noted that the initiative has the support of the Chinese government, which plans to invest 10 billion dollars in a research program on quantum computing. For comparison, the EU has announced a ten-year investment program called Quantum Flagship with financial support of 1 billion euros.

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