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Qualcomm chip designed to speed up AI

It's for data centers, not your phone.

Qualcomm booth at Broadband World Forum 2013
Qualcomm is one of the world's biggest makers of mobile chips. 
Stephen Shankland/CNET

Qualcomm, best known for mobile phone chips, plans to build AI chips that run in data centers packed with thousands of powerful servers.

Artificial intelligence -- or neural network tech based loosely on human brains -- is revolutionizing computing with the abilities like distinguishing what's in a photo or understanding human speech. Lots of AI runs on your phone or laptop, but much of the magic happens in data centers. That's why Google, one of the biggest AI powers, designs its own AI chips.

Qualcomm's upcoming Cloud AI 100 chip will bring the company's mobile ethos to data centers. There, servers plugged into electrical power don't have to worry about drained batteries. Power is still a major limit, though, in terms of supplying enough and carrying away the waste heat that can make computers fail.

"We think in terms of performance per watt. We'll be in a very strong position in the cloud for AI," said Keith Kressin, a Qualcomm senior vice president. As for raw performance, Qualcomm's Cloud AI 100 chip should be 10 times faster than today's technology, he said.

If the company delivers the goods as scheduled in 2020, you should expect AI tasks to become more common, faster, and more sophisticated -- whether that's facial recognition, fraud detection, translation, medical scan analysis or any of the other uses of neural network tech.

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Other chipmakers aren't standing still, though. An entire swath of the chip industry -- from startups to Apple -- are designing their own custom AI chip technology.

Qualcomm will have to prove its worth, said Real World Technologies analyst David Kanter. "Ultimately, it depends on its price-performance and its power efficiency," he said.

Qualcomm Cloud AI 100 chip in an add-on board

Qualcomm Cloud AI 100 chip sits in add-on board


Microsoft, another AI power, has relied on a customizable and fast type of processor called a field programmable gate array (FPGA) for its data centers to improve its Bing search and other AI-infused services. In Kressin's mind, though, AI has matured enough to outgrow that phase and thus justifies AI-specific chips.

"It's settled down to the point where the market is growing exponentially," he said. "For us, it's a multibillion-dollar market in the next couple years."

Prototype chips should be available in the second half of the year, with final versions shipping in 2020, he said. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. (TSMC) will build the processor.