Two scientists from China have recently received a major amount of funding to develop their deep-learning, artificial intelligence processor. The funding comes from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who allocated 10 million yuan ($1.4 million USD), with the expectation that their revolutionary new chip, called ‘Cambrian’, will be the first commercially-available processor that simulates human neurons — meaning that an extremely powerful, energy efficient AI chip could one day be installed into personal mobile devices, like smartphones.

The research team’s leads, Chen Yunji and his brother Chen Tianshi, from the CAS’s Institute of Computing Technology, unveiled their new chip design in early 2016, but lacked the funding to develop it for commercial use. Naming the chip ‘Cambrian’, a geological period from 500 million years ago that saw an explosion in the diversity of multi-cellular organisms, the Chens see their creation surpassing the $45 billion USD valuation of Chinese smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi, as Cambrian would be many times more powerful than a microchip with conventional architecture, but with only a fraction of the energy cost.

Computer chips like Cambrian are typically referred to as neuromorphic chips
, computer chips that mimic the structure of human neurons, as opposed to the 2-dimensional grid of switches that modern computers are built on. Currently, AI programs like Google’s AlphaGo and IBM’s Watson require the use of supercomputers to function: modern computers need to process thousands of instructions simply to simulate the learning structure for AI, but a purpose-built circuit only needs one instruction to operate a cluster of artificial neurons. Because of the extreme efficiency that results from this, both in terms of processing power and energy requirements, this means that an AI program like Siri could be built directly into a smartphone, rather than simply being an interface that needs to communicate with a remote computer server to function.

"Their chip and new set of instructions [DianNaoYu] is completely different from anything we have seen before," explains Li Jianmin, an associate professor of AI at Tsinghua University in Beijing. DianNaoYu, simply meaning "electric brain/computer language" in Putonghua, is the Chens’ custom-built machine language for use in the Cambrian ships.

"If the technology works, it will start a revolution."

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