Big bets on low-power chips that think like brains

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Big bets on low-power chips that think like brains


Left: Local researchers test out artificial intelligence (AI) semiconductors. Right: A chip the size of a 500 won (41 cents) coin is used in data centers for cloud computing. [THE MINISTRY OF SCIENCE AND ICT]

Korea is claiming a big win in artificial intelligence (AI) and a big leap forward in its efforts to be independent in smart chips.

The Ministry of Science and ICT said that researchers from the government-run Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute (ETRI) and SK Telecom have developed an AI semiconductor that utilizes neural processing units (NPUs).

The accomplishment comes four years after the government first gathered researchers from the ETRI and companies in 2016 to develop the technology.

An NPU is an AI processor that can simultaneously process many complex operations by mimicking the neural network of the human brain. Due to its ability to process large amounts of data with minimal power, they are considered essential in AI development.

According to experts, the accomplishment made Tuesday will allow Korea to become technologically independent, lowering its reliance on other countries for the supply of AI processors.

It has also secured a competitive edge in pricing. The price for NPU semiconductors developed by local scientists is 100,000 won ($82), one-tenth of the average of those made by other countries, which cost between 8 million to 10 million won.

NPU semiconductors developed this time are ultra-low-power AI semiconductors, commonly known as “Aldebaran” chips. They can be used for high-performance servers used in cloud data centers that provide AI services. The ETRI and SK Telecom participated in the development.

To lower power consumption and production costs, researchers minimized the size of chips to the size of a 500 won coin.

It also used a software technology that can selectively shut down sections of the chip to minimize power consumption. A total of 40 trillion calculations can be made per second, while only between 15 and 40 watts of power is used.

High-performing semiconductor chips currently in use at cloud data centers around the world consume around 300 watts of power, according to a press release by the Science Ministry.

“When the chips are used in cloud data centers, they can speed up deep learning processes and increase electric efficiency tenfold,” said Kwon Young-su, the group leader of the processor research group at the ETRI.

Researchers plan to install the semiconductor chips in a SK Telecom data center by the second half to test the technology before commercialization. SK Telecom’s data center is a data library for services such as surveillance cameras and voice recognition technology.

Another type of semiconductors developed by the joint research team is visual intelligence chips (VICs) capable of recognizing images. The technology allows devices to get close to the performance of the human eye.

The VICs were developed under joint efforts between the ETRI, Korea Electronics Technology Institute and three fabless semiconductor companies, which outsource their manufacturing.

The chips are about 5 millimeters (0.2 inches) on each side, can recognize objects 30 times a second and require less than 0.5 watts of power.

The ETRI plans to test the chips on visual surveillance devices starting from the second half of this year.

The Minister of Science and ICT Choi Ki-Young said it plans to nurture AI semiconductors as the nation’s “engine for future growth” through a close partnership between the government and the private sector.

From this year to 2029, the Science Ministry and the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy plan to invest close to 2 trillion won to develop AI semiconductors and 488 billion won in research for relevant technologies.

“We will actively support any research for innovative technology that can lead the world market,” Minister Choi said.

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