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This Chip for AI Works Using Light, Not Electrons

#artificialintelligence

As demand for artificial intelligence grows, so does hunger for the computer power needed to keep AI running. Lightmatter, a startup born at MIT, is betting that AI's voracious hunger will spawn demand for a fundamentally different kind of computer chip--one that uses light to perform key calculations. "Either we invent new kinds of computers to continue," says Lightmatter CEO Nick Harris, "or AI slows down." Conventional computer chips work by using transistors to control the flow of electrons through a semiconductor. By reducing information to a series of 1s and 0s, these chips can perform a wide array of logical operations, and power complex software.


This Chip for AI Works Using Light, Not Electrons

WIRED

As demand for artificial intelligence grows, so does hunger for the computer power needed to keep AI running. Lightmatter, a startup born at MIT, is betting that AI's voracious hunger will spawn demand for a fundamentally different kind of computer chip--one that uses light to perform key calculations. "Either we invent new kinds of computers to continue," says Lightmatter CEO Nick Harris, "or AI slows down." Conventional computer chips work by using transistors to control the flow of electrons through a semiconductor. By reducing information to a series of 1s and 0s, these chips can perform a wide array of logical operations, and power complex software.


Photonics Processor Aimed at AI Inference

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Silicon photonics is exhibiting greater innovation as requirements grow to enable faster, lower-power chip interconnects for traditionally power-hungry applications like AI inferencing. With that in mind, scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched a startup in 2017 called Lightmatter Inc. to develop silicon photonic processors. Another goal was leveraging optical computing to "decouple" AI processing from Moore's law scaling that according to the company founders literally produces more heat than light. Lightmatter announced an AI photonic "test chip" during this week's Hot Chips conference positioned as an AI inference accelerator using light to process and transport data. The 3D module incorporates a 12- and 90-nm ASIC, the latter supporting photonics processing steps such as laser monitoring and light distribution.


Photonics startup Lightmatter details its AI optical accelerator chip

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Ahead of the Hot Chips conference this week, photonics chip startup Lightmatter revealed the first technical details about its upcoming test chip. Unlike conventional processors and graphics cards, the test chip uses light to send signals, promising orders of magnitude higher performance and efficiency. The technology underpinning the test chip -- photonic integrated circuits -- stems from a 2017 paper coauthored by Lightmatter CEO and MIT alumnus Nicholas Harris that described a novel way to perform machine learning workloads using optical interference. Chips like the test chip, which is on track for a fall 2021 release, require only a limited amount of energy because light produces less heat than electricity. They also benefit from reduced latency and are less susceptible to changes in temperature, electromagnetic fields, and noise.


Photonic Computing Company Takes Aim at Artificial Intelligence

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Chip startup Lightmatter has received an infusion of $11 million from investors to help bring the world's first silicon photonics processor for AI to market. Using technology originally developed at MIT, the company is promising "orders of magnitude performance improvements over what's feasible using existing technologies."