Should we be rethinking how computers are designed? The co-founder and CEO of chip designer Nervana, Naveen Rao, believes so as artificial intelligence applications change the way systems work.
“A brain only uses 20 watts of power to do far more than a laptop,” observes Naveen Rao at a breakfast following Intel’s Artificial Intelligence Day in San Francisco last week.
“Presumably the brain is doing more computation than your laptop,” he continues. “What are we missing? Why is there such a big difference between what a computer can do and a brain can do. Let’s try to understand that and maybe what we learn can change how we design computers.”
A lifetime passion
Rao, whose company was acquired by Intel for over four hundred million dollars last August, was discussing the quest to make computers operate more like brains and less like adding machines.
For Rao this has been a lifetime passion, having graduated as an electrical engineer and spending most of his career designing computer chips at Sun Microsystems and various startups he quit his job to do a PhD in neuroscience, “after ten years, I wanted to return to my passion of trying to use biology to better understand computers.”
From that combination of study and experience Nervana was founded in 2014 and raised twenty million dollars from investors before being acquired by Intel.
Replicating the bird, not the feathers
The key part in creating a computer that acts more like a brain is to get the individual CPUs to be working together in a network similar to the mind’s neural paths, “look at a bird compared to a plane.” Rao says,” we don’t replicate the feathers, but we do the function.”
Doing this meant rethinking how processors are designed, “there are tried are true methods of chip architecture that we basically questioned.”
“We don’t need high levels of generality. We don’t need this to work on energy or weather simulations. We removed some of that baggage.”
Paring back the processor
So the Nervana team stripped down the individual processor and removed many functions, such as a cache, that are built into today’s advanced CPUs. Those lighter weight, and less power hungry, units can then be combined into neural networks more suited to artificial intelligence functions than today’s computers.
“Nvidea, this sort of fell into their laps,” observes Rao of Intel’s key competitor in the AI, graphics and gaming space. “It just so happens the graphics functions on their chips are suited to Artificial Intelligence applications.”
Without the more complex functions of modern CPUs, Rao and the Nervana team see the opportunity to build more flexible computers better suited to artificial intelligence applications.
Intel focuses on AI
That focus on AI has seen Intel branding its AI initiatives under the Nervana brand name as the iconic Silicon Valley company tries to move ahead with more nimble competitors like Qualcomm and NVidea.
For the computer industry, artificial intelligence promises to be the next major advance, something necessary if we are ever going to make sense of the masses of data being collected by smart devices and the reason why Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Facebook are all making massive investments in the field.
Regardless of whether Intel and Nervana are successful in the AI marketplace, Rao sees the entire field of neural computing as a great opportunity. “It’s exciting, there’s lots of chances to innovate.”
Paul travelled to San Francisco as a guest of Intel