IPUs? These New Chips Are Minted For Marketing

Intelligence processing units—computer chips optimized for AI—signal a shift in finding speed through specialization.

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n. Short for intelligence processing unit, a new kind of computer chip optimized for AI.

Way back in the early 2000s, when the first Xbox came out, researchers discovered they could hack video­game consoles for scientific uses. It seems the devices’ graphic processing units, or GPUs, designed to render flying gore and mayhem, also ran physics simulations faster than the CPUs in ordinary computers.

Today, researchers still use GPU chips, not just for modeling but for artificial intelligence. Since each one contains lots of mini brains that crowdsource the work in parallel, they’re good at big-data jobs like image recognition. Good, but not awesome. So companies are taking that idea and racing to create a new generation of chips just for AI. A startup called Graphcore (which recently built a 2,000-­teraflop AI supercomputer the size of a gaming PC) calls them IPUs. Get it? I for intelligence.

As a name, IPU, unlike its bland _PU predecessors, seems minted for marketing. And for good reason. If Moore’s Law taps out soon, as many think it could, future gains in speed will come from specialization: niche chips designed for narrow uses. In a business ruled by lumbering giants, that’s a bonanza for newbies, and the VC money is flying.

Indeed, the semiconductor industry could soon resemble the cereal aisle of the supermarket. The explosion has already begun, with talk of DPUs (dataflow processing units), NPUs (neural processing units), EPUs (emotion processing units), and more. Computational muscle, fortified with the power of branding.

This article appears in the September issue. Subscribe now.

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