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Huawei announces two AI chips as China continues its move away from US silicon

The Chinese telecommunications giant has announced two chips optimized for artificial intelligence. The chips reflects an important shift in China’s tech ambitions as the country seeks to lessen its dependence on foreign microprocessors.

Silicon habit: Chinese tech companies are among the most innovative and profitable in the world, but they rely heavily on chips made by US companies such as Intel, Qualcomm, and Nvidia. This is a troubling for those companies, and for the Chinese government, because microprocessors are a foundational technology that often enable innovation in other areas.

Missing piece: Artificial intelligence highlights China's hardware weak spot. Recent advances in AI have come thanks to clever algorithms, which tend to be shared openly; large quantities of data, which China has in abundance; and specialized hardware such as graphics processing units (GPUs). These processors run deep neural networks better than CPUs by handling data in parallel. 

Big shift: The AI boom is, however, also an opportunity for China. In recent years, more specialized AI chip designs have emerged for handling machine-learning models in large data centers and in devices like smartphones and self-driving cars. Rather than challenge companies developing general-purpose chips then, Chinese firms can target these emerging applications.

Chips away: Although China has been developing a microchip industry for some time, sanctions introduced recently by the US government highlight how crucial the effort is. By blocking the supply of US chips to the smartphone maker ZTE, the sanctions essentially crippled the company’s products, and very nearly forced it to close down.

AI upstarts: This situation has spurred Chinese companies to accelerate the development of their own AI hardware. The search giant Baidu announced a chip in July, and the e-commerce goliath Alibaba announced an AI chip subsidiary last month. Startups working on the technology include Cambrican, spun out of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Bitmain, which previously made chips for cryptocurrency mining. How these companies will fare outside of China remains to be seen, however, especially in light of recent claims of state-sponsored chip hacking.