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This autonomous bicycle shows China’s rising expertise in AI chips

July 31, 2019

It might not look like much, but this wobbly self-driving bicycle is a symbol of growing Chinese expertise in advanced chip design.

Look, no hands: The bike not only balances itself but steers itself around obstacles and even responds to simple voice commands. But it’s the brains behind the bike that matter. It uses a new kind of computer chip, called Tianjic, that was developed by Luping Shi and colleagues at Tsinghua University, a top academic institution in Beijing.

Two in one: The Tianjic chip features a hybrid design that seeks to bring together two different architectural approaches to computing: a conventional, von Neumann design and a neurologically inspired one. The two architectures are used in cooperation to run artificial neural networks for obstacle detection, motor and balance control, and voice recognition, as well as conventional software.

AI’s future? In a paper outlining the chip and the bicycle, published in the journal Nature today, the researchers suggest that such a hybrid architecture could be crucial for the future of artificial intelligence, perhaps even providing a route toward more general forms of AI. That’s a bit bold, given how far we are from AGI, but Tianjic does show the growing value of new chip designs optimized for running AI algorithms.

Made in China: The chip also hints at the progress China is making in developing its own chip design capabilities. As outlined in this feature article, China has long struggled to build its own chip industry, a major weakness in its technological capabilities that have been exploited in the ongoing trade war with the US. But while manufacturing the most advanced computer chips remains out of reach, Chinese researchers are showing they can make specialized AI chips as well as anyone. 

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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