Artificial Intelligence

Chinese start-up on track to deliver artificial intelligence-on-a-chip

Horizon Robotics has new technology that it says will foster the rise of intelligent appliances

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 March, 2016, 4:26pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 March, 2016, 7:59pm

Mainland Chinese start-up Horizon Robotics, founded by the former head of online search giant Baidu’s Institute of Deep Learning, claims it is on pace to bring chips with built-in artificial intelligence (AI) technology to market.

“General processors are too slow for AI functions. A dedicated chip will dramatically increase the speed of these functions,” Yu Kai, the founder and chief executive of Horizon Robotics told the South China Morning Post.

Founded in Beijing in July, Horizon Robotics is developing chips and software that attempt to mimic how the human brain solves abstract tasks, such as voice and image recognition, that are difficult for regular computer programmes. It also makes sensors for smart devices.

Yu said the company’s AI chips will empower future home appliances and cars, for example, to provide fast and intelligent response to user commands even without internet connection.

“Most AI services are based in the cloud, but what happens if the internet is slow or down?” he asked, referring to voice-activated personal digital assistant services such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa.

So-called cloud services enable companies to buy, lease, sell or distribute software and other digital resources online, just like electricity from a power grid. These cloud operations are hosted in data centres.

“AI functions may look easy, but these are extremely difficult to perform,” Yu said. “Even a robot broom needs to know the floor layout, sense obstacles, plan its activity and recognise its user’s voice.”

He pointed out that Horizon Robotics will finish designing its first AI chip for smart home appliances by June and make it commercially available by early 2017.

The company is in talks with Chinese semiconductor contract manufacturers to produce its AI-on-a-chip design, he said.

Its AI-on-a-chip approach is similar to how current personal computers are set up. At present, a central processing unit performs general tasks, while a separate graphics chip handles complex visual tasks when running a video game.

Future devices will have an AI chip perform more complex tasks that need greater intelligence to perform, such as speech,voice,vision recognition and machine-learning algorithms.

Prior to the commercial launch of its own chip, Horizon Robotics has developed an AI system for existing general-purpose processors to drive its initial foray into the so-called smart home appliance market.

The company has partnered with several Chinese home appliance manufacturers that will be first to adopt its AI system.

“Our vision [of creating our own AI system-on-a-chip] is bold, but we need to control risks at the same time,” Yu said.

He declined to identify these partners, but said their initial range of AI-equipped products will be introduced in Shanghai at the four-day Appliance and Electronics World Expo in Shanghai, which starts next Wednesday.

In a study by BCC Research, the global market for so-called smart machines is projected to be worth US$15.3 billion (HK$118.78 billion) by 2019. BCC Research divides the global market for smart machines into five segments: neurocomputers, expert systems, autonomous robots, smart embedded systems and intelligent assistance systems.

Horizon Robotics accomplished a seed-round funding in September from major venture capital groups, including Morningside Ventures, Hillhouse Capital, Sequoia Capital, GSR Ventures, Innovation Works and ZhenFund.