DIEGO ó To get a sense of computer scientist Naveen
Rao, just take a look at his hands.
42-year-old has busted all 10 of his fingers over a
lifetime of skiing, skateboarding, bicycling,
rollerblading, race-car driving, wrestling and hoops.
not a clod; heís a risk taker who pushes physical and
mental boundaries. On the mental side, heís trying to
quicken the computer industryís move into a new age of
artificial intelligence by creating chips and software
inspired by the structure of the human brain.
sets Rao apart from others attempting the same thing is
the fact that Intel last year bought his San Diego
company, Nervana, for $400 million.
some stamp of approval. Intel is a computer-chip
industry giant, with sales topping $60 billion a year.
But itís an aging giant. Intel turns 50 next year, and
everyone agrees it requires some revitalization, having
infamously missed the industryís massive shift to
Intel is trying to catch the industryís next rising
wave: artificial intelligence, or, more precisely, a
subset of AI known as deep learning.
that drive themselves, personal devices that converse
with their owners and carry out tasks, social media
features that can identify your friends in group
photographs ó all are made possible by deep learning.
So are computers that can diagnose CAT-scan images on
their own or pick stocks for hedge fund managers.
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a picture of a road sign in Spain and your phone
translates it into English. That app is based on deep
learning. Recommendations just for you on Netflix and
Spotify? Deep learning plays a role in those features,
can now solve problems that we couldnít solve
before," said Peter Norvig, director of research at
Google and a key figure in the history of AI.
learning is a new, more marketing-friendly term for a
concept thatís been around for decades, known as
neural networks. Rather than run calculations in serial
fashion, like traditional computers, neural networks
mimic the behavior of nerve clusters in the human brain
ó firing signals and stifling them, arranging data
into patterns roughly analogous to human memory.
is deep learning suddenly on the rise? The enormous
amount of data being created around the world from
sensors mounted in everything from smartphones to drones
to surveillance cameras and more, matched with ever more
powerful chips and other computer hardware, make it
a result, the computer industry is changing "faster
than Intel or anyone else expected it to," said
Mario Morales, semiconductor analyst at IDC. Experts say
artificial intelligence is now a major growth business
that will rake in billions of dollars for companies that
provide the best hardware and software.
where Rao comes in. His job is to help Intel move beyond
the central processing unit, or CPU ó the product thatís
ruled the semiconductor industry for several decades.
The CPU is at the heart of every desktop and laptop
computer built since the start of the personal computer
revolution in the 1970s. Two companies dominated that
field: Microsoft, with its operating system software,
and Intel, with its "Intel Inside" central
learning software runs on CPUs, but inefficiently. CPUs
are inherently general purpose devices. Maximum
computing power required for deep learning is possible
only with new kinds of special purpose chips.
holy grail is a new kind of chip tailor-made for deep
learning. Thatís what Rao and Nervana are attempting.
If they succeed, Intel too will bear the fruit.
sports an athleteís build in his T-shirt and blue
jeans. A child of Indian immigrants, he grew up in a
tiny eastern Kentucky town called Whitesburg. In the
late 1970s, his father, a physicist turned physician,
drove Rao and his brother to a Radio Shack in Hazard, 40
minutes away, where they wrote programs in Basic on
floor-model computers. "We didnít have a computer
at home yet," he says.
a rural childhood that mixed outdoor sports with
Dungeons & Dragons and novels by Asimov, Heinlein
and Tolkien, Rao attended Duke University. There, he was
attracted to neural networks after learning how the
human eye detected edges on visual objects. Edge
detection at the time was a cutting-edge problem in
computer vision, with a number of solutions being
offered up, including neural networks.
cut his teeth on computer chips at Sun Microsystems in
Silicon Valley. Still drawn by all things neural, he
earned a Ph.D. at Brown University under neuroscience
pioneer John Donoghue. He headed back West to chipmaker
Qualcomm in San Diego, on a team conducting neural net
is doing interesting work, Rao said. But he had specific
ideas of his own and craved the freedom of a startup. In
2014, he founded Nervana. It wasnít long before larger
companies took an interest. When Intel found out another
big tech company was sniffing around, Rao says, it moved
quickly. Which was fine with Rao. More than anything, he
sought a company that excelled at chip manufacturing.
"The best at that is Intel," he said.
concur. "They have the best manufacturing
facilities in the world," said Linley Gwennap,
founder of The Linley Group and longtime semiconductor
industry analyst. "With Intel, you also have the
advantage of walking into a market with Intelís name,
is crafting a neural net computer chip that Intel will
release by the end of the year, known as Lake Crest.
Just as important, Intel and Nervana are coming up with
sets of software tools developers can use to write deep
chip company called Nvidia, a rising star in Silicon
Valley, has an early lead on Intel and all other neural
net newcomers, including Advanced Micro Devices.
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know Nvidia well. The company started out making
graphics accelerators that worked with Intel chips to
keep computer games from lagging. Nvidia continued to
improve the chips as gamers demanded action in real time
so they could compete with players online.
companyís graphical processing units, or GPUs, were
designed to cram thousands of "cores" into one
chip that processed information in parallel. It turned
out GPUs lend themselves to neural networks, too.
discovered this around the time of whatís become known
as the Google Cat Project, considered a milestone in
deep learning research. Show a neural network thousands
of pictures of cats, and it learns how to recognize
photos that include images of cats. The Google cat
project in 2012 was carried out on 16,000 Intel central
processors inside Googleís vast "farms" of
computer servers. It took a month. Google could afford
to do that, but not many others could.
the same time, forward-thinking hedge fund managers were
trying to adapt deep learning to stock picking. They
began using chips from Nvidia, whose graphic chips lent
themselves to neural net processing better than anything
made by Intel.
Nvidia found out hedge funds and others were using its
chips for deep learning, it made a quick strategic move:
tailor its chips and develop software tools to support
neural networks. Almost every major automaker is using
Nvidia chips to develop driverless-car technology.
Google, Amazon and others have been adding Nvidia chips
to their data centers at a furious clip.
few numbers illustrate the challenge Intel faces. Nvidia
stock is up more than 165 percent over the past 52
weeks, closing at $171.96 on Tuesday. Over the same
period, Intel stock is up 2.2 percent, closing on
Tuesday at $37.47.
revenue grew to $6.9 billion in 2016, up 38 percent.
Intel was up 7.3 percent, to $59.3 billion. Nvidia does
have a much smaller revenue base. But consider profits:
Nvidia up 171 percent to $1.6 billion, Intel down 9.7
percent to $10.3 billion.
said the deep learning "kind of fell into Nvidiaís
lap." He added: "To their credit, they took
full advantage of it."
a statement, Nvidia affirmed its commitment to
intelligence is driving the greatest technology advances
known to humankind," the company said. "From
diagnosing skin cancer using a photo to making our roads
safer with self-driving cars, AI will automate
intelligence and spur a wave of social progress
unmatched since the industrial revolution."
sees a way to surpass Nvidia with chips designed not for
computer games, but specifically for neural networks.
have to integrate them into the rest of Intelís
business. Artificial intelligence chips wonít work on
their own. For a time, theyíll be tied into Intelís
CPUs at cloud data centers around the world, where Intel
CPUs still dominate ó often in concert with Nvidia
is on an acquisition spree. In 2016, it acquired
Movidius, a Silicon Valley company that specializes in
making smart vision chips for consumer devices,
including drones. Earlier this year, it paid a whopping
$15.3 billion for Mobileye, an Israeli maker of camera,
chip and software systems for driverless cars.
also partnered with a company that specializes in custom
chips for specific applications, and bought another that
makes chips whose "firmware" can be
reprogrammed depending on the job at hand.
needs to pull all those pieces together. When Intel
bought Nervana, it deemed the small company the
"foundation" of its foray into artificial
intelligence. It put Rao in charge of all of Intelís
AI efforts, reporting directly to Intel Chief Executive
Brian Krzanich. (Krzanich was unavailable for an
pulling off the merger will be tricky, in terms of
culture and technical execution. Intel suffers a poor
record with startup acquisitions, analyst Gwennap said.
Intel had a wireless-device chip unit before Apple
introduced the iPhone, he noted, but sold it to Marvell
Technology Group in 2006.
try to correct its error, Intel bought the wireless unit
of Infineon Technologies in 2010, but culture clashes
and disagreements about technology knocked Intel out of
the mobile game. Nimbler companies such as ARM Holdings
(now part of SoftBank) ran away with mobile chips
Jurvetson of DFJ Venture Capital, an early investor in
Nervana, said Raoís got the chops to help pull off a
cultural change at Intel, if Intel will let him.
"Heís a polymath, and heís brilliant in his
ability to integrate ideas across a lot of
disciplines," said Steve Jurvetson of DFJ Venture
Capital. "He has a warm professorial kind of
manner. He enjoys teaching others and debating the
viability of their ideas. But he wonít hold back if he
thinks somethingís a bad idea."
said heís encountered resistance from some of Intelís
old guard, but believes the company has left its
Intel-always-knows-best past behind it.
Nervana "is not something the Intel of five years
ago would have done," he said. "Itís an open
culture. I can say, ĎGuys, you arenít getting this.í"
Sometimes, heís found himself pounding on the table in
meetings. But he said heís confident that Krzanich has
has an opportunity to match or surpass the kind of
performance Nvidia is talking about," Gwennap said.
"But just because you start from a blank sheet of
paper doesnít mean youíre going to come up with a
masterpiece. Nothing is guaranteed."