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Bitmain, Whose Chips Mine Digital Currency, Sinks Teeth into Artificial Intelligence

Bitmain, which makes custom chips that run algorithms used to mine cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, announced on Wednesday that it would start selling an accelerator for deep learning.

The new processor is based on an architecture called Sophon. It is an application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) that will handle both inferencing, in which algorithms make judgments about data, and training, which is more computationally exhausting. The Beijing-based firm is targeting applications like facial recognition in security cameras and decision-making in driverless cars

“Deep learning is very intensive computationally and our experience in creating high-performing hardware for Bitcoin has absolutely prepared us,” said Micree Zhan, Bitmain’s chief executive, who will detail Sophon’s architecture next month in Beijing, in a statement. Its target customers are Chinese internet companies like Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent.

The company, founded in 2013, started applying its semiconductor talents to deep learning a year and a half ago. Bitmain is the latest semiconductor start-up to take aim at Nvidia, whose graphics chips are the current gold standard for training deep learning models in data centers and incidentally are also used in mining rigs.

For now, Bitmain is a powerhouse in the cryptocurrency industry. It employs around 600 people, sells hundreds of thousands of mining machines with its custom silicon every year, and its server farms are among the largest mining operations in the world. The company rents these pools of computing power to other digital prospectors.

Bitmain’s influence has been purchased in silicon. It requires vast amounts of processing puissance to run the algorithms that mine digital coinage like Bitcoin and Ethereum. Bitmain built custom chips to outduel the graphics chips traditionally used to digitally excavate these cryptocurrencies, which are based on blockchains.

Over the last year, cryptocurrency miners have emptied store shelves of graphics chips traditionally bought by gamers. Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices are the biggest makers of these chips, which contain thousands of computing cores that run mathematical operations in parallel, making them ideal for deep learning and cryptocurrency mining.

Because of the shortage, Nvidia recently said that it plans to release custom chips for digital mining. Bitmain said that it plans to sell its artificial intelligence chip, technically called BM1860, in a fan-cooled module called the SC1. The company has already started sampling the hardware.

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