Graphcore takes on Nvidia with UK AI datacentre offer

Graphcore takes on Nvidia with UK AI datacentre offer

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By Nick Flaherty

GraphCore, the world’s best funded AI hardware startup, is taking on Nvidia over funding for AI supercomputers in the UK, saying its US rival sells GPUs at ‘low cost’.

It is offering 3000 of its AI processors in a data centre in South Wales for an AI system. Last week the company showed a large language model competing with ChatGPT running on its AI chips and hardware.

The offer of the processors was made by founder Nigel Toon in an open letter to UK prime minister Rishi Sunak calling for dedicated funding for AI datacentre technology using local technology to avoid being undercut by its larger US rivals. GrpahCore has raised $682m for its chip technology, called Colossus.

“We must recognize that with their advantage of dominant market share, companies like Nvidia have been supplying their GPUs at low cost to incentivise their use amongst UK researchers in a way which shapes the habits of AI practitioners and researchers and excludes other hardware suppliers,” said Toon.

This follows the announcement of an exascale supercomputer for the UK.

“You committed £900m of funding to support the delivery of a public Exascale and AI compute capability for the UK, as recommended by the Independent Review of The Future of Compute,” said Toon. “The Government’s backing for this initiative is most welcome, given its potential to accelerate scientific research and other contributors to economic growth and the public good.”

“We are calling for a similar commitment to supporting those UK homegrown technology companies that are well placed to help deliver such a capability,” he said.

Graphcore doesn’t sell its chips directly as Nvidia does, but uses them in systems it calls ‘pods’. These are deployed across the US Government’s network of research laboratories and supercomputer facilities, in Germany’s National Supercomputing Centre, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and at Korea’s Electronics and Telecommunications Research Centre, as well as many other publicly funded facilities, enterprise companies and startups globally.

“However, we have not yet seen a signal that the British Government intends to include British made technology in this country’s planned AI compute capability. By backing UK suppliers, the government not only develops a valuable AI compute ecosystem, but also nurtures future UK-based, highly skilled teams of engineers with the knowledge and confidence to build the next generation of digital hardware. This was the case with ARM, which has indirectly been responsible for a series of digital hardware startups in the UK, as ARM-trained engineers founded other businesses.  

“We are concerned that unless a significant portion of the budget is explicitly earmarked for UK-based suppliers, this funding commitment will quickly be consumed by digital giants like US-based chipmaker Nvidia,” he said.

This is also vital for keeping skills in the region, he says.

“Too often we have seen British-made innovation leading the world, only to be edged-out or bought-out by overseas rivals. By directing at least some of the UK taxpayer’s investment towards world class UK businesses, the Government has the power to grow our knowledge economy and ensure that companies like Graphcore can provide jobs for semiconductor engineers, programmers, AI engineers and other highly skilled professionals. It would mean that graduates in these fields can consider roles in Bristol, Cambridge, London and other parts of the country, instead of San Francisco and Santa Clara.”

He is asking for the UK government to specify that a large percentage of the compute system budget be directed to home-grown UK technology companies. Maintaining technological diversity within the UK Exascale and AI compute system will ensure that, in addition to CPUs and GPUs, the UK compute infrastructure includes home-grown AI-specific accelerators.

He also calls on the UK government to “resist the lure of large foreign technology companies who are trying to edge-out our UK companies.”

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