In the 1980s and 1990s, Microsoft rose to prominence—and dominance—thanks to its strategy of running its Windows operating system on Intel processors. That supremacy has waned over the years. Now, Microsoft is looking to recapture the power of Wintel with another hardware-software combination and surpass Amazon and Google in the struggle to become the best provider of cutting-edge artificial intelligence via the cloud.
In short, Microsoft is aiming to expand the popularity of its Azure cloud platform by partnering with a chipmaker making chips specifically designed for an age of AI. That’s why the company announced last week that it will be partnering with chipmaker Graphcore to offer Azure users access to the UK startup’s chips.
Bristol, England-based Graphcore was founded in 2016 and has since attracted significant attention among AI researchers as well as several hundred million dollars in investments. Much of this buzz is derived from the promise that Graphcore’s chips can help accelerate the computations necessary to drive successful AI applications. However, until now, the chips have not been publicly available nor have the results of early testing trials.
On Microsoft’s part, the computing giant is hoping that Graphcore’s hardware can help make its cloud services even more appealing to the growing AI application customers base. This latest partnership comes less than a year after Microsoft invested in Graphcore’s last $200 million funding round.
The potential of Graphcore’s chips comes through their design process and specific goals. In contrast to many AI chips on the market, Graphcore’s processers were designed from scratch and built from the ground up to support machine calculations aimed at understanding speech, parsing language, recognizing faces, training robots and driving cars.
Indeed, a number of top AI researchers are exploring the promise of Graphcore’s chips after making investments in the startup. These include DeepMind co-founder Demis Hassabis, University of Cambridge professor and Uber AI lab head Zoubin Ghahramani and UC Berkley professor Peiter Abbeel.
For Microsoft, the biggest advantages the partnership with Graphcore may offer come from the advantages provided compared to rivals. Benchmarks published by Microsoft and Graphcore suggest that the startup’s chips might top the performance of Nvidia and Google’s top AI chips.