AI processing at the edge

Read a couple of articles over the past few weeks (TechCrunch: Google is making a fast, specialized TPU chip for edge devices … and IEEE Spectrum: Two startups use processing in flash for AI at the edge) about chips for AI at the IoT edge.

The two startups, Syntiant and Mythic, are moving to analog only or analog-digital solutions to provide AI processing needed at the edge while Google is taking their TPU technology to the edge.  We have written about Google’s TPU before (see: TPU and hardware vs. software  innovation (round 3) post).

The major challenge in AI processing at the edge is power consumption. Both  startups attack the power problem by using flash and other analog circuitry to provide power efficient compute.

Google attacked the power problem with their original TPU by reducing computational precision from 64- to 8-bits. By reducing transistor counts, they lowered power requirements proportionally.

AI today is based on neural networks (NN), that connect simulated neurons via simulated synapses with weights attached to indicate whether to boost or decrease the signal being transmitted. AI learning is done by setting those weights and creating the connections between simulated neurons and the synapses.  So learning is setting weights and establishing connections. Actual inferences (using AI to do something) is a process of exciting input simulated neurons/synapses and letting the signal flow through the NN with each weight being used to determine output(s).

AI with standard compute

The problem with doing AI learning or inferencing with normal CPUs or even CUDAs is that the NN does thousands if not millions of  multiplication-accumulation actions at each simulated synapse-neuron connection. Doing all these multiplication-accumulation takes power. CPUs and CUDAs can do these sorts of operations on 32 or 64 bit numbers or even floating point but it still takes power.

AI processing power

AI processing power is measured in trillions of (accumulate-multiply) operations per second per watt (TOPS/W). Mythic believes it can perform 4 TOPS/W and Syntiant says it can do 20 TOPS/W. In comparison, the NVIDIA Volta V100 can do about 0.4 TOPS/W (according to the article). Although  comparing Syntiant-Mythic TOPS to NVIDIA TOPS is a little like comparing apples to oranges.

A current Intel Xeon Platinum 8180M (2.5Ghz, 28 Core processors, 205 W) can probably do (assuming one multiplication-accumulation per hertz) about 2.5 Billion X 28 Cores = 70 Billion Ops Second/205 W or 0.3 GOPS/W (source: Platinum 8180M Data sheet).

As for Google’s TPU TOPS/W, TPU2 is rated at 45 GFLOPS/chip and best guess for power consumption is between 160W and 200W, let’s say 180W. With power at that level, TPU2 should hit 0.25 GFLOPS/W.  TPU3 is coming out with 8X the power but it uses water cooling (read LOTS MORE POWER).

Nonetheless, it appears that Mythic and Syntiant are one to two orders of magnitude better than the best that NVIDIA and TPU2 can do today and many orders of magnitude better than Intel X86.

Improving TOPS/W

Use NAND, as an analog memory to read, write and hold  NN weights is an easy way to reduce power consumption. Combine that with  analog circuitry that can do multiplication and addition with those flash values and you have a AI NN processor. This way you reduce the need to hold weights in memory and do compute in registers by collapsing both compute and memory into the same componentry.

The major difference between Syntiant and Mythic seems to be the amount of analog circuitry they use. Mythic seems to relegate the analog circuitry to an accelerator while Syntiant has a more extensive use of analog circuitry throughout their chip. Probably why it can perform 5X the TOPS/W of Mythic’s IPU.

IBM and others have been working on neuromorphic chips some of which are analog based and others which are all digital based. We’ve written extensively on IBM and some on MIT’s approaches (for the latest on IBM see: More power efficient deep learning through IBM and PCM, and for MIT see: MIT builds an analog synapse chip) and follow the links there to learn more.


Special purpose AI hardware is emerging from the labs and finally reaching reality. IBM R&D has been playing with it for a long time. Google is working on TPU3 so there’s no stopping them. And startups are seeing an opening and are taking everyone on. Stay tuned, were in for a good long ride before the someone rises above the crowd and becomes the next chip giant.



Photo Credit(s): TechCrunch  Google is making a fast, specialized TPU chip for edge devices … article

Introduction to Digital Design Verification at Mythic, Article

Images from Google Cloud Platform Blog on the TPU

Two startups use processing in flash for AI at the edge, IEEE Spectrum article courtesy of Mythic