Photonic [AI] computing seeing the light of day – part 2

Read an interesting article in Analytics India Magazine (MIT Researchers Make New Chips That Work On Light) about a startup out of MIT focused on using photonics for AI/ML/DL activities. Not exactly neuromorphic chips, but using analog photonics interactions to perform computational intensive operations required by todays deep neural net training.

We’ve written about photonics computing before ( see Photonic computing seeing the light of day [-part 1]). That post was about spin outs from Princeton and MIT back in 2019. We showed a bit more on how photonics can perform multiplication and other computations with less power.

The article (noted above) talked about LightIntelligence, an MIT spinout/ startup that’s been around since ~2017, but there’s another company in the same space, also out of MIT called LightMatter that just announced early access to their hardware system.

The CEOs of both companies collaborated on a paper (#1&2 authors of the 10 author paper) written back in 2017 on Deep Learning with Coherent Nanophotonic Circuits. This seemed to be the event that launched both companies.

LightMatter just received $80M in Series B funding ( bringing total funding to $113M) last month and LightIntelligence seems to have $40M in total funding So both have decent funding but, LightMatter seems further ahead in funding and product technology.


LightMatter Envise Photonics-RISC AI processing chip

LightMatter Envise AI chip uses standard RISC electronic cores together with Photo Arithmetic Units for accelerated AI computations. Each Envise chip has 500MB of SRAM for large models, offers 400Gbps chip to chip interconnect fabric, 256 RISC cores, a Graph processor, 294 photonic arithmetic units and PCIe 4.0 connectivity.

LightMatter has just announced early access for their Envise AI photonics server. It’s an 4U, AI server with 16 Envise chips, 2 AMD EPYC CPUs, (16×400=)6.4Tpbs optical fabric for inter-chip communications, 1TB of DDR4 DRAM, 3TB of NVMe SSD and supports 2-200GbE SmartNICs for outside communications.

Envise also offers Idiom Software that interfaces with standard AI frameworks to transform models for photonics computing to use Envise hardware . Developers select Envise hardware to run their AI models on and Idiom automatically re-compiles (IdCompile) their model into more parallelized, photonics operations. Idiom also has a model profiler (IdProfiler) to help debug and visualize photonic models in operation (training or inferencing?) on Envise hardware. Idiom also offers an AI model library (IdML) which provides a PyTorch frontend to help compress and quantize a standard set of AI models.

LightMatter also announced their Passage optical interconnect chip that supplies 100Tbps optical switch for photonics, CPU or GPU processing. It’s huge, 8″x8″ and built on 5nm/7nm node process. Passage can connect up to 48 photonics, CPU or GPU chips that are built onto of it (one can see the space for each of these 48 [sub-]chips on the chip). LightMatter states that 40 Passage (photonic/optical) lanes are the width of one optical fibre. Passage chips are sampling now.

LightMatter Passage photonics-transistor chip (carrier) that provides a photonics programmable interconnect for inter-[photonics-electronic-]chip communications.


They don’t appear to be announcing any specific hardware just yet but they are at work in creating the world largest integrated photonics processing system. But LightIntelligence have published a number of research papers focused on photonic approaches to CNNs, RNNs/LSTMs/GRUs, Recurrent ISING machines, statistical computing, and invisibility cloaking.

Turns out the processing power needed to provide invisibility cloaking is very intensive and as its all pixels, photonics offers serious speedups (for invisibility, see Nature article, behind paywall).

Photonics Recurrent ISLING Sampler (PRIS)

LightIntelligence did produce a prototype photonics processor in 2019. And they believe the will have de-risked 80-90% of their photonics technology by year end 2021.

If I had to guess, it would appear as if LightIntelligence is trying to re-imagine deep learning taking a predominately all photonics approach.

Why photonics for AI DL

It turns out that one can use the interaction/interference between two light beams to perform matrix multiplication and other computations a lot faster, with a lot less power than using standard RISC (or CISC) electronic processor architectures. Typical GPUs run 400W each and multi-GPU training activities are commonplace today.

The research documented in the (Deep learning using nanophotonics) paper was based on using an optical FPGA which we have talked about before (See Photonics or Optical FPGAs on the horizon) to prototype the technology back in 2017.

Can photonics change the technology underpinning AI or computing?

If by using photonics, one could speed up AI inferencing by 3-5X and do it with 5-6X less power, you might have a market. These are LightMatter Envise performance numbers on ResNet50 with ImageNet and BERT-Base with SQUAD v1.1 against NVIDIA DGX-A100 (state of the art) AI processing system.

The challenge to changing the technology behind multi-million/billion/trillion dollar industry is that it’s not sufficient to offer a product better than the competition. One has to offer a technology that’s better enough to fund the building of a new (multi-million/billion/trillion dollar) ecosystem surrounding that technology. In order to do that it’s got to be orders of magnitude faster/lower power/better so that commercial customers adopt it en masse.

I like where LightMatter is going with their Passage chip. But their Envise server doesn’t seem fast enough to give them enough traction to build a photonics ecosystem or to fund Envise 2, 3, 4, etc. to change the industry.

The 2017 (Deep learning using nanophotonics) paper predicted that an all optical/photonics implementation of CNN would use 3 orders of magnitude less power for small models and that advantage would only go up for larger models (not counting power for data movement, photo detectors, etc.). Now if that’s truly feasible and maybe it takes a more photonics intensive processor to get there, then photonics technology could truly transform the AI or for that matter the computing industry.

But the other thing that LightIntelligence and LightMatter may be counting on is the slowdown in Moore’s law which may inhibit further advances in electronics processing power. Whether the silicon industry is ready to throw in the towel yet on Moore’s law is TBD.


Photo Credit(s):

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.