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SambaNova raises $650M to mass-produce AI training and inference chips

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SambaNova

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SambaNova Systems, a startup developing chips for AI workloads, today announced it has raised $650 million, valuing the company at more than $5 billion post-money. SambaNova says it plans to expand its customer base — particularly in the datacenter market — as it becomes one of the most capitalized AI companies in the world with over $1 billion raised.

AI accelerators are a type of specialized hardware designed to speed up AI applications such as neural networks, deep learning, and various forms of machine learning. They focus on low-precision arithmetic or in-memory computing, which can boost the performance of large AI algorithms and lead to state-of-the-art results in natural language processing, computer vision, and other domains. That’s perhaps why they’re forecast to have a growing share of edge computing processing power, making up a projected 70% of it by 2025, according to a recent survey by Statista.

SambaNova occupies a cottage industry of startups whose focus is developing infrastructure to handle AI workloads. The Palo Alto, California-based firm, which was founded in 2017 by Oracle and Sun Microsystems veteran Rodrigo Liang and Stanford professors Kunle Olukotun and Chris Ré, provides systems that run AI and data-intensive apps from the datacenter to the edge.

Olukotun, who recently received the IEEE Computer Society’s Harry H. Goode Memorial Award, is leader of the Stanford Hydra Chip Multiprocessor research project, which produced a chip design that pairs four specialized processors and their caches with a shared secondary cache. Ré, an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at Stanford University’s InfoLab, is a MacArthur genius award recipient who’s also affiliated with the Statistical Machine Learning Group, Pervasive Parallelism Lab, and Stanford AI Lab.

SambaNova’s AI chips — and its customers, for that matter — remain largely under lock and key. But the company previously revealed it is developing “software-defined” devices inspired by DARPA-funded research in efficient AI processing. Leveraging a combination of algorithmic optimizations and custom board-based hardware, SambaNova claims it’s able to dramatically improve the performance and capability of most AI-imbued apps.

SambaNova’s 40-billion-transistor Cardinal SN10 RDU (Reconfigurable Dataflow Unit), which is built on TSMC’s N7 process, consists of an array of reconfigurable nodes for data, storage, and switching. It’s designed to perform in-the-loop training and allow for model reclassification and optimization on the fly during inference-with-training workloads. Each Cardinal chip has six controllers for memory, enabling 153 GB/s bandwidth, and the eight chips are connected in an all-to-all configuration. This last bit is made possible by a switching network that allows the chips to scale.

SambaNova isn’t selling Cardinal on its own, but rather as a solution to be installed in a datacenter. The basic unit of SambaNova’s offering is called the DataScale SN10-8R, featuring an AMD processor paired with eight Cardinal chips and 12 terabytes of DDR4 memory, or 1.5 TB per Cardinal. SambaNova says it will customize its products based on customers’ needs, with a default set of networking and management features that SambaNova can remotely manage.

The large memory capacity ostensibly gives the SN10-8R a leg up on rival hardware like Nvidia’s V100. As SambaNova VP of product Marshall Choy told the Next Platform, the Cardinal’s reconfigurable architecture can eliminate the need for things like downsampling high-resolution images to low resolution for training and inference, preserving information in the original image. The result is the ability to train models with arguably higher overall quality while eliminating the need for additional labeling.

On the software side of the equation, SambaNova has its own graph optimizer and compiler, letting customers using machine learning frameworks like PyTorch and TensorFlow have their workloads recompiled for Cardinal. The company aims to support natural language, computer vision, and recommender models containing over 100 billion parameters — the parts of the model learned from historical training data — as well as a larger memory footprint allowing for hardware utilization and greater accuracy.

SambaNova has competition in a market that’s anticipated to reach $91.18 billion by 2025. Hailo, a startup developing hardware to speed up AI inferencing at the edge, in March 2020 nabbed $60 million in venture capital. California-based Mythic has raised $85.2 million to develop custom in-memory compute architecture. Graphcore, a Bristol, U.K.-based startup creating chips and systems to accelerate AI workloads, has a war chest in the hundreds of millions of dollars. And Baidu’s growing AI chip unit was recently valued at $2 billion after funding.

SambaNova

But SambaNova says the first generation of Cardinal taped out in spring 2019, with the first samples of silicon already in customers’ servers. In fact, SambaNova had been selling to customers for over a year before this point — the only public versions are from the Department of Energy at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos. Lawrence Livermore integrated one of SambaNova’s systems with its Corona supercomputing cluster, primarily used for simulations of various physics phenomena.

SambaNova is also the beneficiary of a market that’s seeing unprecedented — and sustained — customer demand. Surges in car and electronics purchasing at the start of the pandemic have exacerbated a growing microchip shortage. In response, U.S. President Joe Biden recently committed $180 billion to R&D for advanced computing, as well as specialized semiconductor manufacturing for AI and quantum computing, all of which have become central to the country’s national tech strategy.

“We began shipping product during the pandemic and saw an acceleration of business and adoption relative to expectations,” a spokesperson told VentureBeat via email. “COVID-19 also brought a silver lining in that it has generated new use cases for us. Our tech is being used by customers for COVID-19 therapeutic and anti-viral compound research and discovery.”

According to Bronis de Supinski, chief technology officer at Lawrence Livermore, SambaNova’s platform is being used to explore a technique called cognitive simulation, where AI is used to accelerate processing of portions of simulations. He claims a roughly 5 times improvement compared with GPUs running the same models.

Along with the new SN10-8R product, SambaNova is set to offer two cloud-like service options: The first — SambaNova AI Platform — is a free-to-use developer cloud for research institutions with compute access to the hardware. The second — DataFlow as a Service — is for business customers that want the flexibility of the cloud without paying for the hardware. In both cases, SambaNova will handle management and updates.

Softbank led SambaNova’s latest funding round, a series D. The company, which has over 300 employees, previously closed a $250 million series C round led by BlackRock and preceded by a $150 million series B spearheaded by Intel Capital.

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Nintendo has some intriguing indie games to fill out the Switch’s future lineup

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Nintendo has some intriguing indie games to fill out the Switch's future lineup

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OK, I admit that I’m a little bummed that we didn’t see an update on Hollow Knight: Silksong during today’s Nintendo Indie World event. But we got enough other cool looking games that I’m not too upset.

Nintendo has done a great job showcasing indies on Switch during the console’s first four years. Along with those awesome Nintendo first-party games, it has really been these smaller digital titles that have kept the Switch’s library looking so attractive. And today, we saw some that I imagine many of us are going to want to download.

Play them soon

A few of them are even coming out later today. The Longing jumped out at me with its moody, hand-drawn art. It also looks like an adventure game of sorts, which sings to this old LucasArts fan. There Is No Game: Wrong Dimension is also coming out later today, somehow looking even weirder than The Longing. It gives me some WarioWare vibes. It looks like you’re playing snippets of minigames.

Above: There Is No Game.

Image Credit: Nintendo

Fez is also heading to Switch later today. This is a classic indie game that should appeal to anyone who enjoys 2D platformers with a heavy emphasis on puzzle-solving. As the Switch continues to become such an indie-focused machine, it’s important to get classics like Fez on the console.

Look at all these games

I also saw a few action games that look intriguing. Skul: The Hero Slayer is a 2D roguelite that gives me a bit of a Dead Cells impression, both because of its pixel art and its fast-paced 2D fighting. Then there’s Aztech: Forgotten Gods, a 3D action game! You don’t often see the indies take on that genre, and its Mesoamerican aesthetic helps it stand out from all the fantasy and sci-fi stuff that we usually see.

aztech

Above: Aztech: Forgotten Gods.

Image Credit: Nintendo

Nintendo also showed off some neat games that focus on story, like Road 96. This one is about a teenager going on a road trip, and its procedural story should make for a lot of replayability. Nintendo closed the show with Oxenfree II: Lost Signals, a sequel to one of the better-liked indie games ever. I was also impressed by Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield, an auto-runner set in a Tokyo-Detroit mashup.

It was an impressive showcase. I know that some Nintendo fans have been worried that 2021 would be a quiet year for the Switch. That may be true when it comes to Nintendo first-party games, but these indies should help keep the system relevant for a lot of players while they wait Breath of the Wild 2.

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USC Games Expo will highlight 70 student games on May 15

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Danny Bilson is head of USC Gam,es.

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The USC Games Expo will debut more than 70 student-made games at noon Pacific on May 15 in a livestreamed online-only event.

The event for the University of Southern California’s video game program will feature returning host Geoff Keighley, creator of The Game Awards. Long-term partner Jam City returns as well. The USC Games program is rated as the top undergraduate game school in the country by The Princeton Review.

The event will be the second time it has been held in an online-only format because of the pandemic. The 70 games are up from 50 a year ago. They’re from students teams who worked remotely and were distributed across the globe.

Continuing the “global” theme, an additional live encore of the expo will stream that evening Pacific time to coincide with daytime in Asia. All interested attendees can register on uscgamesexpo.com for event updates, with North America attendees who RSVP eligible to win prizes, including game codes, during the stream itself.

Above: Danny Bilson is head of USC Games.

Image Credit: USC

This is the fifth year USC Games has held an expo, which covers the video game development programs offered by USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering and the USC School of Cinematic Arts. The Expo will also feature the first hands-on for the 10 projects being developed in its capstone course, the Advanced Games Program (AGP).

The 10 games from the AGP class are:

  • Beat the Beat Up (Oculus VR) — A VR action/rhythm game where you fight to the beat as the star of your own Bollywood blockbuster. The neighborhood Don has sent out his goons to terrorize the locals, and you are the only one that can stop them. You have to impress the critics, including one voiced by Bollywood star Abhay Deol (Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Dev.D, Happy Bhag Jayegi). If you rack up your score and clear the streets, you can save the village.
  • Corporate Clash (Mobile IOS/Android) — You can become the richest CEO of 2250. Corporate Clash is a casual mobile strategy game where players are the CEO of a futuristic company that makes widgets for robot consumers. You have to deal with the twists and turns thrown at you by your factory, employees, investors and other demanding groups. Pollute to cut costs but irk environmentalists, or raise prices and upset your customers?
  • Crescendo (PC) — Crescendo is a 2D combat action game where you conduct a musical world through your actions. Travel through an eerie fairy tale setting with music and battle the monstrous personifications of an orchestra.
  • Detour Bus (SteamVR, Oculus Rift/Link) — Detour Bus is a VR construction-comedy game where players build winding highways around themselves to take the Flowers family on a psychedelic road trip across post-infrastructure America. Snap together random road pieces to traverse groovy landscapes, avoid hazardous obstacles, and prevent corrupt Senator Joseph McCarthief from turning all freeways into pay-to-drive tunnels.
  • Larger Than Light (PC) — Traverse shadows by manipulating light in the 2.5D puzzle platform game, Larger Than Light. Escape a haunted school as the sibling duo: Skia the shadow, who can move across other shadows on the wall, and Lux the lightbulb, who can manipulate the size and placement of shadows for his younger sister to platform across. A single player will control both characters, getting them to work together to break away from the otherworldly force trapping them in their school while overcoming their bitter sibling rivalry.
  • Leechbug (PC) — Leechbug is a real-time strategy combat game where players take on the role of the Leechbug, a robotic symbiotic parasite who exists in an alien seascape. Your home is under threat from a polluting force that’s also sapping the will of your fellow undersea denizens. You have to use your powers of possession to free your friends, control their unique abilities synergistically to engage in combat, and reach the surface of the ocean to rescue your underwater world.
  • Pelota (PC) — Pelota is an action-packed online sports game for 2-to-4 players that brings an ancient sport into the interactive medium. Players will be immersed in a Mesoamerican setting as they master the game’s novel physics-based mechanics to get the game ball through a vertical hoop, using everything they have — except their hands — in order to win the favor of the gods.
  • Snowshoe Thompson (PC) — Explore the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains in The Trials of Snowshoe Thompson, a skiing expedition game set in the 19th century about an immigrant traversing the elements and laying the groundwork for what would become the U.S. Postal Service. During 1856, Snowshoe Thompson sets out to aid his new community as a mailman cross-country skiing across the Sierra Nevada mountain range, connecting the wild west with the wider world.
  • Sweeping the Ruins (PC) — Sweeping the Ruins is a two-player co-op strategy and combat game that let’s players engage in asymmetrical combat with an overpowered behemoth inside a dark and deep dungeon. Armed with no weaponry, two players will rely on their wits and use environmental traps to work in tandem to take down the beast. Players will need strategic coordination, situational awareness and teamwork to defeat the massive enemy and prevent the destruction of their nearby homeland.
  • Wheelin’ & Mealin’ (PC) — Wheelin’ and Mealin’ is a two-player co-op driving-and-cooking game that blends tooling around a bright, colorful cityscape and cooking fantastical dishes. Players can maneuver a souped-up race car and immerse themselves around a fantastical city to create crazy dishes that satisfy their customers in order to rise to the top of the restaurant world.

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Nvidia forms Inception VC Alliance to connect AI startups with venture capital

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Nvidia forms Inception VC Alliance to connect AI startups with venture capital

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Nvidia has formed its Inception VC Alliance to connect AI startups with venture capital. The move will help connect more than 7,500 startups in the company’s Inception program for AI tech with venture capital firms.

Jeff Herbst, vice president of business development and head of Inception at Nvidia, unveiled the alliance today at the AI Day for VCs event during Nvidia’s annual GTC 21 conference. Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang unveiled the company’s latest products on Monday in a keynote speech where he talked about the company’s new Grace central processing unit (CPU).

“We always felt a very strong connection to the ecosystem. We give them technology, we introduce them to our 150 different software development kits, we give them joint marketing, we introduce them to investors,” Herbst said in an interview with VentureBeat. “We give them Cloud Credits. We give them discounts for GPUs.”

Above: Nvidia’s Jeff Herbst (top left) leads a panel on AI startups at GTC 21.

Image Credit: Nvidia

AI adoption is growing across industries, and startup funding has been booming. Investment in AI companies increased 52% last year to $52.1 billion, according to PitchBook. The Inception AI startups are up 9 times from 2016, Herbst said.

The alliance aims to help investment firms identify and support leading AI startups early, as part of their effort to realize meaningful returns down the line. The goal is to educate VCs about AI opportunities and nurture startups, Herbst said.

inception 2

Above: Inception has more than 7,500 AI startups.

Image Credit: Nvidia

“AI is growing like a weed. We’re over 7500 companies, and it’s not going to be long before we’ve doubled that,” he said. “The ecosystem is clearly exploding. And VCs are a super important part of it. Startups need VCs, and VCs need startups. It’s just that simple fuel for startups to grow. We have thousands of VCs that are already part of our ecosystem, but we’ve never formalized the partnership with them until now.”

Founding members of the alliance include venture firms NEA, Acrew, Mayfield, Madrona Venture Group, In-Q-Tel, Pitango, Vanedge Capital, and Our Crowd. More VCs can apply here.

nvidia panel 2

Above: Nvidia’s Inception AI startups by industry.

Image Credit: Nvidia

The Nvidia Inception VC Alliance is part of the Nvidia Inception program, an acceleration platform for startups working in AI, data science, and HPC. These startups represent every major industry and are located in more than 90 countries.

Among its benefits, the alliance offers VCs exclusive access to high-profile events, visibility into top startups actively raising funds, and access to growth resources for portfolio companies.

“It’s both a corporate goal and a personal goal to extend this ecosystem around the world,” Herbst said.

nvidia panel 3

Above: Nvidia’s Inception AI startups are from the green countries.

Image Credit: Nvidia

Nvidia currently counts about 40 companies it has invested in directly. Around 300 Inception companies are making presentations at the GTC 21 event, which is expected to have an online audience of about 150,000. And around 35 of the startups are in emerging markets, Herbst said.

“Is there parity in the world with AI startups? No,” Lopez Research analyst Maribel Lopez said on the panel. “Do we have a long way to go? Yes. But I’m seeing exciting things like Cuda, a fintech startup in microfinance in Africa.”

These startups are using AI for a wide range of tasks, like figuring out what percentage of fisheries in the world are operating illegally.

“Now that Jensen has shown the roadmap, people know that Nvidia is a complete platform, with CPUs, GPUs, DPUs, and everything that enables these startups to do their life’s work.”

nvidia panel 4

Above: Nvidia’s Inception AI startups over the years.

Image Credit: Nvidia

On Monday, Herbst moderated a panel on investing in startups around the globe and the need to create a more diverse ecosystem for entrepreneurs. He estimated there are 12,000 to 15,000 AI startups around the world and said Nvidia is only in touch with about half of them through Inception.

“It’s an open invitation to join our ecosystem,” Herbst said. “Nvidia loves startups.”

Herbst said about 16% of Inception members are part of the health care industry. Growth areas include robotics, self-driving cars and trucks, and data science.

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