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Microsoft Is Building Its Own AI Hardware With Project Brainwave

Aug 23, 2017

Microsoft outlined on Tuesday the next step in its quest to bring powerful artificial intelligence to market.

Tech giants—namely Microsoft and Google—have been leapfrogging each other, trying to apply AI technologies to a wide range of applications in medicine, computer security, and financial services, among other industries.

Project Brainwave, detailed in a Microsoft Research blog post, builds on the company's previously disclosed field programmable gate array (FPGA) chips, with the goal of making real-time AI processing a reality. These chips are exciting to techies because they are more flexible than the standard central processing unit (CPU) used in traditional servers and PCs— they can be reprogrammed to take on new and different tasks rather than being swapped out for entirely new hardware.

The broader story here is that Microsoft will make services based on these new smart chips available as part of its Azure cloud sometime in the future.

Microsoft (msft) says it is now imbuing deep neural network (DNN) capabilities into those chips. Deep neural network technology is a subset of AI that brings high-level human-like thought processing to computers.

Microsoft is working with Altera, now a unit of Intel, on these chips. Google has been designing its own special AI chips, known as Tensor Processing Units, or TPUs. One potential benefit of Microsoft's Brainwave is that it supports multiple AI frameworks—including Google TensorFlow, which as pointed out by my former Fortune colleague Derrick Harris, Google TPUs support only TensorFlow.

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