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Graphcore – designing chips for an AI-first world

We spoke to Nigel Toon,  CEO of Graphcore – a Bristol  business which brings Brunel  spirit to a modern problem.

It all started at the Marlborough Tavern in Bath when Graphcore co-founders Nigel Toon and Simon Knowles met and discussed the future of AI eight years ago. From such humble beginnings, the business has grown into one which is laying the foundations for where AI, and the human race as a whole, is going to go.

The world now relies on computers, through AI, to solve complex problems that would be impossible for humans to even approach. Once the world has returned to the ‘new normal’, it is this technology that will play a major role in the recovery and return to long-term growth. But machine learning, the basis of any current AI system, requires the processing of huge amounts of data; in turn necessitating computing power which, when Nigel and Simon first came up with the idea for Graphcore eight years ago, simply wasn’t available.

So Graphcore stepped in. Beginning the Graphcore ‘project’ in stealth mode back in 2013, Nigel and Simon built the best team capable of rethinking processors and have now created the first chip specifically designed for AI and the workloads required to make machine learning work.

What Nigel and the team at Graphcore call their Intelligence Processing Unit, or IPU for short, is completely different from any CPU or GPU you might find in even a high-end PC and will allow innovators to make the next big breakthroughs in machine intelligence.

For those of you who understand the technology involved, Nigel explains that machine learning “requires chips to excel in a number of areas, including low latency, and the ability to handle sparsity, meaning you might have large amounts of data points but not all of them need to be computed. Our IPU processor is designed to do all of those things really well – and as a result users are seeing great gains in performance and efficiency”.

This breakthrough in processing technology has drawn the attention of some serious players, too. Graphcore has gained investment from household names such as Dell, Bosch, and Samsung, as well as having seen their chips implemented in the Microsoft Azure cloud for innovators to use in their AI projects (Microsoft being another investor in the technology).

As awareness of the sector grew, so did their interest… In the meantime, we were able to build a team of around 40 of the best silicon and software engineers in the world

Graphcore’s technology wasn’t always this well-known, but that made finding the right people all the more important. “In the very early days, many investors were sceptical about the value of an AI hardware business”, Nigel says, “but as awareness of the sector grew, so did their interest… In the meantime, we were able to build a team of around 40 of the best silicon and software engineers in the world”.

“We hire exceptional people with different skills, backgrounds and experiences, many at the very top of their field, and try to find a balance of freedom and responsibility for our team”, Nigel says when asked about his business’s culture, which has helped them weather the current crisis well. “We think that exceptional people deserve the best we can provide. So Graphcore employees have the freedom to make choices that work for them in terms of flexible working arrangements, which has made the shift to remote working much easier”.

The current coronavirus crisis aside, Nigel still has big plans for 2020. “We are continuing to nurture our relationships with customers, partners and academia in order to build a wider ecosystem of AI innovators with IPU access. There will be many more partnership announcements from Graphcore this year, as global expansion and market growth will really be a key focus for us”.

In a new world of remote working where data and computing are more important than ever before, Nigel’s drive to help innovators who are held back by hardware will surely place Graphcore’s technology at the heart of a revolution in how the world works.


Read more from this edition of Ahead of the Curve

Table of contents

Feature one:

Practical Futurist Andrew Gril looks at the new normal and how technology can be used to effect lasting change as we return to work.


Feature two:

The challenge for restaurants has rarely been greater; with the rise of app based delivery services and now coronavirus, how can the leisure and hospitality sector adapt to survive?


Feature three:

How is the new normal going to impact on how and where we work. Our real estate team looks at how the new role of the new office is having to change at a rapid pace.


Feature four:

Our regular feature looks at the workforce of the future. How has the coronavirus lockdown impacted on how we all work? And what will this look like going forward?


Feature six:

The housing market has been severely hit by the lockdown with sever restrictions on house viewings. But now things have started to free up, how can the industry future-proof itself?


Feature seven:

The health and social care sector has been at the epicentre of the coronavurus pandemic. Will this solution keep residents safe, whilst managing their need for social interaction?


Feature eight:

Video conferencing has been one of the heroes of lockdown. From social quizzes to board meetings – but people who have experienced a brain injury may find VC challenging…


Feature nine:

The book review – The new long life. Our regular book review feature, this time we look at The New Long Life, a book that looks at the challenges and opportunities of longevity.


Feature ten:

Coronavirus has moved the concept of climate away from the front and centre of many peoples minds, but should we be taking this opportunity build back a greener future?


Feature eleven:

In our regular feature Leading Edge, a selected charity is offered exclusive access to the back page of our magazine, this month it is CESA, the cauda equina syndrome charity.

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