Arm AI chips for autonomous vehicles

Arm launches new AI chip for small devices and sensors

Image credit: Arm Holdings

Arm Ltd, the Cambridgeshire-based semiconductor technology firm now owned by Japan’s SoftBank Group, has unveiled a chip technology aimed at putting artificial intelligence (AI) functions on tiny devices, such as sensors, which are designed to detect patterns in human speech or other streams of data.

Arm already provides important chip technology to mobile phone semiconductor suppliers such as Qualcomm and to device designers and manufacturers such as Apple. The company has also been exploring options to diversify its customer base, looking to secure a key role in future technology markets such as self-driving cars and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Arm’s new processor is the Cortex M55, which has been paired with what the company calls its Ethos-U55 "neural processing unit." This chip has been specifically designed with the IoT in mind.

Chips with this technology are scheduled to hit the market in 2021 and have been designed to carry out the advanced mathematics needed by AI software in order to detect vibrations or pick out spoken keywords from a user. The chips are designed to function with very low amounts of electricity. This will allow devices such as sensors to run for years at a time powered by only a small battery and to only connect to the internet when necessary.

Arm executives said that minimising internet connections can help protect user privacy by processing a lot of the data locally and sending only what is needed to remote servers while discarding the rest.

Dipti Vachani, senior vice president and general manager of Arm's automotive and IoT line of business, told Reuters that important areas such as healthcare will require data to be processed locally, with little or none of the results sent back to remote servers. "You may not want that data to move around," Vachani said.

Arm’s new edge technology "is going to give you low-power processing, to process data where it is best suited, where you want to keep that data."

The AI processor announcement follows Arm partnering, in October 2019, with Toyota and GM to make driverless car chips and develop common computing systems for self-driving cars. As part of the Autonomous Vehicle Computing Consortium (AVCC), Arm is also joined by Bosch, Denso, Continental AG, Nvidia and NXP Semiconductors, both of whom already embed Arm technology into their chips.

Earlier in 2019, Arm was obliged to cut ties with Huawei in order to be able to continue operating in the US. Arm told its staff to stop working with the Chinese telecommunications company, following the blacklisting of Huawei by the Trump administration.

SoftBank acquired Arm Holdings - which at the time was Britain’s most successful technology company – in 2016 in a £24bn deal. The deal was branded “one of the largest ever from Asia into the UK” by then-chancellor Philip Hammond. The deal valued Arm at 1,700p per share; a 43 per cent premium on the closing share price of 1,189p in the week before the deal was announced.

Given the huge amounts of money that SoftBank has invested in technology companies in recent years, the company is doubtless keen to identify lucrative new revenue streams – such as with Arm’s new AI processors - especially in light of SoftBank’s overspend on zombie unicorn WeWork and the firm’s potential vulnerability and over-exposure to any collapse in that market.

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