Baidu ‘Turns To Huawei’ For AI Chips

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Baidu reportedly begins ordering AI chips from Huawei, as US export controls stimulate Chinese manufacturers to new advances

Chinsese tech giant Baidu has reportedly begun buying chips for AI development from Huawei this year, in a move that indicates how US sanctions are stimulating the Chinese semiconductor industry to develop alternatives to processors from Nvidia and other prohibited chip technologies.

Baidu placed an order from Huawei in August for 1,600 of Huawei’s 910B Ascend AI chips, which the company developed as an alternative to Nvidia’s A100 chip, Reuters reported, citing two unnamed sources.

The processors were intended to outfit 200 servers and by October Huawei had delivered more than 60 percent of the order, or about 1,000 chips, the report said.

The order was valued in all at about 450 million yuan ($62m, £50m) and Huawei was reportedly to complete delivery by the end of this year.

Baidu chief executive Robin Li speaks at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in July 2021. Image credit: Baidu
Baidu chief executive Robin Li speaks at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in July 2021. Image credit: Baidu

AI chip ban

The order is small compared to the thousands of chips Chinese companies have in the past ordered from Nvidia.

But it is significant in that Chinese firms may be beginning to see domestic chips as a viable alternative to Nvidia’s chips.

Baidu, which operates the Ernie AI chatbot that competes with OpenAI’s ChatGPT, has been a long-standing customer of Nvidia and is not known to have previously bought AI chips from Huawei.

Huawei placed the order in anticipation of new US sanctions that could have further restricted the supply of Nvidia chips to China, Reuters’ source said.

Domestic alternative

The US in fact introduced new sactions in October prohibiting Nvidia from selling its A800 and H800 chips to Chinese customers.

Those two chips were specifically designed to comply with an earlier round of sanctions in October 2022 that banned the sale of Nvidia’s top-of-the-line A100 and H100 chips to China.

One of Reuters’ sources said that while Huawei’s chips are far inferior to Nvidia’s, they are considered the most advanced domestic option available in China.

Baidu has also developed its own Kunlun AI chip but has mainly used Nvidia’s A100 chips to train its AI models.

Chip advances

Huawei earlier this year introduced a new smartphone that included a domestically produced 5G chip, apparently developed in spite of US export controls on chip manufacturing equipment that were expressly designed to prevent Chinese firms from being able to make such chips.

And in October Yangtze Memory Technologies Co (YMTC), China’s leading memory producer, was found to have manufactured the “world’s most advanced” 3D NAND memory chip known to be in a consumer device, in a “surprise technology leap”, according to analysts TechInsights.

YMTC and Huawei are both on the US Entity List blacklist, preventing them from buying US technology without a licence.