Cambricon Technology CEO Chen Tianshi holds up his company's AI processors. Photo: Sun Zifa/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

After decades of dominance by a few key players, the semiconductor race has been blown wide open. The shift is driven partly by a new demand for AI-specific chips, according to a report from Andy Patrizio in Ars Technica.

Why it matters: There's a lot of new money pouring into a lucrative sector, setting up an explosion of new players — and another venue for the AI arms race between the US and China.

The backdrop: Until fairly recently, the desktop and mobile semiconductor markets were unipolar, ruled by Intel and ARM, respectively. Several changes blew the lid off the industry, Ars reports, but the rise of computing-intensive AI has led to the biggest proliferation of new technologies from both established companies and new players.

The old guard:

  • IBM released an AI processor last year that plays nice with hardware from Nvidia, a company whose GPUs have long been popular in machine-learning circles, along with its newer AI-specific processors.
  • Intel has bought up companies to speed its AI chip development, and offers a whole family of AI chips for various uses.
  • Two processors from ARM are specifically designed for image recognition.

The upstarts:

  • Tech companies not known for semiconductors — Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and even Tesla — are building AI-specific processors to use in their own hardware.
  • Dozens of startups are getting into the game, according to NYT.
  • China's big three tech companies — Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent — have released or are developing similar tech. Baidu announced an AI-specific processor called Kunlun last week, while Alibaba and Tencent are deploying AI processing capabilities in their cloud platforms.
People see a gold rush; there’s no doubt.
— Brad McCredie, VP of IBM Power systems development, to Ars Technica

Why now? Specialized tasks like machine learning benefit from tailored chips that do one thing well — and efficiently — rather than many things more slowly, Patrizio writes. Different types of machine learning benefit from different chip architectures, opening up a whole range of new needs.

What's next: Many of the chips being developed will never see the light of day, either because they're being made for companies' internal use, or because they'll quickly be bulldozed by the considerable competition. But there's a hefty prize in store for the winners.

Go deeper: Nerd out on the gory details at Ars Technica

More from Axios:

Go deeper

Updated 12 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Politics: The swing states where the pandemic is raging — Pence no longer expected to attend Barrett confirmation vote after COVID exposure.
  2. Health: 13 states set single-day case records last week
  3. Business: Where stimulus is needed most.
  4. Education: The dangerous instability of school re-openings.
  5. States: Nearly two dozen Minnesota COVID cases traced to 3 Trump campaign events
  6. World: Restrictions grow across Europe.
  7. Media: Fox News president and several hosts advised to quarantine.

Republicans and Dems react to Coney Barrett's Supreme Court confirmation

President Trump stands with Judge Amy Coney Barrett after she took the constitutional oath to serve as a Supreme Court justice during a White House ceremony Monday night .Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

President Trump said Judge Amy Coney Barrett's Senate confirmation to the Supreme Court and her subsequent taking of the constitutional oath Monday was a "momentous day," as she she vowed to serve "without any fear or favour."

  • But as Republicans applauded the third conservative justice in four years, many Democrats including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) warned of consequences to the rush to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ahead of the Nov. 3 election, with progressives leading calls to expand the court.
Ina Fried, author of Login
54 mins ago - Science

CRISPR pioneer: "Science is on the ballot" in 2020

Photo: "Axios on HBO"

In her three decades in science, Jennifer Doudna said she has seen a gradual erosion of trust in the profession, but the recent Nobel Prize winner told "Axios on HBO" that the institution itself has been under assault from the current administration.

  • "I think science is on the ballot," Doudna said in the interview.

Why it matters: That has manifested itself in everything from how the federal government approaches climate change to the pandemic.