September 21, 2023
SHANGHAI – Top Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou has thrown down the gauntlet on artificial intelligence (AI), declaring on Wednesday that the telecommunications giant will go big on the emerging field by “building a solid computing base for China – and a second option for the world”.
Fresh from a breakthrough in its smartphone business, Huawei announced an upgraded supercomputer designed to crunch large amounts of data – pitting it against American market leader Nvidia, which has made record profits after the recent boom in generative AI applications such as ChatGPT.
Computing power is a key driver in the development of AI, noted Ms Meng – Huawei’s chief financial officer and daughter of co-founder Ren Zhengfei – as she laid out the company’s AI strategy at a major business conference in Shanghai it is hosting for industry players.
The scarcity and cost of computing power has become the core factors restricting AI development, she said in an apparent reference to the United States’ restrictions on the export of top-end Nvidia chips used for AI and data centre applications to China.
“Huawei is committed to building a solid computing power base in China – and a second option for the world,” she said.
Huawei – one of the firms at the centre of the technological competition between the US and China – came back under US lawmakers’ scrutiny in late August when it released its flagship Mate 60 Pro smartphone with home-grown technologies, marking a breakthrough in China’s chip manufacturing capabilities.
An advanced chip made with 7-nanometre technology was found in teardowns of the phone, which triggered debate about the effectiveness of the US tech sanctions, the capabilities of China’s semiconductor industry, and whether Huawei’s dented smartphone business could be revived.
The US Commerce Department first blacklisted Huawei in May 2019 over national security concerns, restricting US suppliers from doing business with the firm. Ms Meng was embroiled in a three-year saga that strained US-China relations when she was arrested over US bank fraud and other charges.
At the Shanghai event, Huawei’s board executive director Wang Tao touted the computing power and reliability of the Atlas 900 SuperCluster.
The company is betting on the supercomputer to provide the massive amounts of computing power needed to train foundation models for different industries. Foundation models are AI models trained on large quantities of data, and they are key to generative AI capabilities such as text, music and images.
Mr Wang said Huawei’s aim was to “help all industries go intelligent, and help them do it faster”.
Asked for his views on Huawei’s AI hardware announcements, Mr Eric Hanselman, chief analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence, said Huawei has had experience with AI development even before the current boom in generative AI.
“As a leading equipment manufacturer, Huawei has the tools to create training environments like the Atlas that can meet this exploding demand for training requirements,” said Mr Hanselman, who attended the Huawei event.
Mr Manoj Harjani, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said Huawei’s renewed focus on AI should not come as a surprise, as China has for some time identified AI as a key technology area it wants to develop capabilities in.
“However, a more careful technical assessment is needed before we jump to conclusions about the actual state of China’s chip and AI capabilities. What is clear is that China has a goal and strategy in place, and is making a concerted effort to address bottlenecks,” he said.
More attention may yet be drawn to China’s chip capabilities. Huawei has announced a Sept 25 launch event where it is expected to reveal more about its latest smartphones – with the date marking the second anniversary of Ms Meng’s return to China after her charges in the US were dismissed.