Brain-Inspired, Silicon Optimized

Generative AI could enable more productivity and better designs.


The 2024 International Solid State Circuits Conference was held this week in San Francisco. Submissions were up 40% and contributed to the quality of the papers accepted and the presentations given at the conference.

The mood about the future of semiconductor technology was decidedly upbeat with predictions of a $1 trillion industry by 2030 and many expecting that the soaring demand for AI enabling silicon to speed up that timeline.

Dr. Kevin Zhang, Senior Vice President, Business Development and Overseas Operations Office for TSMC, showed the following slide during his opening plenary talk.

Fig. 1: TSMC semiconductor industry revenue forecast to 2030.

The 2030 semiconductor market by platform was broken out as 40% HPC, 30% Mobile, 15% Automotive, 10% IoT and 5% “Others”.

Dr. Zhang also outlined several new generations of transistor technologies, showing that there’s still more improvements to come.

Fig. 2: TSMC transistor architecture projected roadmap.

TSMC’s N2 will be going into production next year and is transitioning TSMC from finFET to nanosheet, and the figure still shows a next step of stacking NMOS and PMOS transistor to get increased density in silicon.

Lip Bu Tan, Chairman, Walden International, also backed up the $1T prediction.

Fig. 3: Walden semiconductor market drivers.

Mr. Tan also referenced an MIT paper from September 2023 titled, “AI Models are devouring energy. Tools to reduce consumption are here, if data centers will adopt.” It states that huge, popular models like ChatGPT signal a trend of large-scale AI, boosting some forecasts that predict data centers could draw up to 21% of the world’s electricity supply by 2030. That’s an astounding over 1/5 of the world’s electricity.

There also appears to be a virtuous cycle of using this new AI technology to create even better computing machines.

Fig. 4: Walden design productivity improvements.

The figure above shows a history of order of magnitude improvements in design productivity to help engineers make use of all the transistors that have been scaling with Moore’s Law. There are also advances in packaging and companies like AMD, Intel and Meta all presented papers of implementations using fine pitch hybrid bonding to build systems with even higher densities. Mr. Tan presented data attributed to predicting that AI will drive a CAGR of 42% in 3D-IC chiplet growth between 2023 and 2033.

Jonah Alben, Senior Vice President of GPU Engineering for NVIDIA, further backed up the claim of generative AI enabling better productivity and better designs. Figure 5 below shows how NVIDIA was able to use their PrefixRL AI system to produce better designs along a whole design curve and stated that this technology was used to design nearly 13,000 circuits in NVIDIA’s Hopper.

There was also a Tuesday night panel session on generative AI for design, and the fairly recent Si Catalyst panel discussion held last November was covered here. This is definitely an area that is growing and gaining momentum.

Fig. 5: NVIDIA example improvements from PrefixRL.

To wrap up, let’s look at some work that’s been reporting best in class performance metrics in terms of efficiency, IBM’s NorthPole. Researchers at IBM published and presented the paper 11.4: “IBM NorthPole: An Architecture for Neural Network Inference with a 12nm Chip.” Last September after HotChips, the article IBM’s Energy-Efficient NorthPole AI Unit included many of the industry competition comparisons, so those won’t be included again here, but we will look at some of the other results that were reported.

The brain-inspired research team has been working for over a decade at IBM. In fact, in October 2014 their earlier spike-based research was reported in the article Brain-Inspired Power. Like many so-called asynchronous approaches, the information and communication overhead for the spikes meant that the energy efficiency didn’t pan out and the team re-thought how to best incorporate brain model concepts into silicon, hence the brain-inspired, silicon optimized tag line.

NorthPole makes use of what IBM refers to as near memory compute. As pointed out and shown here, the memory is tightly integrated with the compute blocks, which reduces how far data must travel and saves energy. As shown in figure 6, for ResNet-50 NorthPole is most efficient running at approximately 680mV and approximately 200MHz (in 12nm FinFET technology). This yields an energy metric of ~1100 frames/joule (equivalently fps/W).

Fig. 6: NorthPole voltage/frequency scaling results for ResNet-50.

To optimize the communication for NorthPole, IBM created 4 NoCs:

  • Partial Sum NoC (PSNoC) communicates within a layer – for spatial computing
  • Activation NoC (ANoC) reorganizes activations between layers
  • Model NoC (MNoC) delivers weights during layer execution
  • Instruction NoC (INoC) delivers the program for each layer prior to layer start

The Instruction and Model NoCs share the same architecture. The protocols are full-custom and optimized for 0 stall cycles and are 2-D meshes. The PSNoC is communicating across short distances and could be said to be NoC-ish. The ANoC is again its own custom protocol implementation. Along with using software to compile executables that are fully deterministic and perform no speculation and optimize the bit width of computations between 8-, 4- and 2-bit calculations, this all leads to a very efficient implementation.

Fig. 7: NorthPole exploded view of PCIe assembly.

IBM had a demonstration of NorthPole running at ISSCC. The unit is well designed for server use and the team is looking forward to the possibility of implementing NorthPole in a more advanced technology node. My thanks to John Arthur from IBM for taking some time to discuss NorthPole.

Leave a Reply

(Note: This name will be displayed publicly)