In a hi-tech lab in Seattle, a robot called Isaac has been helping researchers make remarkable breakthroughs in machine learning.
Built by Nvidia engineers at its 50-person facility, Isaac uses advanced computer vision to see the world and complete difficult tasks, such as cooking a meal in the lab kitchen.
The technology may sound frivolous, but it is just one example of the $300bn (£231bn) US graphics chip company’s aggressive research and development agenda in artificial intelligence and robotics.
As part of its $40bn takeover of Britain’s Arm, Nvidia has laid out its plans for another research laboratory, this time an artificial intelligence lab and world-leading supercomputer in Cambridge.
The company’s 57-year-old founder, Jensen Huang, now faces 18 months of convincing politicians, regulators and Cambridge’s local MP of his grand vision for the city that Arm has called home for 30 years.
“Anyone who is going through a deal like this is going to say these kinds of things,” says Daniel Zeichner, Labour MP for Cambridge. “But they are just aspirations. The Government does not seem to have a grip on it.”
Arm, a highly strategic company that designs microprocessors used in billions of smartphones, has long been regarded as the crown jewel of the UK technology industry. Last week, the Prime Minister’s office said the deal’s impact on Cambridge, one of Britain’s brightest innovation hubs, would be “scrutinised in close detail”.
According to Tech Nation, around 36,000 people are employed in technology jobs in Cambridge and its surrounding “Silicon Fen”, so called after the area’s wetlands. A number of those jobs have been created thanks to graduates and entrepreneurs who cut their teeth at Arm, while many directors and angel investors were employees at its predecessor company, Acorn Computers, in the Nineties.
“We have previously had tech companies that have come and gone, but Arm has had an enormous effect on the whole tech cluster around Cambridge,” says Prof Ross Anderson, a computer science expert at Cambridge University.
“Right now, so much oomph in the British economy is around tech, and Cambridge provides the tools for chips. If Boris is serious about industrial policy he should be serious about keeping Arm in Britain.”
The Cambridge cluster is seen as being responsible for a host of up-and-coming start-ups. These include the likes of Agile Analog, a chip start-up founded by ex-Arm employees. Karakuri is another start-up founded by Barney Wragg, an ex-Arm employee, that is building a robot chef. Arm employees populate other fast-growing tech start-ups, such as Graphcore, Bristol’s $2bn AI chip company.
Cambridge has proven it has the talent to create world-class technology companies, but it hasn’t historically been good at maintaining their independence. Huang insists that this time will be different. He says it would be impossible for his company to replicate the group of Arm scientists based in Cambridge anywhere else in the world.
He claims he wants to double down on investment in Cambridge. Nvidia will build an artificial intelligence research centre in the city and a giant supercomputer, a “Hadron collider or Hubble telescope” for AI.
The Silicon Valley company, whose own headquarters resemble a UFO-like base in Santa Clara, will open the centre in the heart of a city “once home to giants like Isaac Newton and Alan Turing”.
“We’re going to leverage that [for] one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers,” says Simon Segars, Arm’s chief executive. “That’s going to create a magnet for researchers around the world.”
Arm already has a sizeable Cambridge base and more than 2,500 UK staff. It has been putting the finishing touches on a glossy new campus at its headquarters in Cherry Hinton, a village on the outskirts of the city, quite an upgrade from the dilapidated barn that was Arm’s original HQ back in 1990. Nvidia claims this will be augmented with a Cambridge research partnership.
The US tech giant will also expand its Deep Learning Institute, an academy for students hoping to learn about AI, with a centre in Cambridge. The Deep Learning Institute’s curriculum is set to be available to students across the UK, helping them gain skills in AI.
The company also plans to grow its start-up accelerator programme, which currently has around 400 UK members. Its investor presentation suggests it will be able to provide huge financial firepower to invest in AI.
Nvidia, whose shares have surged this year, claims it spends 24pc of its revenue on R&D and has a $3.5bn research budget at its disposal, versus around $500m Arm would have on its own.
“We are ambitious. We can’t wait to build on the foundations created by the talented minds of Nvidia and Arm to make Cambridge the next great AI centre for the world,” Nvidia says.
Some UK computer scientists believe this could provide a much-needed boost to the UK’s technology prospects. “US corporations tend to be very protective of their IP,” says Prof Alan Woodward, a computer science expert at the University of Surrey.
“But the fact they will invest in a UK research facility can only be a good thing.” Prof Woodward says Nvidia’s graphics chips and Arm’s microprocessor designs would be well paired for powerful applications in supercomputers. Both have “scalability”, he says.
“With Arm you can just rack it up. Arm’s architecture and Nvidia’s technology lend themselves to that.”
An Arm supercomputer in Japan, Fugaku, is now the world’s fastest. Nvidia, meanwhile, assembled the world’s seventh fastest, Selene, in just three weeks, comprising more than 2,000 GPUs. Such supercomputers are capable of crunching huge volumes of data, to solve problems as diverse as climate change to drug discovery.
There remain doubters. “I have a sinking feeling about the huge complex they have in Cherry Hinton,” says Prof Anderson.
But the investment may just help breathe new life into the city. “It is a constant source of discussion in Cambridge – how do we build fantastic companies like Arm?” adds Zeichner. “It is not as if Johnson and Cummings are not interested in this stuff, it is supposed to be their raison d’être.”