Canaan's Kendryte K210 and the Future of Machine Learning
Canaan’s CEO discusses how the company’s AI-powered chip is powering the company--and the industry--into fast forward.
Canaan Inc. (Nasdaq: CAN) became publicly traded in New York in late November. It raised $90 million in its IPO, which Canaan's founder, chairman, and chief executive officer, Nangeng Zhang modestly called "a good start." Since that time, the company has met significant milestones in its mission to disrupt the supercomputing industry.
Operating since 2013, Hangzhou-based Canaan delivers supercomputing solutions tailored to client needs. The company focuses on the research and development of artificial intelligence (AI) technology – specifically, AI chips, AI algorithms, AI architectures, system on a chip (SoC) integration, and chip integration. Canaan is also known as a top manufacturer of mining hardware in China – the global leader in digital currency mining.
Since IPO, Canaan has made strides in accomplishing new projects, despite the hard-hit cross-industry crisis Covid-19 has caused worldwide. In a recent announcement, Canaan said it has developed a SaaS product which its partners can use to operate a cloud mining platform. Cloud mining allows users to mine digital currency without having to buy and maintain mining hardware and spend on electricity – a trend that has been gaining popularity.
A Chip of the Future
Earlier this year, Canaan participated at the 2020 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the world's largest tech show that attracts innovators from across the globe. Canaan impressed, showcasing its Kendryte K210 – the world's first-ever RISC-V-based edge AI chip. The chip was released in September 2018 and has been in mass-production ever since.
K210 is Canaan's first chip. The AI chip is designed to carry out machine learning. The primary functions of the K210 are machine vision and semantic, which includes the KPU for computing convolutional neural networks and an APU for processing microphone array inputs. KPU is a general-purpose neural network processor with built-in convolution, batch normalization, activation, and pooling operations. The next-generation chip can detect faces and objects in real-time. Despite the high computing power, K210 consumes only 0.3W while other typical devices consume 1W.
More Than Just Chipping Away at Sales
As of September 30, 2019, Canaan has shipped more than 53,000 AI chips and development kits to AI product developers since release.
Currently, the sales of K210 are growing exponentially, according to CEO Zhang .
The company has moved quickly to the commercialization of chips, and developed modules, products and back-end SaaS, offering customers a "full flow of AI solutions."
Based on the first generation of K210, Canaan has formed critical strategic partnerships.
For example, the company launched joint projects with a leading AI algorithm provider, a top agricultural science and technology enterprise, and a well-known global soft drink manufacturer to deliver smart solutions for various industrial markets.
The Booming Blockchain Industry
Currently, Canaan is working under the development strategy of "Blockchain + AI." The company has made several breakthroughs in the blockchain and AI industry, including algorithm development and optimization, standard unit design, low-voltage and high-efficiency operation, high-performance design system and heat dissipation, etc. The company has also accumulated extensive experience in ASIC chip manufacturing, laying the foundation for its future growth.
Canaan released first-generation products based on Samsung's 8nm and SMIC's 14nm technologies in Q4 last year. The former has been shipped in Q1 this year, while the latter will be shipped in Q2. In February, it launched the second generation of the product which is more efficient, more cost-effective and offers better performance.
Currently, TSMC's 5nm technology is under development. This technology will further improve the company's machines' computing power and ensure Canaan's leading position in the blockchain hardware space.
"We are the leader in the industry," says Zhang.
Canaan's Covid-19 Strategy
During the Covid-19 outbreak, Canaan improved the existing face recognition access control system. The new software can detect and identify people wearing masks. At the same time, the intelligent attendance system has been integrated to assist human resource management
Integrating mining machine learning and AI, the K210 chip has been used on Avalon mining machine, which can identify and monitor potential network viruses through intelligent algorithms. The company will explore more innovative integration in the future.
In terms of AI, the company will launch the second-generation AI chip K510 this year. The design of its architecture has been "greatly" optimized, and the computing power is several times more robust than the K210. Later this year, Canaan will use this tech in areas including smart energy consumption, smart industrial parks, smart driving, smart retail, and smart finance.
In terms of operating costs and R&D, the company's last-year operating cost dropped 13.3% year-on-year. In 2018 and 2019, Canaan recorded R&D expenses of 189.7 million yuan and 169 million yuan, respectively—347 million yuan were used to incentivize core R&D personnel.
In addition, the company currently has more than 500 million yuan in cash ($70.5 million), will continue to operate under the "blockchain + AI" strategy, with a continued focus on the commercialization of its AI technology.
A Fruitful Future
Canaan began as a manufacturer of Bitcoin mining machines, but it has become more than that. In the short term, the Bitcoin halving cycle is approaching (Estimated to occur on May 11, 2020 – CW); this should promote the sales of company's mining machine, In the long term, now a global leader in ASIC technology, Canaan could be in a unique position to meet supercomputing demand.
"Blockchain is a good start, but we'll go beyond that," says Zhang. "When a seed grows up to be a big tree, it will bear fruit."
So far, it has done just that. Just how high that "tree" can get remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: The Kendryte K210 chip will be the driving force fueling the company's growth.