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Facebook set to form chip design team focused on AI - but why?

Facebook is already on your devices, but now it wants to be in them.

Published onApril 19, 2018

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  • The social network is recruiting people for a processor design team.
  • Job listings reveal that the team will focus on AI, suggesting that it could be used in smart speakers.
  • The company is hard at work on smart speakers already, but an in-house chip could surface in a successor speaker.

Facebook is reportedly building a team devoted to chip design, with AI tipped to be a major focus. The news comes via Bloomberg, citing recent job listings and people “familiar with the matter,” and the Wall Street Journal.

Facebook may launch two smart speakers this July
The Amazon Echo Show.

The job listings reveal that the social network is seeking a manager to create an “end-to-end SoC/ASIC, firmware and driver development organization.” The term “SoC” refers to a system-on-a-chip, being a processor that integrates many components on one chip, saving space and energy in the process. Meanwhile, “ASIC” refers to an application-specific integrated circuit, being a custom-designed bit of silicon tuned for a specific job as opposed to general computing tasks.

What kind of chips would the network be building though? The company is focusing on AI, according to a tweet from Facebook AI Research director Yann LeCun. More specifically, Facebook is looking for someone able to “use their expertise to build custom solutions targeted at multiple verticals including AI/ML, compression, and video encoding.”

Interested in designing ASIC & FPGA for AI?
Design engineer positions are available at Facebook in Menlo Park.
I used to be a chip designer many moons ago: my engineering diploma was in Electrical…
— Yann LeCun (@ylecun) April 18, 2018

Bloomberg suggests that the network could use these chips for devices, AI software or data servers.

Facebook is reportedly working on a smart speaker lineup, which could no doubt benefit an in-house AI chip, but we’re unlikely to see this in the first range of devices. Despite a reported delay, the speakers are said to be well underway and expected to be released this fall. The dedicated AI team, on the other hand, looks like it’s still in its infancy.

A Facebook-designed chipset means the company would have greater control over the design of future products.

The social network is no stranger to AI, having previously delivered the M virtual assistant before shutting it down in January 2018. At the time, Facebook said it had “learned a lot” about what people wanted from a virtual assistant, and its smart speaker may be a testament to this.

But a smart speaker might not be Facebook’s only use for AI-infused silicon. Chips tuned for AI and machine learning tasks could also be a boon for the social network at large, being used for video encoding on Facebook itself, identifying bogus profiles and delivering more accurate advertising.

Facebook is just the latest tech company gearing up for its own AI chips, joining the likes of Apple and Huawei. More recently, we’ve even seen Google deliver the custom-designed Pixel Visual Core in the Pixel 2, used for imaging and machine learning tasks.

Whether consumers want Facebook in even more corners of their home, while the company is still grappling with the Cambridge Audio Analytica scandal, is another matter.

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