This startup hopes photonics to will get us to AI systems faster

The problem with waiting for quantum computing to bring in the next wave of AI is that it’s likely to arrive a lot slower than people would like. The next best options include increasing the speed of existing computers somehow – but there’s now an important added ijmperative: power-efficient systems that mean we don’t burn up the planet while we get about conjuring the AI singularity into existence.

Meanwhile, the speed of AI computation doubles every 3 or 4 months, meaning that standard semiconductor technologies are struggling to keep up. Several companies are now working on ‘photonics processing’ which introduces light into the semiconductor realm which, for obvious ‘speed of light’ reasons, literally speeds up the whole thing markedly.

Salience Labs is an Oxford-based startup that thinks it has the answer, by combining an ultra-high-speed multi-chip processor that packages a photonics chip together with standard electronics.

It’s now raised a seed round of $11.5 million led by Cambridge Innovation Capital and Oxford Science Enterprises. Also participating were Oxford Investment Consultants, former CEO of Dialog Semiconductor Jalal Bagherli, ex-Temasek Board Member Yew Lin Goh and Arm-backed Deeptech Labs participating.
Salience is a spin-out of Oxford University and the University of Münster in 2021, after it came up with the idea of using a broad bandwidth of light to execute operations to deliver what it calls “massively parallel processing performance within a given power envelope”. The company says the technology is highly scalable and capable of stacking up to 64 vectors into a beam of light.

Vaysh Kewada, CEO and co-founder of Salience Labs told me: “This technology is going to mean we can do far more calculation for the same power requirement – which means fundamentally more efficient AI systems.” 

She thinks the world needs ever-faster chips to grow AI capability, but the semiconductor industry cannot keep pace with this demand. “We’re solving this with our proprietary ‘on-memory compute’ architecture which combines the ultra-fast speed of photonics, the flexibility of electronics and the manufacturability of CMOS. This will usher in a new era of processing, where supercompute AI becomes ubiquitous,” she said.
Ian Lane, Partner, Cambridge Innovation Capital added: “Salience Labs brings together deep domain expertise in photonics, electronics and CMOS manufacture. Their unique approach to photonics delivers an exceedingly dense computing chip without having to scale the photonics chip to large sizes.”

This is an animation of photonics going off inside the chip:

Cisco to acquire silicon photonics chip maker Luxtera for $660 million

As networks get put under increasing pressure from ever-growing amounts of data, network equipment manufacturers are facing huge challenges to increase data transmissions speeds over further distances. As a premiere networking equipment company, Cisco wants to be prepared to meet that demand. Today, it opened up its checkbook and announced its intent to acquire Luxtera for $660 million.

Luxtera, which was founded in 2001 and raised over $130 million, will give Cisco a photonic solution for that data networking problem. Rob Salvagno, head of Cisco’s M&A and venture investment team sees a company that can help modernize Cisco’s networking equipment.

“That’s why today we announced our intent to acquire Luxtera, Inc., a privately-held semiconductor company that uses silicon photonics technology to build integrated optics capabilities for webscale and enterprise data centers, service provider market segments, and other customers. Luxtera’s technology, design and manufacturing innovation significantly improves performance and scale while lowering costs,” he wrote in a blog post announcing the acquisition.

Photonics uses light to move large amounts of data at higher speeds over increased distances via fiber optic cable. Cisco sees this as a way to future-proof customer networking requirements, while keeping them on Cisco equipment. “The combination of Cisco’s and Luxtera’s capabilities in 100GbE/400GbE optics, silicon and process technology will enable customers to build future-proof networks optimized for performance, reliability and cost,” Salvagno wrote.

While Cisco has been acquiring its share of high-profile software properties in recent years including AppDyanmics for $3.7 billion in 2017 and Jasper Technologies for $1.4 billion in 2016, it also acquired Israeli chip designer Leaba Semiconductor for $320 million in 2016 for its advanced chip making capability.

Today’s announcement would seem to build on that earlier purchase as Cisco tries to modernize its hardware offerings to meet increasingly stringent demands inside large-scale data centers.

The acquisition is subject to the typical regulatory scrutiny, but Cisco expects it to close in its fiscal year 2019 Q3. It reported its Q1 2019 earnings in November.