April 15, 2021

A European chip for technological sovereignty | Technology

Technology is power for states. Donald Trump's veto on Huawei is the example that has caused the most stir. But the president of the United States he also deprived access to technology in his country to five supercomputing companies from China. As for processors, the brains of computers, Europe is highly dependent on other markets. To fill this gap, the European Commission allocates 80 million over the next three years to the European Processor Initiative (EPI). The project, coordinated by French technology Atos, with the support of 26 partners across the continent, expects to have a first version of the chip ready in 2021. It will be a processor designed for supercomputers, large machines dedicated to research. EPI also works with BMW — one of the partners– to launch a specific version for autonomous cars of the future, which will be equipped with powerful processors.

The automotive part will remain in a prototype in the phase that culminates in 2021, which focuses on the design of a commercial CPU for supercomputers. "With the time we have, we cannot start from scratch," says Atos vice president for the EPI, Phillippe Notton. This justifies that the set of instructions (machine language) on which the design of the main part of the chip is based belongs to the company ARM Holdings, born in the United Kingdom (maintains its headquarters there) and leader in mobile processors. In 2016 – a month after the Brexit referendum – it was bought by the Japanese communications company Softbank. “It was killer for Europe to allow this technology to be sold,” laments the director of the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC), Mateo Valero, who emphasizes that, with the use of ARM, the new processor will not be 100% European. The Barcelona center, one of the partners, leads the third pillar of EPI: the design of an accelerator that will be integrated into the chip to give more speed to certain mathematical operations.

The BSC manages seven million of the total sum of the project. The product in which the center works will allow, for example, that the processor can multiply matrices – very recurrent operation of artificial intelligence algorithms – more easily. If the usual procedure is to start by multiplying the first element of the first row by the first of the first column, with the accelerator the multiplication of the entire row by the entire column will be obtained in a single instruction for the processor. The BSC is committed to the RISC-V language for its component to strengthen European technological sovereignty. It is a machine language born at the University of Berkeley that, unlike that of ARM, is open source. The first European processor, which will be called Rhea, will combine both technologies.

Notton forecasts that in 2030 EPI will have generated an ecosystem that will employ some 3,000 engineers and researchers across Europe. In the short term, the BSC estimates that the project will employ between 40 and 50 people working in RISC-V in the Catalan capital. "It is not easy to find the profiles because many of the computer architecture designers, as also happens with artificial intelligence, go to Silicon Valley because there they charge three or four times more," says Valero, who explains that he currently has three people from hub Californian working on his team.

Phillippe Notton

Phillippe Notton

"Although the design will be European, the factories are in Asia: Taiwan and Korea," said Notton, who founded a startup, called SiPearl, in order to register the intellectual property of designs that are born from EPI. "80 million is not enough and the company will seek to raise more capital in the private market," said the head of the project, adding that "China has a budget of $ 150 billion to create its own semiconductor industry; ours is very very low. ” “We have to show Europe that we know how to do it so that there is more money later,” concludes Valero.

At the end of 2020 Barcelona will release a new supercomputer, MareNostrum 5, funded by the European Commission within the brand new European supercomputing network, EuroHPC. 6% of the 223 million that the Spanish computer will cost will be intended for research in RISC-V So in the future Europe can consider if it uses only this technology. The processors of the main part of the MareNostrum 4, the current computer of the BSC, are of the North American Intel. The next version cannot use the European processor yet. The BSC points to 2025 as the year in which the change could be made.

Notton meets monthly with the European Commission to monitor the evolution of the processor. Last June EPI presented the first architecture design to Brussels, after an initial half-year job. The Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Mariya Gabriel, points out that EPI is “an important step in the strategic plan to develop an independent supercomputing and data ecosystem” in Europe and that it will benefit “scientific leadership and industrial competitiveness”. He also mentions the need for efficient processor power consumption.

Supercomputing on the roads

The technology of supercomputing processors has applications outside the data centers. The 360 ​​degree environment recognition systems of the autonomous car, which will work with embedded supercomputing (a small embedded supercomputer), require a high processing capacity. The director of electrical and electronic architecture in BMW Group Research, Matthias Traub, details that the main calculation claimants are the treatment of the data coming from the sensors and the “new algorithms partially based on artificial intelligence”. The engineer does not venture to predict when the EPI fruit processors will circulate on the roads: "It is too soon."

Traub points out that one of the challenges is that the designs of hardware Y software For cars go hand in hand. And another important aspect is to get "to have a lot of computing capacity with less energy consumption". The European Chronos family processor, which EPI plans to launch between 2022 and 2023, will have two versions: one for supercomputers with more power and more expensive and another for cars. The challenge in the design of the latter is that it must have a consumption of less than 15W – the less the better not to reduce the autonomy of the vehicle – and be more economical. A supercomputer, with 10,000 parallel processors consumes 20MW (2,000W each), details Notton, who insists on the importance of technological independence in the face of the "risk of attacks." An example that illustrates his idea: What would happen if the processors of a future autonomous car park were inoperative following a political veto?

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