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Bitmain SoC Brings AI to the Edge

February 12, 2019

Author: Bob Wheeler

With the Bitcoin-mining gold rush over, mining-ASIC firms must reinvent themselves. For leader Bitmain, that means building an AI business while continuing to invest in mining ASICs. After developing two neural-network-accelerator chips under the Sophon brand, the company in 4Q18 shipped its first SoC designed for edge systems. The Sophon BM1880 can function as a standalone SoC, or it can serve as a low-power coprocessor. Bitmain offers several low-cost developer kits using the chip, including a USB stick.

The BM1880 comprises multiple CPUs along with a tensor processing unit (TPU) and video engine. Dual Arm Cortex-A53 CPUs handle application code while a single RISC-V CPU performs real-time duties. Bitmain rates the TPU, which includes 2MB of SRAM, at one trillion operations per second (TOPS) for 8-bit-integer (INT8) data. Designed for surveillance cameras, the video engine can decode two 1080p H.264 streams. The chip provides numerous I/O interfaces for memory, host, camera, and audio connections. Packaged in a 14mm FCBGA, the BM1880 dissipates 2.5W (typical) using a 28nm process.

The BM1880 competes with Intel’s Movidius Myriad X processor, which targets the same vision-processing applications, offers similar AI performance, and dissipates the same power. Myriad X differs, however, by handling raw video from up to eight MIPI camera interfaces, whereas the BM1880 handles streams from USB-video-class (UVC) cameras. Technical merits may prove secondary, however; China is the largest market for surveillance cameras and Chinese OEMs may prefer a domestic chip supplier.

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