Two years ago, a Chinese chip-design expert named Micree Zhan was reading China’s seminal science-fiction novel, The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin, while wrestling with how to create a new processor. He had already designed custom chips for the company he co-founded, Bitmain, that had made it into the world’s leading bitcoin miner, allowing it to dominate the new, hyper-competitive industry of unearthing bitcoins. Now he needed a chip that could launch Bitmain onto a new trajectory, one that would help it master a world-altering technology called deep learning, a branch of artificial intelligence.
While performing his nightly meditation, a practice he has kept up for nearly a decade, it suddenly came to Zhan. “It was late at night, and something inspired me—Sophon!” he recalls. A sophon is a fictional proton-sized supercomputer from The Three-Body Problem that is sent by an alien civilization to halt scientific progress on Earth. It’s capable of causing strange phenomena—such as inscribing flashing words on the retinas of elite scientists. The aliens use it to take over Earth when their own planet is destroyed by the chaotic gravitational forces of its three suns.
Bitmain’s newest product, the Sophon, may or may not take over deep learning. But by giving it such a name Zhan and his Bitmain co-founder, Jihan Wu, have signaled to the world their intentions. The Sophon unit will include Bitmain’s first piece of bespoke silicon for a revolutionary AI technology. If things go to plan, thousands of Bitmain Sophon units soon could be training neural networks in vast data centers around the world.