The Next Silicon Valley

China to build, not buy, AI chips; bypass lithography

China plans to invest US$ 6 billion to build the world's largest particle collider to get a foot in the door of experimental physics dominated by European and American research labs, but some scientists warn it could be a wasteful undertaking.

Chinese scientists are reportedly considering constructing massive facilities to manufacture the technology necessary to create AI semiconductor chips locally. Under the plan, particle accelerators would replace the role of the lithography machine in the steps to produce semiconductor chips for creating high-level AI systems.  Lithography technology is blocked in China.

The reported move is significant for China for a number of reasons:

In addition to these economic and technological reasons, the construction of massive AI chip manufacturing facilities is also important for China for national security reasons. AI chips are increasingly being used in a wide range of military and security applications. By manufacturing its own AI chips, China can reduce its reliance on foreign suppliers and ensure that it has access to the most advanced AI technologies for its military and security needs.

Overall, the construction of massive AI chip manufacturing facilities is a major strategic initiative for China. It is a sign of China’s determination to become a global leader in the semiconductor industry and to maintain its technological leadership in AI.

Using particle accelerators will help create new ways to produce a novel laser source. The SCMP reported that the electron beam of the accelerator will be transformed into a “high-quality” light source needed to manufacture AI semiconductor chips on-site.

According to published reports a team of scientists from Tsinghua University are in discussions with authorities in the Xiongan New Area to select the proper area to develop the factory.  The report said local scientists view this as a way to potentially circumvent current sanctions in place by the United States. 

The particle accelerators would be replacing the role of the lithography machine in the steps to produce semiconductor chips for creating high-level AI systems. 

At the moment, Advanced Semiconductor Materials Lithography — a company based out of the Netherlands — is the only company that owns the technology for such machines. The U.S. has barred the company from selling its top-end machines to the Chinese market, similar to its barring of Nvidia, the world’s leading manufacturer of AI chips, from selling its most powerful products to China. 

The report from the SCMP said the Chinese mega-factory could house multiple lithography machines. 

This is not the first time China has tried to combat sanctions through efforts on the home front. 

In May, reports surfaced about Chinese companies studying methods to develop AI systems using weaker semiconductors and different combinations of chips amid U.S. sanctions. 

Despite the sanctions, however, Chinese companies have released new AI systems after the country set its landmark AI legislation into motion. On Sept. 7, Tencent unveiled its own ChatGPT rival in the Chinese market. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. has been tightening its grip on the AI manufacturing market. In a recent visit to Vietnam, the U.S. made deals worth billions of dollars focusing on AI chips and technology. 

Its weariness of having China take the lead in AI development has spread overseas, with European regulators also considering their stance on export controls and restrictions on China.

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