Artificial Intelligence

Tech giant Microsoft doubles down on AI with custom-built Maia processing chip

The Maia AI Accelerator will do the heavy AI lifting in Microsoft’s Azure cloud data centres, and will be used for training new machine-learning language models.

This is a task so energy intensive that Microsoft also announced a special new “sidekick” cooling system that will sit next to the racks of Maia chips in data centres around the world, cooling them like a radiator cools a car’s engine, officials said.

The new Cobalt CPU will be based on the same chip technology in most of the world’s mobile phones, and will allow Microsoft to run its general purpose computing workloads with greater energy efficiency, the officials said, presumably so the freed-up electricity can be diverted to the power-hungry AI workloads.

While the chips were designed and tested by Microsoft, they are being manufactured by the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), the world’s largest chipmaker, officials said.

Microsoft’s Azure is the world’s second-largest public data centre, behind Amazon Web Services and ahead of Google Cloud. Google also designs its own AI chips, and has been using its own Tensor Processing Unit chip to perform AI tasks in its data centres since 2015.

Unlike Google, though, Microsoft has a huge base of business users and consumers running everything from Windows 11 to Microsoft 365, to whom it hopes to sell the AI services running in its Azure data centres.

At this year’s Ignite conference, Microsoft is expected to make more than 100 announcements about new software, and most will involve adding Copilot (or some other “AI adjacent” software) to existing apps and services, officials said.

That’s a big call, considering Microsoft doesn’t technically own the AI software that powers Copilot. It is owned by OpenAI, maker of the ChatGPT language model that ignited the AI craze in November 2022.

Microsoft’s Maia chip will be used to train AI models in the cloud. 

Microsoft has invested at least $US11 billion ($16.9 billion) in OpenAI, which runs ChatGPT in Microsoft’s Azure data centres (indeed, OpenAI is already testing ChatGPT 3.5 Turbo on the new Maia chips, Microsoft officials said). But for all the money Microsoft has put into the AI software maker, Microsoft owns only 49 per cent of OpenAI’s stock.

That hasn’t stopped Microsoft inserting Copilot into its big money-spinning apps. Windows 11 has already been retrofitted with Copilot, as has Microsoft’s security platform and the Microsoft 365 suite of business productivity apps.

Even Microsoft Word now comes with Copilot, to help users overcome writer’s block by suggesting ways to start a document.

Writer’s block, it turns out, is a huge issue for Word users. Before Copilot was added, 50 per cent of newly opened Word documents were closed again without the user writing a single word, one Microsoft official said.

The company didn’t yet have enough data to say how much that dire statistic had been improved by AI, the official said.

One thing has very obviously been improved by AI, though. Since Mr Nadella announced at the World Economic Forum in January that all Microsoft products would be fitted with AI software, the company’s share price has risen by 54 per cent.

John Davidson is attending Ignite in Seattle as a guest of Microsoft.


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