By its own reckoning, Bitmain built 70 percent of all the computers on the Bitcoin network. It makes specialized chips to perform the critical hash functions involved in mining and trading bitcoins, and packages those chips into the top mining rig—the Antminer S9.

But Bitmain CEO Jihan Wu sees a future beyond blockchains and cryptocurrency. As he told IEEE Spectrum contributing editor Morgen E. Peck in July: “It’s quite personal that I wanted Bitcoin to be successful. But as a company we are not allowed to solely rely on the success of Bitcoin. That’s a thing we cannot afford.”

So Bitmain is applying its Bitcoin playbook to artificial intelligence. On 8 November, Bitmain’s other CEO Micree Zhan will detail its new AI chip, the Sophon BM1680, at AIWORLD in Beijing, and the company will begin selling systems based on it.

The company claims the chip is specialized for both training and executing deep learning algorithms. The latter task relies on the chip’s ability to perform inference. As Spectrum’s David Schneider pointed out earlier this year, training an AI and performing inference require different skills from a processor. In particular, he notes, training typically needs high-precision math, while inference is most efficient at low precision.

Google’s Tensor Processing Unit uses 8-bit math for inferencing. According to its specs, the BM1680 uses 32-bit floating point math. It can perform 2 teraflops (2 trillion floating point operations per second) and typically consumes 25 Watts but can ramp up to 41 W when running flat out.  

Bitmain claims its architecture is similar to Google’s TPU. The architecture is of the general class called systolic, meaning that data flows through its processing cores in waves. “Google TPU is a cool role model among all AI ASIC makers,” Janet Zhao, who works in Bitmain’s high-performance computing group, said in an email. “When we started to develop our own AI chip…. in the end of 2015, we adopted the enhanced systolic technology which is similar to Google TPU.”

The Sophon BM1680 is the heart of a card and specialized server that Bitmain will begin selling on 8 November. The Sophon SC1 card is meant as an accelerator for deep learning applications. The Sophon SS1 server contains the SC1 card and is meant for video and image analysis.

According to the company, it has been communicating with the technical and business teams of potential customers including Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent for the last year and a half of development.

Zhao says that these companies are concerned about the cost, stability of supply, and power consumption of GPU-based AI accelerators and are looking for a new vendor.

The Conversation (0)

The Spectacular Collapse of CryptoKitties, the First Big Blockchain Game

A cautionary tale of NFTs, Ethereum, and cryptocurrency security

8 min read
Mountains and cresting waves made of cartoon cats and large green coins.
Frank Stockton

On 4 September 2018, someone known only as Rabono bought an angry cartoon cat named Dragon for 600 ether—an amount of Ethereum cryptocurrency worth about US $170,000 at the time, or $745,000 at the cryptocurrency’s value in July 2022.

It was by far the highest transaction yet for a nonfungible token (NFT), the then-new concept of a unique digital asset. And it was a headline-grabbing opportunity for CryptoKitties, the world’s first blockchain gaming hit. But the sky-high transaction obscured a more difficult truth: CryptoKitties was dying, and it had been for some time.

The launch of CryptoKitties drove up the value of Ether and the number of transactions on its blockchain. Even as the game's transaction volume plummeted, the number of Ethereum transactions continued to rise, possibly because of the arrival of multiple copycat NFT games.

That perhaps unrealistic wish becomes impossible once the downward spiral begins. Players, feeling no other attachment to the game than growing an investment, quickly flee and don’t return.

Whereas some blockchain games have seemingly ignored the perils of CryptoKitties’ quick growth and long decline, others have learned from the strain it placed on the Ethereum network. Most blockchain games now use a sidechain, a blockchain that exists independently but connects to another, more prominent “parent” blockchain. The chains are connected by a bridge that facilitates the transfer of tokens between each chain. This prevents a rise in fees on the primary blockchain, as all game activity occurs on the sidechain.

Yet even this new strategy comes with problems, because sidechains are proving to be less secure than the parent blockchain. An attack on Ronin, the sidechain used by Axie Infinity, let the hackers get away with the equivalent of $600 million. Polygon, another sidechain often used by blockchain games, had to patch an exploit that put $850 million at risk and pay a bug bounty of $2 million to the hacker who spotted the issue. Players who own NFTs on a sidechain are now warily eyeing its security.

Remember Dragon

The cryptocurrency wallet that owns the near million dollar kitten Dragon now holds barely 30 dollars’ worth of ether and hasn’t traded in NFTs for years. Wallets are anonymous, so it’s possible the person behind the wallet moved on to another. Still, it’s hard not to see the wallet’s inactivity as a sign that, for Rabono, the fun didn’t last.

Whether blockchain games and NFTs shoot to the moon or fall to zero, Bladon remains proud of what CryptoKitties accomplished and hopeful it nudged the blockchain industry in a more approachable direction.

“Before CryptoKitties, if you were to say ‘blockchain,’ everyone would have assumed you’re talking about cryptocurrency,” says Bladon. “What I’m proudest of is that it was something genuinely novel. There was real technical innovation, and seemingly, a real culture impact.”

This article was corrected on 11 August 2022 to give the correct date of Bryce Bladon's departure from Dapper Labs.

This article appears in the September 2022 print issue as “The Spectacular Collapse of CryptoKitties.”

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