Intel Combines Global AI Work Under Former Nervana Systems CEO

Roughly seven months after Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) acquired San Diego-based Nervana Systems, the chipmaker is consolidating its portfolio of artificial intelligence businesses in one group, headed by former Nervana CEO Naveen Rao.

Rao (pictured above right) will report directly to Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, spokesman Daniel Francisco said today. Rao plans to remain in San Diego, according to a spokeswoman for Intel Nervana.

In a blog describing the formation of a company-wide Artificial Intelligence Products Group, Rao writes, “The new organization will align resources from across the company to include engineering, labs, software and more as we build on our current leading AI portfolio: the Intel Nervana platform.”

In addition to bringing Intel’s AI capabilities under one roof, Rao plans to create an applied AI research lab. “We will be exploring novel architectural and algorithmic approaches to inform future generations of AI,” he writes. “This includes a range of solutions from the data center to edge devices, and from training to inference—all designed to enable Intel and its customers to innovate faster. This will be the home for AI innovation at Intel.”

Rao understands the portfolio of AI technologies that Intel has acquired and developed in-house, the spokeswoman for Intel Nervana said.

Intel’s technical roadmap remains unchanged, but how it will all come together is still a work in progress. When asked how the company plans to divide its AI operations between San Diego and Intel’s Santa Clara, CA, headquarters, Francisco responded in an e-mail, “We aren’t being more specific than this on how we’ll be aligning our AI resources; that’s the work that is under way.”

Rao has broad experience in the computer industry and in neural-based processing. He started his career at Sun Microsystems, and worked at a number of Silicon Valley startups in micro-processing, networking, and video compression before getting his doctorate in neuroscience. He joined San Diego-based Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) in 2012, and led both R&D and business development in neuromorphic machines.

At Nervana, Rao and co-founders Arjun Bansal and Amir Khosrowshahi (who also were Qualcomm expats) set out in 2014 to build a new type of neural-based processor. To get there, though, Nervana first developed AI software to run on Nvidia graphics processors. To generate revenue and test their design concepts, they offered Nervana’s cloud-based “machine learning as a service” for a variety of beta customers. One customer used Nervana’s technology to enhance the development of its oil exploration software. Another used it to spot fraudulent trading activity.

Intel acquired Nervana, reportedly for more than $408 million, just as the startup was moving from its software model to semiconductor design.

Intel recently announced plans to acquire Israel’s Mobileye, a leader in computer vision technology for autonomous driving, for $15.3 billion. In 2015, Intel paid $16.7 billion to acquire Altera, a specialist in chips known as field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) that can be re-programmed to run new tasks (and are key to training deep neural networks). Intel also has been investing heavily internally to advance its Xeon and Xeon Phi processors.

It’s now Rao’s job to pull these far-flung technologies together and set the course for Intel’s AI development.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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