Chip-Enabled Edge AI Drives Next-Gen IoT

AI-based machine learning techniques are going beyond the cloud-based data center, as processing of vital IoT sensor data moves much closer to where the data first resides.

The move will be enabled by new artificial intelligence (AI)-equipped chips. These include embedded microcontrollers with narrower memory and power consumption requirements than GPUs (graphical processing units), FPGAs (field-programmable gate arrays) and other specialized IC types first used to answer data scientists’ questions in the cloud data centers of Amazon Web Services, Microsoft and Google.

It was in these clouds that machine learning and related neural network use exploded. But the rise of IoT created a data onslaught that required edge-based machine learning as well.

Now, cloud providers, Internet of Things (IoT) platform makers, and others see benefit in processing data at the edge before turning it over to the cloud for analytics.

Making AI decisions at the edge reduces latency and makes real-time response to sensor data more practical and possible. Still, what people call “edge AI” takes many forms. And how to power it with next-gen IoT presents challenges in terms of presenting good-quality actionable data.

Edge Computing Workloads Grow

Edge-based machine learning could drive significant growth of AI in the IoT market, which Mordor Intelligence estimates will grow at a 27.3% CAGR through to 2026.

That is buttressed by Eclipse Foundation IoT Group research in 2020, which pegged AI at 30% as the most commonly cited edge computing workload among IoT developers.

For many applications, replicating the endless racks of servers that enabled parallel machine learning on the cloud is not an option. IoT edge cases that benefit from local processing are many, and highlighted by varied cases of operations monitoring. The processors, for example, watch events triggered by pressure gauge changes on an oil rig, detection of an anomaly on a distant power line, or captured video surveillance of an issue at a factory.

The last case is one of those most widely pursued. Application of AI that parses image data at the edge has proved a fertile area. But there are many complex processing needs for event processing using IoT device-gathered data.

The Value of Edge Compute

Still, cloud-based IoT analytics will endure, said Steve Conway, senior adviser, Hyperion Research. But the distance data must travel brings processing latency. Moving data to and from a cloud naturally creates lag; the round trip takes time.

“There is something called the speed of light,” Conway quips. “And you cannot exceed it.” As result, a hierarchy of processing is developing on the edge.

Other than devices and board-level implementations, this hierarchy includes IoT gateways and data centers in manufacturing that expand architectural options available for next-generation IoT system development.

In the long view, edge AI architecture is yet another generational shift in data processing focus – but a key one, according to Saurabh Mishra, senior manager for product marketing at SAS’s IoT and Edge division.

“There is a progression here,” he said. “At one time, the idea was centralizing your data. You can do that for certain industries and certain use cases – ones where data was already created in a context, such as in a data center,” he said.

It’s not really possible to efficiently – and economically – move that to the cloud for analysis,” Mishra said, who noted that SAS has created validated edge IoT reference architectures on top of which customers can build AI and analytical applications. Striking a balance between cloud and edge AI will be a fundamental requirement, he said.

Finding balance begins with consideration of the amount of data needed to run machine learning models, according to Frédéric Desbiens, program manager, IoT and Edge Computing at the Eclipse Foundation. That is where the new intelligent processors come in.

“AI accelerators at the edge can do local processing before sending the data somewhere else. But, this requires you to think about the functional requirements, including the software stack and storage needed,” Desbiens said.

AI Edge Chip Abundance

The rise of cloud-based machine learning was influenced by the rise of the high-memory bandwidth GPU, often in the form of a NVIDIA semiconductor. That success drew the attention of other chip makers.

In-house AI-specific processors followed from hyperscale cloud-players Google, AWS and Microsoft.

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That AI chip battle has been joined by leading lights such as AMD, Intel, Qualcomm, and ARM Technology (which, for its part, last year was acquired by NVIDIA).

In turn, embedded microprocessor and systems-on-a-chip mainstays like Maxim Integrated, NXP Semiconductors, Silicon Labs, STM Microelectronics and others began to focus on adding AI abilities to the edge.

Today, IoT and edge processing needs have attracted AI chip start-ups that include EdgeQ,  Graphcore, Hailo, Mythic and others. Processing on the edge is constrained. Barriers include memory available, energy consumed and cost, emphasizes Hyperion’s Steve Conway.

“The embedded processors are very important, as energy use is very important,” Conway said. “The GPUs and CPUs are not tiny dies, and GPUs, particularly, use a ton of energy,” he said, referring to the relatively large silicon form factors GPUs and CPUs can take on.

Categories: IoT: Internet of Things

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