The hottest A.I. event of the year shows start-ups in a frantic race against Intel and Google

Key Points
  • Intel shows off its first Nervana chip at a party and has begun shipping.
  • Google is expected to talk about the performance of its chips for AI.
The 2017 Neural Information Processing Systems conference in Long Beach, Calif.
Jordan Novet | CNBC

Chipmakers focused on artificial intelligence are in a race to get their hardware out the door, a theme that's on full display this week at a major industry event in Southern California.

A little-known start-up called Wave Computing shared exhibit floor space with tech giants including Google and Microsoft at the 31st annual Neural Information Processing Systems conference.

Wave is showcasing a motherboard sitting inside a glass case, but one key component is missing: a processor. The chip itself will be ready "very soon," Lee Flanagin, Wave's senior vice president and chief business officer, told CNBC.

Graphcore, a European AI start-up, similarly has space on the floor but doesn't have a chip to show. In fact, the company is even without a board at the conference. Graphcore said in July that its chips would become available to early customers before the end of the year, but the timing has since slipped to "the start of 2018."

A well-funded start-up called Cerebras is among other industry newbies with representatives floating around the sold-out NIPS conference.

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There's an expected gold rush coming to AI as engineers demand more advanced processors to handle a flurry of new and sophisticated workloads — like learning to recognize people in video feeds or translating speech into different languages — while also saving power.

Many researchers rely on graphics cards from the likes of Nvidia to implement a popular type of AI called deep learning, but new AI chip companies are luring venture capital investments with the promise of serving the next generation of computing.

Start-ups are facing stiff competition. Google has come up with chips that can work in place of Nvidia's graphics cards for deep learning. Those chips aren't yet available for rent on Google's cloud. Google is expected to talk about the performance of its chips later this week.

Flo Rida shows up

And there's Intel, which has a big booth near the entrance to the NIPS exhibition hall. Intel recently announced plans to make discrete graphics cards and paid over $400 million to acquire AI chip start-up Nervana.

In October, Intel said it would ship its first Nervana products before the end of 2017. On Tuesday, at Intel's NIPS party, the rapper Flo Rida performed — and the company used the occasion to show off its first processor, a spokesperson told CNBC in an email. The chip is now available, and Intel is working with a set of close partners on it, the spokesperson said.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said on the company's most recent earnings call that investors will start to see Nervana chips reflected in the company's financials "towards the back end probably of 2018."

Intel rival AMD was nowhere to be seen on the NIPS exhibition floor.