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Business trends

China's AI push produces a unicorn

Cambricon's 'fame' attracts high profile investors

TAIPEI -- While China is still playing catch-up in building fundamental semiconductors, it is already laying the groundwork for what it hopes will be a $150 billion artificial intelligence industry by 2030 -- and in the process undermine the tech dominance of the U.S.

China's AI startups in 2017 together received more funding than their rivals in America for the first time, according to CB Insights.

Cambricon Technologies, founded in 2016, captured the tech world's attention when its AI tech was adopted for use in tens of millions of phones by Huawei, the world's No. 3 handset maker after Samsung and Apple. Cambricon's AI blueprints help Huawei's latest processors handle image and facial recognition more efficiently. Such technology is comparable to Apple's recent A11 bionic processor for iPhones.

The company announced late last year that it will push into making chips for "smart" data center servers, an area currently controlled by Western titans Intel, Nvidia and Xilinx.

Cambricon has also achieved unicorn status: The completion of an A round of financing last year, led by China's State Development & Investment Corp., Lenovo Group and Alibaba Group Holding, pushed the startup's value to $1 billion.

Once a tiny research team under the Chinese Academy of Science, Cambricon quickly grew to a company of 300 people and aims to more than double its workforce this year, Lo Tao, the company's executive director, told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview.

"Becoming famous and being named as the country's top-tier startup did give us chances to talk to many high-profile investors and clients," Lo said. "But we still have a lot of challenges ahead as we are competing with global companies that are 100 times bigger than us."

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