Cerebras CEO puts Nvidia on blast for 'arming' China with top-tier GPUs

Calls biz rival 'un-American' for weaving around chip export ban

SC23 Cerebras CEO Andrew Feldman has criticized Nvidia for its efforts to limbo dance under US semiconductor export limits to China, calling the behavior "un-American" and likening graphics processor titan to an AI arms dealer.

"I think Nvidia armed China single handedly," he told The Register. "If you think about Chinese AI capabilities … Nvidia gave them extraordinary amounts of Nvidia GPUs. There's no other way to look at it. It was legal, but that doesn't mean it doesn't carry a moral responsibility."

Like Nvidia, Cerebras designs processors for accelerating machine learning applications and other intense workloads; the startup's primary claim to fame is its unorthodox dinner-plate-sized chip dies.

Feldman's comments came in response to questions regarding US regulation of AI exports to regions of concern, namely China. In October, the Biden administration implemented stiffer performance caps on AI accelerators sold into the Middle Kingdom.

It was legal, but that doesn't mean it doesn't carry a moral responsibility

These rules effectively cut off Beijing from most American-designed high-end GPUs and accelerators used in AI and HPC applications. In response to the restrictions, Nvidia will reportedly launch a new round of chips for China that scrape in just under the US Commerce Department's speed limits on silicon.

From what we can tell these chips – the H20, H20, and L2 – are just slower versions of their full-fat siblings, as the die area remains the same among all of them. This makes sense as die area is, in addition to performance, a factor in determining which devices the rules apply to. You can find a breakdown of the rules here.

Efforts to regulate sales of American AI infrastructure to China have been an issue of concern for chip houses like Nvidia, which has issued several SEC filings warning investors of the potential fallout as a result of the rules.

Feldman, whose Silicon Valley business this year scored a $900 million contract to build nine AI supercomputers based on its WSE-2 wafer scale chip for the United Arab Emirates' G42, has a different perspective on the trade restrictions.

"I think the policies that you saw, the policies that they put out in both the presidential order and the Department of Commerce rulings are what strikes me as very reasonable logic," he argued.

"This is a big, powerful new technology and we're not exactly sure where it goes. We think it would be prudent to have some guidelines and some controls. We think it's prudent that our frenemy not be given our best technology early in the game. [It's] all reasonable to me and I'm supportive."

And yes, that's the same G42 run by CEO Peng Xiao, who previously headed up a division of DarkMatter, the Emirati cybersecurity outfit that came under fire for hiring former US government cyber-spies to carry out hacking-for-hire work. G42 also reportedly had close links to a voice-and-video calling app that was said to be a mass spying tool for the United Arab Emirates. But, sure, moral responsibilities.

Cerebras made an early decision not to do business in China though it is still subject to export restrictions – such as those governing shipments of AI hardware to the Middle East. To us, it seems Cerebras is unimpressed by Nvidia's response the export limits.

"All of us received a letter saying that we would require a license to ship to certain nations in the Middle East," Feldman said. "That also doesn't strike me as unreasonable, as long as we can get licenses in a reasonable amount of time."

When it comes to regulation, Feldman believes US chip houses should be following the spirit of the rules as well as the letter of the law, not finding ways to get around the fine print. With regard to sales in the Middle East, he said he was onboard with ensuring restricted equipment doesn't get shipped to one place only to disappear and show up where it doesn't belong. As such, he doesn't anticipate export controls will have any impact on the silicon slinger's ability to do business with G42 moving forward.

They ran right up to the edge of the guideline

"We believe very much in the US doing business with its allies, and when the Department of Commerce or when the President sets a rule, that you obey the spirit, not just the letter," he said. "When someone says this is a national policy, and here's some rules and you run up to within an inch of it, and you try, and try and circumvent the intent with a loophole, you make yourself look un-American."

"Government said we don't want you shipping to China, here are some guidelines, and they ran right up to the edge of the guideline," Feldman complained of Nvidia.

Of course, Nvidia isn't the only processor giant that's nerfed its chips in order to comply with US export restrictions. Earlier this year, Intel revealed a tweaked version of its Habana Gaudi accelerators for sale in the Chinese market. However it appears the latest round of trade restrictions would preclude the sale of those chips into China moving forward. AMD has also signaled it's willing to jump through Uncle Sam's hoops to continue selling chips in China, though it's not clear if and when it will proceed with those plans.

Nvidia declined to comment on the record for this piece. ®

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