After bashing Nvidia for ‘arming’ China, Cerebras's backer G42 alarms US govt with suspected Beijing ties
What was it they say about folks in silicon houses?
After lambasting Nvidia's efforts to limbo-dance under US export restrictions against China, the CEO of chips-for-AI outfit Cerebras, Andrew Feldman, is back in the spotlight amid revelations one of his largest customers, G42, may be aiding the Middle Kingdom, to the ire of Uncle Sam.
A Monday New York Times report claims US intelligence agencies fear United Arab Emirates-based G42, or Group 42, may be supplying China with advanced technologies and genetic data describing millions of people.
G42 is an AI firm run by Peng Xiao — the former head of Emirati cybersecurity outfit DarkMatter, which was blocked by Mozilla after employing US cyber spies for hack-for-hire work. Xiao's biz is involved in a number of fields, including biomedical matters, transportation, energy research, and cloud computing.
To power its AI research and development, G42 tapped California-based Cerebras Systems to develop a $100 million supercomputer cluster named Condor Galaxy. Cerebras plans to build a total of nine facilities for G42 at a combined cost of $900 million.
Condor Galaxy nodes are powered by Cerebras's wafer-scale WSE-2 chips, components each the size of a dinner plate and claimed to offer impressive performance in AI training applications. Cerebras recently broke ground on the site of a second Condor Galaxy super.
According to the NYT investigation, US officials and intelligence agencies, including the folks at the CIA, believe G42 is trying keep its involvement with Beijing under wraps. Uncle Sam has also issued warnings about the organization’s work with large Chinese companies including Huawei.
In a statement to the broadsheet, G42 executive Talal Al Kaissi insisted the corporation does all it can to “remain in full compliance” with US government regulations, and is simply “partnering with leading companies and institutions with shared values and developing responsible AI solutions." Those companies include Cerebras as well as Nvidia.
Among the intelligence community’s concerns is that G42 could be a proxy for Chinese interests that cannot legally obtain US-derived AI compute resources and other sensitive tech due to export restrictions announced by the US Commerce Department in October. Reading between the lines, US intel is reportedly concerned that China is working too closely with G42, which has a lot of AI power at its fingertips, and considers the relationship a potential national security threat.
American export restrictions effectively barred the sale of most US-designed high-end GPUs and AI accelerators to Chinese buyers or users, and required suppliers to obtain licenses to sell lower-end and consumer cards like the Nvidia RTX 4090 and L4.
Those in silicon houses
In response to those rules, Nvidia will reportedly launch three GPUs with performance below the threshold at which export bans apply.
Creating such products is legal, tho Cerebras boss Feldman recently took issue with the practice in an interview with The Register.
Feldman labeled Nvidia "embarrassing," before likening the GPU giant to an AI arms dealer.
"I think Nvidia armed China single handedly," he said. "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."
In the interview, Feldman also highlighted his decision not to do business in China. Which makes G42’s alleged China connection awkward. As does G42’s use of Nvidia GPUs in its systems, including the Artemis machine which achieved 7.2 petaFLOPS of double-precision performance in a LINPACK benchmark.
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In a statement to The Register, Cerebras emphasized its Condor Galaxy supercomputing clusters are based in the US and offered to G42 through Cerebras Cloud. The semiconductor outfit told us everything is above board:
Within the Cerebras Cloud, we actively operate, manage, and execute all work done on Condor Galaxy. Condor Galaxy is located at Colovore, a high-performance colocation facility in Santa Clara, and is operated under US laws, ensuring state of the art AI systems are not used by adversary states.
We're told Feldman wasn't aware of the concerns raised in the New York Times report prior to its publication this week. Asked how the startup's relationship with G42 might be impacted if these allegations or fears of close ties with Beijing were confirmed, a Cerebras spokesperson told us: "Cerebras will always act in the best interest of the US. Cerebras does not comment on speculation."
While the initial Condor Galaxy systems have been deployed in the US, it's not clear if future systems might be deployed abroad.
Banning clouds is hard
The Biden administration has taken aggressive steps to prevent the export and sale of advanced AI accelerators and chipmaking equipment to China. However, these restrictions don't do anything to prevent Chinese individuals or orgs from renting cloudy accelerators, which are freely available from many sources around the world.
Preventing the use of hosted AI infrastructure is a challenge the administration continues to consider.
The US Bureau of Industry and Security has sought comment from infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) providers on the feasibility of additional regulations restricting access to some of their services. The bureau wants to know how IaaS operators would identify customers developing or producing AI models of concern, and what actions could be taken to address them.
Biden also proposed regulation that would require US IaaS providers to report transactions from foreign persons which involve training of large AI models in his AI safety executive order. ®