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AI Chip Startup Tenstorrent Hires Chip Design Legend Jim Keller

‘Jim Keller is one of the most respected processor architects in the industry. He‘s been responsible for the turnaround efforts at AMD twice,’ says a hardware architect at an AI system provider who has been impressed with Tenstorrent’s Grayskull processor.

Less than a year after his abrupt departure at Intel, chip design legend Jim Keller is taking his talents to help lead a rising startup in the AI chip space.

Toronto-based Tenstorrent announced Wednesday that it has hired Keller as president and CTO — a role that will put him in charge of making the startup’s Grayskull processor the premier solution for software that relies on machine learning. Keller has also joined the company’s board.

[Related: The 10 Coolest AI Chip Startups Of 2020]

The hiring of Keller comes after the startup began shipping samples of its Grayskull processor to partners last year. The startup has raised a total of $34 million in funding from investors.

Keller is credited for groundbreaking silicon work at Tesla, Apple and AMD, where he helped develop one of the industry‘s first 64-bit processors. At AMD, he also helped design the Zen CPU architecture that has helped the company gain market share against Intel in recent years.

Keller was most recently senior vice president of the Technology, Systems Architecture and Client Group and general manager of the Silicon Engineering Group at Intel, where he was responsible for designing next-generation processor technologies. He abruptly left the company last June for personal reasons, prompting Intel to reshuffle its engineering organization.

“Tenstorrent was founded on the belief that the ongoing shift towards [machine learning]-centric software necessitates a corresponding transformation in computational capabilities,” said Ljubisa Bajic, Tenstorrent‘s CEO and co-founder, in a statement. “There is nobody more capable of executing this vision than Jim Keller, a leader who is equally great at designing computers, cultures, and organizations. I am thrilled to be working with Jim and beyond excited about the possibilities our partnership unlocks.”

Keller, who was the startup’s first investor, said Tenstorrent’s approach to hardware is the best solution for addressing software that relies on machine learning, which the company referred to as “Software 2.0.”

“Software 2.0 is the largest opportunity for computing innovation in a long time. Victory requires a comprehensive re-thinking of compute and low-level software,” Keller said in a statement. “Tenstorrent has made impressive progress, and with the most promising architecture out there, we are poised to become a next-gen computing giant.”

The company has previously said that its Grayskull processor is the first in the industry to use a conditional execution architecture to dynamically eliminate unnecessary computation, which allows the processor to adapt to increasingly larger AI models. Bajic, who previously worked with Keller at AMD, told ZDNet last year that the company aims to surpass Nvidia in AI performance by several magnitudes.

Thomas Sohmers, principal hardware architect at Lambda Labs, a San Francisco-based provider of GPU servers, workstations and laptops for deep learning applications, said Keller is a significant hire for Tenstorrent because of his reputation for helping design new processor architectures that have a lasting impact on the companies he’s worked for.

“Jim Keller is one of the most respected processor architects in the industry,” he said. “He‘s been responsible for the turnaround efforts at AMD twice.”

Sohmers said some credit is due to Keller for Apple’s new Arm-based M1 processors for Mac computers, even though they arrived several years after Keller left the company. Keller’s work at Apple included the A4, A5, A6 and A7 processors for iPhones.

“He was one of the core architects for Apple‘s whole silicon architecture, their direction that they’ve been going, which has now led to them having major improvements with the M1,” he said.

Sohmers said Lambda Labs, which counts Nvidia and AI chip vendor Graphcore as partners, is evaluating Tenstorrent’s processors, and he’s impressed with the results so far.

“As a processor architect myself, having a background in that, I have been very impressed with their architectural design and the direction they‘ve been going with that,” he said.

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