China chases AI memory and cooling tech heats up

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China chases AI memory and cooling tech heats up

1 February 2024 Technology & Digitalization 0

Hi everyone! This is Cheng Ting-Fang sending greetings from Europe, where I am basking in the unexpected glow of winter sunshine.

I recently embarked on a twin-city trip to Brussels and London, where I had the privilege of participating as a panellist in two dialogues between the European bloc and the Indo-Pacific region. The journey began with a lengthy flight from Taipei to Brussels, with a connecting stop in Frankfurt, followed by a two-hour train ride on the Eurostar from Brussels to London.

During the events, I was able to talk with a diverse group of diplomats, trade officials and global affairs scholars from Asia, the US and Europe, a rare opportunity given my work covering industry and the tech supply chain. The most common topic these policymakers and experts raised was how to meaningfully reduce economic dependence on China while also coexisting with the world’s second-largest economy.

“In the past five to six years, economic security has become a very crucial thing for every country I spoke with,” a senior Japanese diplomat in Europe told me during a gala dinner in Brussels. “We do see this shared and growing concern in Europe and Asia that we all need to look beyond China.”

Other diplomats and officials said Europe should become a “third force” outside of the US-China rivalry and forge closer ties with Asian allies like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and south-east Asian nations — all now crucial players in ensuring the security of the tech supply chain.

While many countries are looking to lower their dependence on China, China itself is seeking to localise more production and reduce its dependence on foreign suppliers. While the country has been successful in building a competitive industry for some key electronic components, including liquid crystal displays and batteries, they are now venturing into areas more heavily dominated by foreign rivals, such as memory chips.

Memory upgrade

China is ramping up efforts to advance its artificial intelligence technologies, including the emerging field of advanced memory chips. As part of that push, ChangXin Memory Technologies (CXMT) aims to produce the country’s first domestically made high bandwidth memory (HBM) chips, a crucial component for enabling complex AI computing operations, writes Nikkei Asia’s Cheng Ting-Fang.

China’s drive to produce HBMs is aimed at reducing foreign dominance in this area amid an intensifying tech rivalry between Washington and Beijing.

CXMT is the country’s top maker of dynamic random access memory (Dram) and has been working on developing its own HBM technologies since last year. Sources say it has already ordered manufacturing and testing equipment for such production.

The Chinese Dram maker has finally caught up with foreign rivals in mainstream memory technologies. It announced that it has successfully produced LPDDR5, a new type of mobile Dram suitable for smartphones that industry leaders started to make around 2021. Leading handset makers Xiaomi and Transsion have verified CXMT’s products.

But building HBMs not only needs high-quality production of Dram chips as a foundation. It also requires the technology for precisely stacking them together, and analysts say it will be very challenging for CXMT to shake the global dominance in Dram and HBM in the short term. In the Dram world, South Korea’s Samsung and SK Hynix and Micron of the US controlled 97 per cent of market share, while in HBM, SK Hynix and Samsung already had more than 92 per cent of the market.

Explicit content warning

India has put tech companies on notice that they will be held legally liable for “deepfakes” published on their platforms, as the world’s most populous country wields its regulatory power in the run-up to a national election.

Rajeev Chandrasekhar, minister of state for electronics and IT, said India had set “very clear and explicit rules” on prohibited material — which in India includes content deemed harmful to children or a threat to national security, write the Financial Times’ John Reed in New Delhi and Hannah Murphy in London.

A government directive dated December 26 and sent to social media and messaging platforms active in India, including YouTube, X, Telegram and Snap and local social network Koo, reminded them to comply with Indian law on illegal content and make the rules clear to users in their terms of service and user agreements.

The warning makes India the latest country to rein in AI-generated fakes, in part with an eye to the danger they could pose to the integrity of democratic elections. Prime minister Narendra Modi, who will be seeking re-election to a third five-year term in an election expected in April and May, flagged the issue in remarks last year that appear to have either presaged or triggered the notice to tech companies.

“We are the world’s largest democracy [and] we are obviously deeply concerned about the impact of cross-border actors using disinformation, using misinformation, using deepfakes to cause problems in our democracy,” Chandrasekhar told the FT in an interview.

Overseas opportunities

Chart showing China’s exports dropped in 2023

Small and midsize Chinese companies are increasingly venturing overseas for growth, even seeking opportunities in the US despite geopolitical tension between Washington and Beijing.

Chinese businesses going overseas is not a novel concept, but the urgency to do so has intensified since China shifted away from three years of pandemic restrictions, writes Nikkei Asia’s Cissy Zhou.

A disappointing domestic economic recovery and intensifying competition at home are fuelling the trend, helping to make “going global” a buzzword in China over the past year. Local governments have actively supported this trend by facilitating the participation of export-oriented companies in international trade shows and exhibitions.

This overseas push comes as China’s exports declined for the first time since 2016 in dollar terms last year, highlighting the sluggishness of global demand. Exports to the US led the downturn, plummeting by 13 per cent from the previous year.

Hot growth in cool tech

As the artificial intelligence race intensifies, the energy demands of these powerful systems have created a new business opportunity for tech suppliers: how to effectively cool down AI data centres.

Liteon Technology Corp, a Taiwanese electronics component and power supply solutions maker, is among those aiming to tap this massive opportunity, write Nikkei Asia’s Lauly Li and Cheng Ting-Fang.

The increasing power consumption of AI chips has led to a surge in heat generation, which traditional air cooling solutions are struggling to keep up with, Liteon senior executive Simon Ong told Nikkei Asia. That means liquid cooling is becoming increasingly important to ensure the performance and longevity of AI servers.

AI servers are equipped with parallel computing power, allowing them to handle complex data processing and AI workloads. Growing demand for this type of server, which is much higher in value than traditional data servers, has created a new opportunity for companies to tackle the issue of excess heat.

Suppliers expanding their efforts in this area include Delta Electronics, a major player in the power and thermal solutions segment, and thermal control providers Cooler Master Technology and Auras Technology. Chipmakers like Intel and server system integrators such as Gigabyte Technology, Inventec and Wiwynn are also investing heavily in developing innovative cooling technologies to meet the growing demand for AI servers.

Suggested reads

  1. The Japanese semiconductor deal spooking rivals and investors (FT)

  2. India’s electric vehicle boom stalls over charging challenges (Nikkei Asia)

  3. Canon aims to ship low-cost ‘stamp’ machine this year to disrupt chipmaking (FT)

  4. Elon Musk’s AI start-up seeks to raise $6bn from investors to challenge OpenAI (FT)

  5. Vietnam is a top target for Chips Act aid funds, US says (Nikkei Asia)

  6. Samsung expects memory business to turn profitable in Q1 (Nikkei Asia)

  7. White House science chief signals US-China co-operation on AI safety (FT)

  8. Fujitsu CFO apologises for UK Post Office scandal (Nikkei Asia)

  9. SK Hynix returns to profit boosted by AI memory chip demand (FT)

  10. Chinese EV leader BYD makes aggressive push in Asean (Nikkei Asia)

#techAsia is co-ordinated by Nikkei Asia’s Katherine Creel in Tokyo, with assistance from the FT tech desk in London.

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