Park Sung-hyun, co-founder and CEO of South Korean chip designer Rebellions, compared the latest buzz over artificial intelligence-powered chatbot ChatGPT to that of the first iPhone decades ago.
“This is a kind of industrial revolution. There may be no drastic change immediately, but we don’t know how far AI will go in replacing humans in the future,” Park told The Korea Herald in a recent interview, adding that it was the iPhone 3 that started bringing drastic changes across industries.
The fever for generative AI started early this year, with US tech giant Microsoft making massive investments into OpenAI, the developer of humanlike chatbot ChatGPT. But Park and his team had long prepared for the “tipping point” as they focused on developing more energy-efficient chips solely dedicated to AI services.
And investors reacted to the vision positively. The 3-year-old startup has raised a cumulative 112 billion won ($86 million) from a slew of global investors, including Singapore-based Temasek' Pavilion Capital and local telecommunications giant KT Corp., even before its first chip made its debut.
“Even before the emergence of ChatGPT, we predicted that AI services and their operators will face cost burdens in line with the market expansion,” the CEO said.
Rebellions was founded in September 2020 by a group of chip experts who worked at global tech companies like Samsung Electronics, SK hynix, Intel and IBM. Park earned his master’s and doctorate degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after earning his bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. Prior to setting up his own business, he built his career at Intel Labs, Samsung Research America, SpaceX and Morgan Stanley.
“We were a niche player in Korea. Most local startups focused on services rather than technologies,” the CEO said, recalling the early days of his business. “It was hard to find a deep-tech hardware-driven startup because it required tens of billions won to run it.”
The Korea-based startup drew immediate attention from the nation’s fabless industry when it released its first chip for AI-based stock trading, called ION, in November 2021. The chip is now widely adopted by several Wall Street investment firms, including Soft Bank-backed Qraft Technologies.
Another breakthrough came last month as it launched another AI chip for data centers, named ATOM, to compete against US chip giant Nvidia, the dominant market leader with an almost 90 percent market share. It is also the first Korea-made large language model chip, the CEO said.
Park noted the company’s competitive edge is its focus on developing a neural processing unit, a more power-efficient machine learning accelerator, than a graphic processing unit that is more widely produced by its bigger rivals, including Nvidia.
“ATOM is at least 10 times faster than existing GPUs while using less energy,” Park said. “Tech companies are turning their eyes to AI-specialized NPUs rather than general-purpose GPUs.”
Rebellions plans to start mass-producing the ATOM chip within the first quarter using Samsung’s 5-nanometer technology for its adoption for KT’s upcoming hyperscale AI model Mideum, which is expected to be unveiled in the first half of this year.
“While the semiconductor industry in the US is increasingly focusing on software, the hardware sector is growing big in Asia. Although Taiwan is still ahead of Korea, overseas investors see the two countries have a well-prepared chip ecosystem. They also give a positive evaluation on Korea’s startup fever,” he added.
Last June, the South Korean government unveiled its plans to foster a domestic industry, investing 1.2 trillion won over the next five years for research and development in a bid to increase the market share of local AI chips in domestic data centers to 80 percent by 2030. With such support, Rebellions looks to become a unicorn startup with a valuation exceeding $1 billion next year, the CEO said.
“We’re looking forward to raising another 200 billion won through a Series B funding round next year to introduce a bigger capacity AI chip,” Park said. “Our ultimate goal is to become Korea’s Nvidia and the next Samsung in the advanced logic chip market.”