Artificial Intelligence Gets A Boost With Hardware-Centric Nervana’s $600K Round From The Partovis, Sam Altman

Nervana Systems, a San Diego-based startup that is focusing on hardware — not software — to boost the performance of artificial intelligence algorithms, just raised $600,000 from investors including Ali and Hadi Partovi, Y Combinator’s Sam Altman and Geoff Ralston, Scott Banister and Allen & Co.

Other investors included Owen Van Natta, Eric Baker, Google veteran Farzad Khosrowshahi, Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, Dropbox vice president Aditya Agrawal and Ruchi Sanghvi, and SV Angel.

They’re developing specialized hardware for machine learning algorithms, unlike Google-acquired Deep Mind or Vicarious, which focus on software.

“The algorithms exist and they’re getting better,” said Naveen Rao, a computational neuroscientist who co-founded the company. “But hardware requires much higher performance than that. It’s already the bottleneck.”

Rao started working at Sun Microsystems on UltraSparc processors, then went on to work at a number of other companies before he landed at Qualcomm, where he was part of the neuromorphic research group investigating artificial neural computation.

The study of the human brain is informing advanced artificial intelligence algorithms that can manipulate vast sets of data. Rao said that deep learning could be applied to all sorts of problems from Netflix data for recommendations to complex drug interaction models.

But Nervana is focusing on building general-purpose central processing units, that will require less data to be be moved back and forth between parallel processors as they are processed.

“We hope to do this at much higher performance levels that require less power,” he said.