TikTok owner ByteDance hiring AI chip designers amid China’s tech self-sufficiency drive

Tracy Qu
·3-min read

Beijing-based ByteDance, the owner of TikTok, said on Tuesday it was “building a team” to develop artificial intelligence (AI) chips, a move that aligns with the Chinese government’s push for self-sufficiency in semiconductors amid a global shortage of components and an ongoing tech war with the US.

The company has posted several chip-related jobs on its hiring website, most based in Beijing and Shanghai. Many of the positions are focused on chip design, with one job description asking for candidates with experience in chip design servers and electronic design automatic (EDA) tools, the software used for designing advanced chips.

“We are building our [chip] team, and will explore [business opportunities] in the AI chip area,” the company said in a statement on Tuesday.

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The most common type of AI chip is the graphics processing unit (GPU), which is used for “training” AI algorithms, while field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) and application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) are used to apply trained AI algorithms to real-world data inputs.

Like most tech companies that venture into chip products, successful designing its own AI chips would still require ByteDance to outsource the manufacturing to independent wafer foundries like Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) and China’s own Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC), which invest billions of US dollars each year in manufacturing equipment to stay at the forefront of the technology.

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The ByteDance move comes amid a global chip shortage, which began in the second half of last year but has worsened in recent months. Capacity at foundries like TSMC are stretched as they struggle to cope with demand from carmakers and consumer electronics firms that experienced a sharp uptick in sales amid signs the Covid-19 pandemic is easing and more economies are reopening.

Beijing has vowed to reduce its reliance on the United States for advanced semiconductor technologies and has doubled down on efforts to develop home-grown chips amid worsening US-China ties. The Chinese government will “vigorously support” its semiconductor industry, the head of China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) said this month.

A staff member shows a photonic AI chip during a press preview of the 2018 National Mass Innovation and Entrepreneurship Week in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua
A staff member shows a photonic AI chip during a press preview of the 2018 National Mass Innovation and Entrepreneurship Week in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua

China imported 96.4 billion semiconductor devices in the first two months of this year, up 36 per cent from the same period a year earlier, the highest year-on-year growth rate in six months, according to data released by the nation’s customs agency earlier this month.

ByteDance, which is famous for its recommendation algorithm used in TikTok, has been expanding to nearly every tech sector – including e-commerce, education and gaming – to grow its business. The company said earlier that it plans to recruit 13,000 new positions for its education business. It is also exploring e-commerce opportunities and to that end, has started banning third-party e-commerce platform links on its live-streaming channels.

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