Nvidia has released a stripped-down version of its high-end A100 GPU as a way to circumvent restrictions the US government has recently imposed on how companies can sell AI training equipment to countries like China and Russia. The card, known as the A800, should have the same huge computing capabilities like the original but can only communicate with other cards in a computer cluster at 400 gigabytes per second instead of 600 Gbps. According to the Wall Street Journalthat means the A800 should be just as good for simple tasks, but will be significantly less effective when part of something like a supercomputer.
An unnamed Nvidia spokesperson told Reuters that the card is an “alternative product to the Nvidia A100 GPU for customers in China” that “passes the US government’s clear test for reduced export controls and cannot be programmed to exceed it.” While the exact specs against which the US is testing is not public, the WSJ does say it’s about interconnection speeds, as well as “other performance thresholds.”
Nvidia’s comment about not being able to be programmed to exceed the limits is important. When GPUs were in short supply, the company announced that its new cards would have limiters that: could not be hacked, making the cards supposedly less desirable for crypto mining. Famously, it didn’t take long for people to get around those restrictions.
The US has imposed strict limits on the types of chips US companies can sell to China. In October, the Biden administration announced new restrictions on what kinds of chips and chip-manufacturing equipment could be sold to the country, requiring manufacturers to obtain an export license. In September, Nvidia and AMD both warned investors that their companies may be impacted by new restrictions on the export of their flagship products.
The government has said the limits are an attempt to limit China’s technical and military capabilities. Some technologists, such as former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, warned that the US can’t keep up, although other researchers can pushed back against the arms race framing. However, it is possible that chips like the A100 could be used for military or other nefarious purposes. As my colleague James Vincent noted, they could be used to “create automated drone targeting systems or the facial recognition systems China uses to monitor its population.”
Whether or not the A800’s slower interlink speeds will be enough to hinder or significantly slow down that work, it seems Nvidia thinks it’s enough to meet government demands. At least that’s good news for the company — it estimated the restrictions could affect up to $400 million in quarterly revenue “if customers don’t want to buy the company’s alternative product offerings or if the [US Government] does not grant licenses on time.”