Two years ago, a Chinese chip-design expert named Micree Zhan was reading China’s seminal science-fiction novel, The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin, while wrestling with how to create a new processor. He had already designed custom chips for the company he co-founded, Bitmain, that had made it into the world’s leading bitcoin miner, allowing it to dominate the new, hyper-competitive industry of unearthing bitcoins. Now he needed a chip that could launch Bitmain onto a new trajectory, one that would help it master a world-altering technology called deep learning, a branch of artificial intelligence.

While performing his nightly meditation, a practice he has kept up for nearly a decade, it suddenly came to Zhan. “It was late at night, and something inspired me—Sophon!” he recalls. A sophon is a fictional proton-sized supercomputer from The Three-Body Problem that is sent by an alien civilization to halt scientific progress on Earth. It’s capable of causing strange phenomena—such as inscribing flashing words on the retinas of elite scientists. The aliens use it to take over Earth when their own planet is destroyed by the chaotic gravitational forces of its three suns.

Bitmain’s newest product, the Sophon, may or may not take over deep learning. But by giving it such a name Zhan and his Bitmain co-founder, Jihan Wu, have signaled to the world their intentions. The Sophon unit will include Bitmain’s first piece of bespoke silicon for a revolutionary AI technology. If things go to plan, thousands of Bitmain Sophon units soon could be training neural networks in vast data centers around the world.

Bitmain could pull it off, says Michael Bedford Taylor, a professor at the University of Washington who has studied the bitcoin mining industry and its specialized chips. Taylor says these types of chips, called application-specific integrated circuits, or ASICs, that are designed to perform a single function extremely efficiently could create the next wave of distributed computing (pdf). “This will invigorate the hardware field,” he says. “We are about to see the emergence of all kinds of ASICs clouds, and the bitcoin hardware community has demonstrated that under the right conditions this can happen rapidly as a grassroots effort.”

China’s shadowy colossus

To grasp how a Beijing startup is poised to challenge the likes of Google, Nvidia, and AMD in the deep learning arms race, it’s essential to understand Bitmain’s pivotal role in the $70 billion bitcoin economy. Incorporated in Hong Kong as Bitmain Technologies Ltd, Bitmain’s controlling shareholder is a trust registered in the Cayman islands.

The company is a marvel of vertical integration. Bitmain designs the silicon that goes into its bitcoin mining rigs, assembles the machines, then sells them to customers around the world. It also operates the machines for its own account, runs vast bitcoin mines that it rents out on contract to others, and, finally, manages several of the world’s largest mining “pools”—agglomerations of processing power so huge that they greatly improve the odds of successfully mining a bitcoin block.
Bitmain may now be the most influential company in the bitcoin economy by virtue of the sheer amount of processing power, or hash rate, that it controls. Its mining pools, Antpool and BTC.com, account for 28.9% of all the processing power on the global bitcoin network.

Hash rate is critical because bitcoin is in the midst of a messy “civil war.” Controlling chunks of hash rate provides miners with a public vote on the bewildering array of technical proposals dictating bitcoin’s future. At the crux of the technical debate: How to increase the number of transactions the bitcoin network can handle at any given time. The recent split of bitcoin into bitcoin and bitcoin-cash illustrated one way to do this.

Bitcoin mining is the process of checking and adding new transactions to bitcoin’s immutable ledger—its blockchain. Miners must compete with one another to be the first to find a new block. In return for performing this work, which requires massive processing power and incurs hefty electricity costs, miners are rewarded with a certain number of bitcoins for each block they add to the blockchain. Currently, that’s 12.5 bitcoins per block, and a new block is found roughly every 10 minutes. At the current bitcoin price of about $4,000, that’s $50,000 up for grabs every 10 minutes, or $7.2 million a day.