Sony backs maker of tiny Raspberry Pi computers with fresh funding, access to A.I. chips

A Raspberry Pi 2 Model B single-board computer.
Olly Curtis | Future Publishing | Future | Getty Images

The company behind the Raspberry Pi line of computers has raised fresh investment from Sony’s semiconductor unit, in a deal aimed at advancing its efforts in artificial intelligence.

Sony Semiconductor Solutions, a subsidiary of Sony Corporation, invested an undisclosed amount in Raspberry Pi Ltd, the trading company of Raspberry Pi, the company said in a statement on Wednesday.

The extent of the funding was not revealed, but Eben Upton, Raspberry Pi’s co-founder and CEO, said that the firm raised the cash at the same $500 million valuation it was worth in a 2021 funding round, when it brought in $45 million.

Upton established Raspberry Pi in 2012 with the aim of making computing more accessible to young people. Raspberry Pi’s tiny single-board computers are the size of a credit card and have been used to build everything from high-altitude balloons to small radio-controlled submarines.

Raspberry Pi’s customers were mainly hobbyists and teachers in the early days. The company has since become a more active player in the enterprise — in a typical year, roughly 70% of its sales now come from commercial customers embedding its products into factories or consumer devices, Upton told CNBC.

The deal extends an existing manufacturing relationship between Sony and Raspberry Pi. A new partnership, forged alongside the investment, will see Raspberry Pi users and developers gain access to Sony’s AITRIOS platform, allowing them to develop visual sensing applications using AI cameras equipped with its IMX500 imaging sensors.

Upton said this would help kids understand computers as they exist today, rather than machines from several decades ago.

“It’s super important we teach kids about computers as they are now, rather than [how they were] 30 years ago,” Upton told CNBC. “While Raspberry Pi looks back, on the education, we hark back to the glory years of 1980s, we’ve got to be conscious we’re not trying to make faster versions of 1980s computers.”

People have already been experimenting with Raspberry Pi products for machine learning applications, Upton said, adding that the Sony partnership will allow them to do more in that field.

It comes at a time of tremendous hype for the AI industry. ChatGPT, the popular AI chatbot from OpenAI, has become a viral phenomenon, thanks to its ability to generate new content such as essays and poems from simple user prompts. Since its launch in November last year, ChatGPT has amassed over 100 million monthly users, according to UBS.

At the same time, the capabilities of ChatGPT has led to some worries in the tech community that AI may be becoming too powerful and could displace many jobs.

In an open letter last month, Elon Musk and several other tech leaders called for a six-month moratorium on developing AI more advanced than GPT-4 — the latest large language model from OpenAI — citing risks to society. Italy has gone as far as to ban the service, blaming fears around privacy.

Upton said that, although GPT-4 and other large language models such as Google’s Bard are impressive, he thinks concern that they will lead to AI capable of general intelligence on par with humans is overblown.

“You can naively say GPT-3 was good, and GPT-4 looks a lot better, so GPT-8 is going to be general AI, self-aware. That is probably not an extrapolation you should make,” Upton said.

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