Nvidia’s Jensen Huang: prophet of the AI age

Jensen Huang’s Nvidia started out in computer games. That may have been merely a toehold on the route to global dominance in the tech industry.

In 1993, Jensen Huang quit a well-paid position as a Silicon Valley chip designer to launch a videogames venture with two friends. They called it Nvidia – a play on the Latin word for “envy”. At the time, “many people thought he was mad”, says The Times, and he struggled to raise seed capital. But nearly 30 years on, Huang is presiding over the largest and most valuable semiconductor company in the world and hailed as one of tech’s great visionaries. “Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk – I put Jensen in that group,” says one admirer. 

Sprinkled with 21st-century gold dust

With hindsight, Nvidia’s early focus on games seems “an unconventional path” to global dominance, says the Financial Times. But Huang’s great breakthrough was the realisation that the data-intensive chips needed to create imaginary gaming worlds could be put to more scientific uses. The sector then was “a zero billion-dollar market”, he tells Forbes. But “we postulated” that this new industry, with its “rich and beautiful” 3D graphics, was going to be one of the largest in tech. After floating in 1999, Nvidia evolved from making PC graphics cards to graphics processors (GPUs) before taking the major leap into programming GPUs for more general-purpose tasks in 2007. Its chips have since become “the main engines for training the neural networks at the heart of artificial intelligence [AI]” – in other words, 21st-century gold dust. Nvidia’s shares have leaped tenfold since 2016.

Huang, 58, cuts a somewhat flamboyant figure, habitually adding a leather jacket to the all-black Silicon Valley uniform, and sporting a prominent tattoo based on Nvidia’s logo at the top of one arm, says Fortune. He had it done to mark the stock hitting $100 and claims to have cried “like a baby” from the pain. 

Born in 1963 in Taiwan, Huang moved to the US a decade later and grew up in Oregon. His education – at a Baptist boarding school in rural Kentucky – was somewhat unusual, and duties included cleaning the bathrooms daily for a dorm of 150 boys. But he describes it as a formative experience, adding that he “loved every minute”. A trained electrical engineer – he studied first at Oregon State and then Stanford – Huang has always combined his talents with technology with a “ruthless focus on execution”, Adobe chief executive Shantanu Narayen told Fortune. He’s not the sort of visionary who talks “about going to Mars or something”, observes an early Nvidia backer. “His vision is out five to ten years.” He’s widely admired for positioning his company to take advantage of blossoming trends: for understanding “where the puck is going”.

Of late, Huang’s puck has been whirling around the Cambridge HQ of Arm, the UK chip champion he hopes to buy from Japan’s SoftBank for about $40bn – assuming the UK government, which is examining the deal on national-security grounds, allows the deal to go head. Huang reckons that acquiring the chipmaker at the heart of most smart devices globally will be a transformative move – hastening his vision to unleash “the modern Big Bang”. 

Unsurprisingly, the rest of the industry has misgivings about such a stranglehold of power. Moreover, the US-China trade war, and the current acute shortage of chips, have rammed home, even to the most technically illiterate, the strategic importance of semiconductors. Huang may go down in history as one of the great prophets of the AI age. Unfortunately for him, perhaps, the rest of the world has cottoned on.

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