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What does Nvidia's meteoric rise indicate about AI's potential?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The computer chip-maker at the center of the artificial intelligence boom surpassed Microsoft earlier this week to become the world's most valuable company. Nvidia started this year with less than half of the market value of either Microsoft or Apple, but demand for Nvidia's chips and the price of its stock have risen dramatically as AI has gained prominence. Stephen Witt has written about the company and its CEO for The New Yorker and joins us now to talk about their meteoric rise. Welcome.

STEPHEN WITT: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: Well, thank you for being with us. So let me ask you 'cause Nvidia, it's not exactly a household name the way Apple and Microsoft have been for, like, decades. Can you just start by telling us a little bit about the company and how it has become so central to the growth of the AI industry?

WITT: Sure. Well, Nvidia started out as a manufacturer of video game hardware. They built graphics accelerators for games like World of Warcraft or Call of Duty. But about 10 years ago, the CEO, Jensen Huang, realized that those circuits that were doing these kind of 3D renderings could be repurposed to develop powerful artificial intelligence systems. If you've seen systems like ChatGPT and you're wondering where they come from, well, they need to train. They need to train and deploy on gigantic supercomputers...

CHANG: Right.

WITT: ...You know the size of airplane hangers, and those supercomputers are just full of Nvidia equipment.

CHANG: So interesting. And how rare is it in the tech world to see such a dramatic rise like Nvidia's?

WITT: It's unprecedented. It's unprecedented, essentially, in the history of capitalism. You'd almost have to go back to the discovery of petroleum or the combustion engine to see a rise like this. You know, Nvidia went public in 2001 and basically was just another stock for about 20 years. It was only when they pivoted to AI that this rise began. That really was due to the vision of the CEO, Jensen Huang, who, on the basis of a handful of promising scientific results about a decade ago, decided to bet his entire company on this concept. Today that bet has paid off.

CHANG: Yeah. And Huang is now, like - what? - the 11th richest person in the world. Mark Zuckerberg at Meta has at one point called him the Taylor Swift of tech. I know that you sat down with Huang last year. Tell us about this man as a person. Like, what is he like?

WITT: He's extremely funny. He's charismatic. He's fun to be around, but he can be, I think, a little difficult to work for. I would compare him to a general in an army or perhaps a really intense basketball coach. He pushes his employees hard to get the best out of them. And they love him. They love him like they naturally love, like, a true leader. But at times, he can be truly very demanding.

CHANG: What does Nvidia's monumental success right now suggest to you about the future of AI?

WITT: Jensen Huang has compared what he builds to the new industrial revolution. He compares it to a factory, where data goes into the factory and intelligence comes out. If that's correct, it's going to revolutionize the way our economy functions. It's going to essentially usher in a radical new era of productivity. Everything will work differently if that is true. Investors are betting on that being true. That's why the stock is up so much.

CHANG: Well, are there any concerns despite investors betting so significantly right now? Are there any concerns that maybe AI is just the latest thing; the bubble will eventually burst and this pace can't continue indefinitely?

WITT: This is not the dot-com bubble. This is not vapor. If you talk to computer scientists - academic computer scientists who don't have a stake in this - they will tell you that this is one of the most important and revolutionary technologies in the history of computing. Now, whether the profits from that all flow to Nvidia over the long term is an open question, but the seismic shift in technology that is happening here is real. It's not hype.

CHANG: That is New Yorker contributor Stephen Witt. Thank you very much for your reporting.

WITT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.