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About 28 years after he started Nvidia, CEO Jensen Huang received the chip industry’s highest honor, the Robert N. Noyce Award.
Huang received the honor from his peers at the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) annual awards dinner tonight. The award is named after Intel cofounder Robert Noyce, who is credited with numerous pioneering achievements at the dawn of the chip industry. He was nicknamed the “mayor of Silicon Valley” and known for aphorisms like, “Don’t be encumbered by the past. Go out and do something wonderful.” Noyce passed away in 1990.
These days, Huang is a pretty good candidate for being the mayor of Silicon Valley, as Nvidia has outgrown Intel in many ways and his publicly traded company is worth $789 billion, compared to $202 billion for Intel.
The award recognizes a leader who has made outstanding contributions to the semiconductor industry in technology or public policy.
SIA president and CEO John Neuffer said earlier that Huang’s vision and tireless execution have greatly strengthened the chip industry, revolutionized computing, and advanced artificial intelligence. Huang said that he was accepting the award on behalf of the employees and the executives who have worked so hard for the company.
“But,” he said, “I would like to keep it at my house.”
Huang founded Nvidia in 1993 and has served as CEO since its inception. Starting out in 3D graphics, Huang showed me a demo of the company’s graphics chip and its “Windows accelerator” application. That was when I was at the San Jose Mercury News in 1995, and it was Huang’s first interview with the press.
Nvidia went on to help build the 3D gaming market into the world’s largest entertainment industry. More recently, Nvidia tapped the parallel processing it used for its graphics processing units (GPUs) to do non-graphics compute tasks. That turned into a huge application in AI, where Nvidia’s chips are becoming the brains of computers, robots, and self-driving cars.
Now his company is trying to acquire processor architecture firm Arm for $40 billion. Huang joked that one of the people who preceded him on stage, Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon, is the perfect incoming chairman of the SIA — which talks to regulators — because he has been going around to all the regulators of the world to kill the Arm deal.
In the over 25 years since the company’s first chip, scene complexity in computer graphics has increased around 500 million times, Huang said recently. Moore’s Law, which predicts chip performance will double every couple of years, would have increased only 100,000 times in the same period if unaided by better chip design.
That relentless innovation has paid off. Nvidia employs more than 20,000 people. Huang has been collecting honors this year, as he was he was named one of Time magazine’s top 100 most influential people.
“Jensen Huang is an icon of the industry,” said John Neuffer, CEO of the SIA, in introducing Huang.
On to the metaverse
Huang is also a fan of the intersection between science fiction and technology and has recently been talking more about the metaverse, the universe of virtual worlds that are all interconnected, like in novels such as Snow Crash and Ready Player One.
Huang said that Nvidia is going to build a “digital twin of the Earth,” and that is going to be something that serves as a foundation for the metaverse and it will also serve another purpose in helping with climate research. He said it will take a couple of years to do. It will simulate the Earth’s climate decades into the future.
“We’re going to take data from satellites over the last 10 years and ingest petabytes a day into a supercomputer and then use it to predict the climate’s future,” he said.
Afterward, I asked Huang if he builds the digital twin of the Earth, will he get the metaverse for free? And he said that was correct. He said all of Nvidia’s superpowers are coming together to build this digital twin, this climate model, that can predict the Earth’s future. And he said, “It was what we were put on this Earth to do.”
He came from humble roots and he talked about it with tech author and former New York Times writer John Markoff.
Huang joked about how his parents sent him and his brother from Taiwan to a reform school in Oneida, Kentucky, by accident, when he was in elementary school. (His father actually didn’t want the boys growing up in the unstable country of Thailand, where the elder Huang was working at the time).
But life in the U.S. wasn’t easy. The Huang brothers had to learn how to defend themselves at that boarding school. Huang joked that he had no friends and so he joined a computer club. His family couldn’t afford to buy a computer, Huang said, but he took an interest in learning programming.
Prior to founding Nvidia, Huang worked at LSI Logic and Advanced Micro Devices. He holds a BSEE degree from Oregon State University (paid for by AMD) and an MSEE degree from Stanford University.
He and two cofounders — Curtis Priem and Chris Malachowsky — started Nvidia in a small office in Fremont, California.
Huang is a recipient of the IEEE Founder’s Medal; the Dr. Morris Chang Exemplary Leadership Award; and honorary doctorate degrees from Taiwan’s National Chiao Tung University, National Taiwan University, and Oregon State University. In 2019, Harvard Business Review ranked him No. 1 on its list of the world’s 100 best-performing CEOs over the lifetime of their tenure. In 2017, he was named Fortune‘s Businessperson of the Year.
Harry Shum of Microsoft Research said that Huang was an “engineer’s CEO.”
During his conversation with Markoff, Huang talked about why parallel processing, which was prevalent in graphics chips and not CPUs, was so key to deep learning and the biggest breakthroughs in AI.
“Deep learning made such incredible progress,” Huang said. “In the last two years, researchers came up with such incredible breakthroughs. We figured out a way to let a deep learning neural network learn the laws of physics and to make predictions that obey the laws of physics.”
That helped some algorithms run 10,000 times faster, and by scaling that out to lots of GPUs is a way to make AI programs much faster. And much of that is due to human creativity, and not just the benefits of Moore’s Law manufacturing improvements. So Huang believes that lots of problems can be solved today in our generation, like climate science, thanks to superpowers being created by Nvidia’s superpowers.
“We have to get on top of this thing today,” Huang said.
Last year, the Noyce award went to Lisa Su, CEO of rival Advanced Micro Devices. She mentioned to me once that Huang is actually a distant relative of hers.
The CHIPS for America Act
The gathering was the first time the chip industry had been together for the SIA event since the fall of 2019. The dinner was attended by hundreds of semiconductor industry executives, as well as some politicians. Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer was there, as was Eric Holcomb of Indiana.
The industry’s connection to politics is palpable now. Infrastructure investment is hugely important now, and the industry faces a huge shortage of chips. Companies like Nvidia design their chips, mostly in Silicon Valley (and elsewhere in the world), but most of the chips are manufactured in Asia. Only 12% of chips are made in the U.S. now, compared to 37% decades earlier.
The proposed CHIPS for America Act would spend $52 billion on domestic chip production, and Gina Raimondo, U.S. Commerce Secretary, said in a video message that she spends time every day urging Congress to pass it.
John Neuffer, CEO of the SIA, said at the dinner that making a big capital investment in the chip industry could generate hundreds of thousands of high-level jobs in the U.S. And this is happening at a time when products like cars are ever more dependent on chips. When self-driving cars come along, the auto industry will become even more dependent on chips. That’s why General Motors and Ford have teamed up with chipmaker Globalfoundries to produce chips in the future.
Huang said his company has been working on the automotive business with chips for computer vision and Ai for 12 years.
“It’s been a zero-billion-dollar business for a decade, and hopefully it won’t be a zero-billion-dollar business for another decade,” Huang said.
While there is a big chip shortage in the pandemic, companies like Nvidia have prospered and created a lot of jobs during the past couple of years. Neuffer said global demand for chips is expected to increase 60% over the next decade, and 2021 will be the biggest year in chip industry history, Neuffer said.
“It’s a time of great challenges and great opportunities for our industry,” Neuffer said.
Raimondo said we produce zero percent of the most advanced chips in the worldwide semiconductor industry, and she said we need to invest more in the U.S.
“These investments are long overdue,” she said.
In a video message, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said how dangerously dependent we are on foreign manufacturing for chips, and consumers are facing longer waits and delays because of the shortage. He said the defense industry is also dependent on foreign chip production, and he hopes more pending legislation will pay for semiconductor industry tax credits. And he pitched New York state as the place to locate all the new chip production, amid giggles in the room.
Huang recently received a distinguished lifetime achievement award by the Asian American Engineer of the Year from the Chinese Institute of Engineers (CIE) group. Huang pointed out he was “destined to be an engineer,” as his father was an engineer in Taiwan. His brothers were engineers, and his wife, Lori, whom he met as a sophomore at Oregon State University and also attended the dinner, was also an engineer. Their daughter Madison works at Nvidia.
In his acceptance speech for the CIE award, Huang made a rare comment beyond Nvidia’s business matters, noting the scourge of recent anti-Asian violence: “Racism is one flywheel we must stop.”
Huang said that Nvidia’s work is so important that he views it as the “construction workers of the 21st century.”
Today, Markoff asked Huang what Nvidia would be doing five years from now. Huang said, “I’ll still be hear. You guys are serving a term. I’m serving life.”
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