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What Is Tigris? Sam Altman’s TPU Chip Venture Could Supply Demand From OpenAI and Jony Ive AI Hardware Project

Last Updated February 12, 2024 4:28 PM
James Morales
Last Updated February 12, 2024 4:28 PM

Key Takeaways

  • Sam Altman has been soliciting investment for a new AI chip venture.
  • Potential backers include the government of the United Arab Emirates.
  • If it is to compete with firms like the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), Altman’s proposed venture may need trillions of dollars.

When it was reported in November that Sam Altman had been touring the Middle East, soliciting investment for a new AI chip venture, the news was drowned out by his concurrent ousting and subsequent reinstating as the CEO of OpenAI. But with his leading role at the AI developer now secured, Altman hasn’t given up on the planned foray into semiconductor manufacturing. 

According to a recent Wall Street Journal report , fundraising efforts for the proposed new company have progressed significantly. With the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) having signed on as a potential investor, people familiar with the matter said that “Tigris” could be on course to raise trillions of dollars eventually.

Altman’s AI Chip Manufacturer May Need $7 Trillion

Manufacturing semiconductors is expensive. That’s why there are only 3 companies in the world capable of making the latest, most complex computer chips. 

As such, the Journal’s sources reportedly said that Altman’s ambitious venture may ultimately require between 5 and 7 billion dollars. That figure is unprecedented and would make the company the most valuable in the world by contemporary standards. But if it is going to take on the likes of Intel, Samsung and the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), a few hundred billion might not cut it.

Worldwide semiconductor revenues.
Worldwide semiconductor revenues. Source: Semiconductor Industry Association. Source

Even NVIDIA, which currently dominates the market for the Graphical Processor Units (GPUs) favored by the AI industry, subcontracts manufacturing to TSMC. So too do AMD, Apple, Qualcomm and other giants in the space.

In other words, Altman’s plan isn’t just to take on NVIDIA in the lucrative AI chip business. He wants his next company to sit at the top of the food chain. 

Custom Silicon Could Power the Next Phase of AI Development

Currently, AI developers rely on GPUs to train AI models. And while NVIDIA and others have increasingly focused on AI-specific GPUs, the basic design of modern AI chips was first developed for an entirely different type of computation.

When Bloomberg initially reported Altman’s plans for the chip sector, it said the proposed manufacturer would research and develop Tensor Processing Units (TPUs). Unlike GPUs, TPUs are designed from the ground up to handle machine learning workloads.

But could a TPU manufacturer really command a valuation greater than the combined market capitalization of Apple and Microsoft? If there is anyone qualified to pull off such an extraordinary feat, it’s Sam Altman.

Catering to Demand From Altman’s AI Empire

Alongside fellow OpenAI founder and former board member Elon Musk, Sam Altman is easily one of the most powerful men in AI.

As well as heading up one of the biggest and most influential companies in the business, Altman owns equity in dozens of companies that are either directly developing AI, or operate in tangential sectors. These include Lyso, Induced AI and Musk’s brain implant startup, Neuralink, to name just a few. 

Moreover, Altman has also demonstrated previous interest in the AI hardware space. For example, under his leadership, OpenAI has tapped Apple’s former chief design officer, Jony Ive, to design a new consumer hardware device that would function as a kind of post-smartphone AI interface.

Considering how many startups he helped incubate as the President of Y Combinator too, Altman’s influence and connections in the sector are unrivaled and could provide a significant boost to the proposed chip maker he has been busy lining up potential investors for.

The $7 trillion figure might seem outlandish today. But if the venture succeeds in establishing itself as the TSMC of AI, during what is likely still the early years of the sector’s expansion, the sizable price tag may well be justified.

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