AMD CEO: Security Flaws ‘A Wakeup Call’ for Chip Makers

January 8, 2019, 8:27 AM UTC

A new calendar year usually means an explosion of new products from technology companies of all kinds. Look no further than this week’s CES, the annual consumer electronics industry trade show in Las Vegas, for evidence of that.

But this time a year ago began with the worst kind of bang for semiconductor companies like Intel and AMD. Last January, security researchers disclosed two major security holes for chips found in phones, computers, and servers alike. The flaws, nicknamed Meltdown and Spectre (paging Agent 007), made it possible for hackers to steal personal information.

It also put the industry on notice, AMD’s chief executive said Monday.

“I do think it was a bit of a wakeup call for us manufacturers,” said Lisa Su at a Fortune Brainstorm Tech dinner at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. “[Security] is fundamental. It’s a day-one expectation that when you buy a processor, it’s not going to leak your data.”

“We can never say that we’ve caught everything,” the CEO cautioned. But AMD is plowing plenty of resources into engineering more secure hardware and software on a product roadmap that extends several years into the future.

It was a sobering moment in an otherwise spirited, freewheeling discussion with Fortune’s Michal Lev-Ram. Su has plenty of reason to be optimistic. Her Santa Clara, Calif. chipmaker ended last year as the top stock on the S&P 500. (It now trades around $20.50 with a market capitalization of more than $20 billion.) And this year marks AMD’s 50th anniversary, a triumph of survival after the company seemed left for dead in 2016.

Though there have been some recent sharp bumps in the road—a U.S.-China trade war here, a cryptocurrency market implosion there—AMD remains highly focused on developing standout technology and products, Su said.

“There’s no question that technology is extraordinarily competitive,” she said, adding: “It’s about what we can bring to the party.” (A party in which high-performance processing to solve “big problems” arrives alongside the tortilla chips and the punch, anyway.)

Su, who holds a doctorate in electrical engineering from MIT, proved unflappable during the course of the interview. The aforementioned trade war between China and the U.S.? “There’s clear importance in finding our way through this,” she said. Global unrest? “We actually feel pretty good about the markets we’re in,” she replied. Amazon Web Services—an AMD partner—building its own chips? “I think that’s totally fine,” she responded. “Our goal is to make sure we’re a big part of that ecosystem.”

Even the slowing of Moore’s Law, long the dictating dynamic for innovation in the chip business, didn’t faze the CEO. “What does that mean for us?” she asked. “That we have to work a lot harder to get the type of performance gains we were used to in the past. It means we have to be creative.”

All of the market gyrations, boom-bust cycles, and technological disruption spells opportunity, Su said. And there’s plenty of room for a resurgent AMD.

“Hardware may be sexy again,” she said, smiling. “That’s exciting for us.”