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Intel CEO on Nvidia competition: ‘We are playing offense, not defense’

April 12, 2021, 10:20 PM UTC

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Intel’s new CEO Pat Gelsinger has laid out an aggressive agenda to restore the chipmaker’s position on top of the semiconductor industry.

Under the plan, Intel will expand manufacturing capacity for its own designs and also offer to make chips for others at a new unit called Intel Foundry Services. Intel spent decades leading the industry, but for the past few years Taiwan Semiconductor and Samsung have leapt ahead with more advanced manufacturing technologies.

On Monday, Gelsinger attended a White House summit meeting with President Biden and CEOs of other companies including Google, Ford, and General Motors. The goal was to address the chip shortage that has hamstrung the auto industry and caused production delays for many tech gadgets.

After the virtual meeting, Gelsinger spoke to Fortune about Biden’s proposed $50 billion chip spending program, part of the president’s overall $2 trillion infrastructure plan. Gelsinger also addressed new product announcements on Monday from rival Nvidia, which is seeking to win business away from Intel in the data center chip market. Intel’s shares declined 4% and Nvidia’s gained 6% on Monday after the announcements.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Fortune: Only about 12% of semiconductors are made in the United States but the President’s plan is seeking to get more manufacturing back in the country. Why does that matter?

Gelsinger: We have got to get manufacturing on U.S. soil. We’ve been on a 25-year decline. Time to start reversing that trend. I laid out a moonshot objective that we get back to one-third of where we were 25 years ago. I think people rally around that view that we have got to put a big number on the table and go get after it. Just stopping the decline ain’t good enough on something this critical.

It isn’t just that we need more manufacturing here. We want this to be American companies, American engineers, and American ingenuity. That aspect is so critical. Everybody is coming out of [today’s meeting] with a bit more skip in their step. And now we have to run over to Congress and say put money behind this baby, because the industry is ready to go.

Even with this proposal, though, we can’t solve the industry-wide chip shortage right away. It takes a long time to build a chip fabrication factory, or fab. Is there anything that can help in the short-term?

You don’t build fabs overnight. It takes four years to build a new fab. Inside of that, though, what steps can we take to go faster to get some of these things fixed? One thing I pointed out is, as part of our foundry announcement, the Intel Foundry Services, we will start making that available for existing [chip designs]. I don’t need to wait for a new fab built four years from now. I can start opening up our fabs and start stepping in more quickly, start getting some of their designs ported, and giving them more supply chain flexibility.

Nvidia today announced some new chips for the data center market, with a particular focus on speeding up artificial intelligence applications with standard chips known as central processing units, or CPUs. The stock market reacted quickly. What’s your competitive position with them?

We announced our Ice Lake [a new microprocessor for servers] last week with an extraordinarily positive response. And in Ice Lake, we have extraordinary expansions in the A.I. capabilities. [Nvidia is] responding to us. It’s not us responding to them. Clearly this idea of CPUs that are A.I.-enhanced is the domain where Intel is a dramatic leader.

We also have, with our Habana product line [a specialized A.I. chipmaker Intel bought in 2019], unquestionably laid out a very aggressive path and our cloud partnership with Amazon is a great demonstration of that. So clearly, I’d say the idea of CPUs is Intel’s provenance. We’re now building A.I. into that and we expect this to be an area where we are on the offense, not the defense going forward.

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