Radical Reads

The High-Stakes Geopolitics of AI Chips

By Rob Toews, Partner

Image Source: Taiwan is separate from the Chinese mainland. (ABC News: GFX/Jarrod Fankhauser)

The geopolitics of AI chips is a critical and multifaceted issue that has sweeping implications for both the global tech industry and international relations. The possibility of export restrictions on high-end AI chips has raised concerns that nations with limited access to these resources will fall behind. As technology continues to advance, the future geopolitical landscape may be shaped by the shifting dynamics of who has access to high-performance AI chips. In short, staying ahead of the curve on AI could prove to be one of the most critical challenges facing the international community in the years and decades ahead. Radical Ventures Partner Rob Toews published an article in Forbes last week discussing the current chip landscape and its importance for the future of Artificial Intelligence. This week we share a brief excerpt from the article.

The following statement is utterly ludicrous. It is also true.

The world’s most important advanced technology is nearly all produced in a single facility.

What’s more, that facility is located in one of the most geopolitically fraught areas on earth – an area in which many analysts believe that war is inevitable within the decade.

The future of artificial intelligence hangs in the balance.

The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) makes all of the world’s advanced AI chips. Most importantly, this means Nvidia’s GPUs; it also includes the AI chips from Google, AMD, Amazon, Microsoft, Cerebras, SambaNova, Untether and every other credible competitor.

Modern artificial intelligence simply would not be possible without these highly specialized chips. Neural networks – the basic algorithmic architecture that has powered every important AI breakthrough over the past decade, from AlphaGo to AlphaFold to Midjourney to ChatGPT – rely on these chips. None of the breathtaking advances in AI software currently taking the world by storm would be possible without this hardware.

Little surprise, then, that Time Magazine described TSMC as “the world’s most important company that you’ve probably never heard of.” Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang put it more colorfully, leaving little doubt about how important TSMC is to the future of AI: “Basically, there is air – and TSMC.”

TSMC’s chip fabrication facilities, or “fabs” – the buildings where chips are physically built—sit on the western coast of Taiwan, a mere 110 miles from mainland China.

Today, Taiwan and China are nearer to the brink of war than they have been in decades. With tensions escalating, China has begun carrying out military exercises around Taiwan of unprecedented scale and intensity. Many policymakers in Washington predict that China will invade Taiwan by 2027 or even 2025.

A China/Taiwan conflict would be devastating for many reasons. One underappreciated consequence is that it would paralyze the global AI ecosystem. Put simply, the entire field of artificial intelligence faces an astonishingly precarious single point of failure in Taiwan. Amid all the fervor around AI today, this fact is not widely enough appreciated. If you are working on or interested in AI, you need to be paying attention.

Continue reading here. Rob writes a regular column for Forbes about Artificial Intelligence.

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Radical Reads is edited by Leah Morris (Senior Director, Velocity Program, Radical Ventures).