For the past year, Jean Paoli, CEO of the artificial intelligence startup Docugami, has been scrounging for what has become the hottest commodity in tech: computer chips. In particular, Paoli needs a type of chip known as a graphics processing unit, or GPU, because it is the fastest and most efficient way to run the calculations that allow cutting-edge AI companies to analyze enormous amounts of data.So he’s called everyone he knows in the industry for help. He’s applied for a government grant that allows access to the chips. He’s tried making Docugami’s AI technology more efficient so it requires fewer GPUs. Two of his scientists have even repurposed old video gaming chips . “I think about it as a rare earth metal at this point,” Paoli said of the chips.

More than money, engineering talent, hype or even profits, tech companies this year are desperate for GPUs. The hunt for the essential component was kicked off last year when online chatbots like ChatGPT set off a wave of excitement over AI, leading the entire tech industry to pile on and creating a shortage of the chips. In response, startups and their investors are now going to great lengths to get their hands on the tiny bits of silicon and the crucial “compute power” they provide.The dearth of AI chips has been exacerbated because Nvidia, a longtime provider of the chips, has a virtual lock on the market. Inundated with demand, the Silicon Valley company – which has surged to a $1 trillion valuation – is expected to report record financial results next week.

Tech companies typically buy access to AI chips and their compute power through cloud computing services from the likes of Google, Microsoft and Amazon. But the AI explosion has meant that there are long wait lists – stretching to almost a year in some cases – to access these chips at cloud computing companies, creating an unusual roadblock at a time when the tech industry sees nothing but opportunity and boundless growth for businesses building generative AI, which can create its own images, text and video.The largest tech firms can generally get their hands on GPUs more easily because of their size, deep pockets and market positions. That has left startups and researchers, which typically do not have the relationships or spending power, scrambling.

 

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