NVIDIA CEO Receives Semiconductor Industry’s Top Honor

At its annual dinner, the Semiconductor Industry Association lauded Jensen Huang for a career as ‘a trailblazer in building accelerated computing platforms.’
by Rick Merritt

By the time the night was over, it felt like Jensen Huang had given everyone in the ballroom a good laugh and a few things to think about.

The annual dinner of the Semiconductor Industry Association — a group of companies that together employ a quarter-million workers in the U.S. and racked up U.S. sales over $200 billion last year — attracted the governors of Indiana and Michigan and some 200 industry executives, including more than two dozen chief executives.

They came to network, get an update on the SIA’s work in Washington, D.C., and bestow the 2021 Robert N. Noyce award, their highest honor, on the founder and CEO of NVIDIA.

“Before we begin, I want to say it’s so nice to be back in person,” said John Neuffer, SIA president and CEO, to applause from a socially distanced audience.

The group heard comments on video from U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, of New York, and U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo about pending legislation supporting the industry.

Recognizing ‘an Icon’

Turning to the Noyce award, Neuffer introduced Huang as “an icon in our industry. From starting NVIDIA in a rented townhouse in Fremont, California, in 1993, he has become one of the industry’s longest-serving and most successful CEOs of what is today by market cap the world’s eighth most valuable company,” he said.

“I accept this on behalf of all NVIDIA’s employees because it reflects their body of work,” Huang said. “However, I’d like to keep this at my house,” he quipped.

Since 1991, the annual Noyce award has recognized tech and business leaders including Jack Kilby (1995), an inventor of the integrated circuit that paved the way for today’s chips.

Two of Huang’s mentors won Noyce awards — Morris Chang, the founder and former CEO of TSMC, the world’s first and largest chip foundry in 2008, and, in 2018, John Hennessy, the Alphabet chairman and former Stanford president. Huang, his former student, interviewed Hennessy on stage at the 2018 event.

Programming on an Apple II

In an on-stage interview with John Markoff, author and former senior technology writer for The New York Times, Huang shared some of his story and his observations on technology and the industry.

He recalled high school days programming on an Apple II computer, getting his first job as a microprocessor designer at AMD and starting NVIDIA with Chris Malachowsky and Curtis Priem.

“Chris and Curtis are the two brightest engineers I have met … and all of us loved building computers. Success has a lot to do with luck, and part of my luck was meeting them,” he said.

Making Million-x Leaps

Fast-forwarding to today, he shared his vision for accelerated computing with AI in projects like Earth-2, a supercomputer for climate science.

“We will build a digital twin of Earth and put some of the brightest computer scientists on the planet to work on it” to explore and mitigate impacts of climate change, he said. “We could solve some of the problems in climate science in our generation.”

He also expressed optimism about Silicon Valley’s culture of innovation.

“The concept of Silicon Valley doesn’t have to be geographic, we can carry this sensibility all over the world, but we have to be mindful of being humble and recognize we’re not here alone, so we need to be in service to others,” he said.

A Pivotal Role in AI

The Noyce award came two months after TIME Magazine named Huang one of the 100 most influential people of 2021. He was one of seven honored on the iconic weekly magazine’s cover along with U.S. President Joe Biden, Tesla CEO Elon Musk and singer Billie Eilish.

A who’s who of tech luminaries including executives from Adobe, IBM and Zoom shared stories of Huang and NVIDIA’s impact in a video, included below, screened at the event. In it, Andrew Ng, a machine-learning pioneer and entrepreneur described the pivotal role NVIDIA’s CEO has played in AI.

“A lot of the progress in AI over the last decade would not have been possible if not for Jensen’s visionary leadership,” said Ng, founder and CEO of DeepLearning.AI and Landing AI. “His impact on the semiconductor industry, AI and the world is almost incalculable.”

Feature image credit: Nora Stratton/SFFoto