Intel’s CEO Says AI Is the Key to the Company’s Comeback

When veteran engineer and executive Pat Gelsinger returned to Intel as CEO in 2021, the once-great chipmaker was in a slump. After failing to adapt to the mobile era and then missing several steps in cutting-edge microprocessor manufacturing, it was now also falling behind in supplying chips to feed the tech industry’s growing hunger for artificial intelligence.

With optimism that at times seemed reckless, Gelsinger promised that Intel would make an epic comeback. He vowed to shake up its sleepy corporate culture, refocus on core engineering, and deliver a revitalized manufacturing plan that would put rivals TSMC and Samsung on notice.

This week, Gelsinger declared Intel’s comeback plan well and truly on track. He announced a rebrand of the company’s “foundry” business, which manufactures chips designed by other companies, saying that Intel’s latest manufacturing process would later this year yield silicon chips as efficient and capable as ones from TSMC. Microsoft is the first big customer for this new chipmaking technology—a key coup for Intel as it tries to convince the industry that it can offer competitive products suited to the age of AI.

Pat Gelsinger spoke to WIRED senior writer Will Knight about Intel’s AI reboot over Zoom from his home in Santa Clara, California. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Will Knight: You announced this week that Intel will relaunch its business that manufactures chips on behalf of other companies as an “AI-era system foundry.” What does that mean?

We truly want to be the foundry for everybody. If you want to build the best AI chips, Jensen [Huang, CEO of Nvidia], you should build them on Intel. Sundar [Pichai, CEO of Alphabet], if you want to build the best TPUs, build them on Intel.

To potential foundry customers, I say I am committing tens of billions of dollars of Intel revenue to 18A [the latest manufacturing process]. I’ve got to make it work for Intel. My life depends on making this high-yielding, high performance. You can come into those factories knowing that it is confidently production-worthy at scale. We’ll also be presenting separate financials for the Intel foundry business starting next quarter.

Intel will be the first to get hold of the next generation of extreme ultraviolet lithography machines, a more advanced but still nascent technique for making more sophisticated chips, from the Dutch equipment maker ASML. How important is that to gaining an edge over TSMC?

Lithography has always been the heart and soul of the chipmaking process. When Intel didn’t go down the EUV path we suffered enormously. But we jumped back into that and we said we will never fall behind again. Being first in line for that next-generation machine means we believe that we will have a fundamental advantage.

When Intel fell behind in process technology, you know, many said it’s impossible to catch up. But I gave our head of technology development a blank check. We went on this death march to get back to leadership. And while we’re not done, you know, we see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Intel is likely to get a lot of money under the CHIPS Act, the US government’s big effort to revitalize American chipmaking. But the US industry faces a shortage of talent. What needs to be done to fix that?

I’m actually incredibly pleased by the kind of response we’re already seeing. Part of the CHIPS Act is several billion dollars uniquely targeted for workforce development. The biggest limitation we have is the advanced trades. It’s the construction workers, the precision plumbers and welders, and so on. It’s the building projects that are the biggest limiter today. It isn’t the engineering capacity. I’m gonna have that problem within a couple of years.

I notice that you’re sitting next to a pretty cool-looking chip diagram. Is that the 486 microprocessor that powered early personal computers that you designed?

Yes, it’s the 486—which is also in the Museum of Modern Art. They had a chip art exhibit and I was there as “the artist.” I have to tell you, it was the weirdest night of my entire life. You know, people saying, well, why did you choose blue? Like, hey, I just need a good contrast with the red. It was a pretty surreal moment for me.

Source : Wired