The Korea Herald


Global tech titans rush to visit Seoul to win AI leadership

Industry watchers say Big Tech chiefs seek to strengthen links with Samsung, SK, LG to challenge dominant market players Nvidia, Apple

By Jie Ye-eun

Published : March 3, 2024 - 15:33

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From left: OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Tenstorrent CEO Jim Keller (Reuters-Yonhap, Yonhap, Tenstorrent) From left: OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Tenstorrent CEO Jim Keller (Reuters-Yonhap, Yonhap, Tenstorrent)

With the competition in artificial intelligence-based services intensifying globally, heads of Big Tech firms have visited Korea one after another to enhance cooperation with Korean tech companies and take the lead in burgeoning markets.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Toronto-based AI chip startup Tenstorrent CEO Jim Keller visited Korea last week. Just a month after the visit of Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, the two tech titans seemed to hurry to visit here for consultations on their cooperation with tech industry figures here, according to industry sources on Sunday.

Sources believe the three Big Tech leaders traveled to Korea to find opportunities by establishing independent supply and demand systems by bolstering business alliances with Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics and SK hynix before the AI and extended reality markets fully mature while challenging the market dominance of Nvidia and Apple.

“Depending on who takes the lead, the global industrial map in the next decade may be noticeably changed from what it is now. Therefore, the (Big Tech) chiefs chose to secure the specialized technological capabilities (of Samsung, SK and LG) by enhancing cooperation as a shortcut,” an industry insider who wished to remain anonymous told The Korea Herald.

Zuckerberg met with business leaders here including Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Jae-yong and LG Electronics CEO Cho Joo-wan, separately, during his three-day visit as part of an Asia tour, to discuss ways to expand cooperation in cutting-edge technologies, in AI chip development and the extended reality business.

The Meta CEO recently pledged to build artificial general intelligence, or AGI, and work on a new AI chip. Samsung has also established the AGI Computing Lab, comprising a group of the world’s most talented researchers and engineers in the tech sector, in Silicon Valley, northern California.

LG recently launched a team under its TV business unit that is dedicated to XR technology development, while hiring experts in the field since early this year, as it considers commercializing XR devices over several years. After meeting with Zuckerberg, LG chief hinted that its first collaboration device with Meta will likely come out in 2025.

Meta released its virtual reality headset, the Quest 3, at the end of last year, while its archrival Apple’s latest Vision Pro headset was launched in the US earlier last month.

Keller reportedly met with Hyundai Motor Group executives during his two-day visit to Korea, aiming to bolster the partnership the two companies forged last year regarding AI chips for autonomous cars, robots and air mobility products. He was initially scheduled to meet with Samsung Electronics executives as well but canceled those meetings due to scheduling issues.

Sources said the AI chip firm recently set up a temporary office in Pangyo, Gyeonggi Province, to enhance its collaboration with its partners here. The new office, Tenstorrent’s sixth globally, is so far mostly handling customer service, but Keller is looking to expand its scope by hiring local programmers.

Tenstorrent has held strong partnerships with Korean companies including Samsung and LG. The Toronto-based startup is one of the first clients of the Korean tech giant’s chip fabrication plants in Taylor, Texas and utilizes its 4-nanometer nodes. LG is also working with Tenstorrent on developing AI chips for its TV sets.

In January, Altman met with SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won and Samsung executives, as he sought to meet a growing need for semiconductors while reducing reliance on Nvidia. The OpenAI CEO is reportedly seeking up to $7 trillion to develop the chips required to train and build AI systems, along with the plants required to fabricate them and ensure an adequate chip supply.

Samsung and SK have been going all out to respond to the AI ​​market, rapidly increasing their market position in the high-bandwidth memory market. The two chip makers have entered into the competition to take the lead in the sixth-generation HBM, the HBM4 chip, aiming for mass production between the end of 2025 and 2026.

While some industry experts have declared 2024 as the "year of AI," sources said the tech leaders' recent visits to Korea show a similar pattern to those a decade ago, when smartphones became popular and competition among related companies intensified. Zuckerberg first visited here in 2013 after introducing the company's first phone, the Facebook phone, in collaboration with HTC.

Another anonymous source said, "The alliance with global Big Tech is expected to have more meaning, besides increasing in sales, to Korean companies. ... If Samsung gets new AI chip production orders, it may serve as a stepping stone to catch up with Taiwan's TSMC. For LG, it could also be an opportunity to significantly increase its AI competitiveness. Its key tech affiliates may turn out to be beneficiaries as well."