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How Santa Clara chipmaker Nvidia became one of the world's most valuable companies in the AI boom

FILE - People gather in the Nvidia booth at the Mobile World Congress mobile phone trade show Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain. The Federal Trade Commission on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021 sued to block graphics chip maker Nvidia's $40 billion purchase of chip designer Arm, saying the deal would create a powerful company that could hurt the growth of new technologies. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez, File)
People gather in the Nvidia booth at the Mobile World Congress mobile phone trade show in 2014 in Barcelona, Spain. (Manu Fernandez / Associated Press)

For more than a decade, with only a few interruptions, Apple held the title of the world's most valuable company, becoming the first to top $3 trillion in market capitalization — mostly due to the iPhone, a device millions of investors use daily.

Recently, Apple was overtaken by Microsoft, and this week there was briefly a new king of Wall Street — once again a Bay Area company: Nvidia, which makes semiconductors in high demand for artificial intelligence applications. It's the hottest stock around and the company has a market cap that tops $3.2 trillion.

Read more: California lawmakers are trying to regulate AI before it's too late. Here's how

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Here's what to know about the world's leading AI chipmaker:

What role is Nvidia playing in the artificial intelligence industry?

Artificial intelligence programs are complex computer applications that rely on massive databases and processing power to produce their results. OpenAI's ChatGPT-4, a much-talked about program released last year that generates text, is estimated to have 1.7 trillion "parameters," or variables, about 10 times more than its 2020 predecessor — and the complexity is only growing. Nvidia makes a chip called the H100 accelerator that is able to process that data and is in high demand. This month it announced it is making an even more advanced chip.

Has Nvidia always made chips for artificial intelligence?

Nvidia went public in 1999 and for years was seen largely as a manufacturer of premium graphics cards sought after by gamers for their clarity in rendering high-speed visuals. The cards don't come cheap, with Nvidia's top-of-the-line GeForce RTX 4090 currently retailing around $1,700. But given its niche position in the industry, Nvidia stock lingered for years under $1 per share, adjusted for stock splits.

When did its fortunes improve?

During last decade's crypto boom, its powerful chips were sought by "miners" of bitcoin, which employ computer banks to solve puzzles that reward them with cryptocurrency. The demand was so strong Nvidia launched a new chip specifically for miners as its stock surged from 87 cents in May 2016 to more than $7 in October 2018 — before the crypto bubble burst and shares fell under $4.

The fall prompted a shareholder lawsuit over accusations that the company hid how much revenue it was making on crypto-related sales. That suit is currently before the Supreme Court.

What happened after the collapse of the crypto boom?

Nvidia enjoyed a resurgence during the pandemic as Americans confined at home turned to their gaming computers. Its annual revenue shot up more than 50% to $16.7 billion in the fiscal year ending Jan. 31, 2021. The company's cloud computing platform also grew as customers relied on the networks to handle the shift to remote work. Nvidia's stock topped $19 a share in August 2022 before coming back to earth and trading below $12 later in the year as the pandemic waned.

Read more: AI companies are courting Hollywood. Do they come in peace?

When did the current stock surge begin?

Nvidia shares have been on a steady upswing since 2021 as the hype over artificial intelligence has become a frenzy — supported by the company's strong sales growth. Nvidia's revenue hit $60.9 billion in its fiscal year ending Jan. 31, 2024. Shares started the year at $48.17 and closed Tuesday at $135.58, a 180% gain that gave it a market value of about $3.34 trillion, briefly surpassing Microsoft.

Can the company keep it up?

Nvidia reported record fiscal fourth quarter revenue of $26 billion, up 262% from a year earlier, as demand for its chips grew beyond cloud-service providers to include consumer internet companies, governments and automotive and healthcare customers. The company's revenue is projected to grow 44% annually in the near future, according to a FactSet survey of 60 analysts.

What other companies are benefiting from AI?

Microsoft has seen its own stock gain about 20% this year. That's largely due to its partnership with OpenAI. Microsoft's Bing browser now offers a chat function powered by Chat GPT-4 that can write emails and perform other tasks. Apple stock also hit a record high this week after it announced its Apple Intelligence platform, which will be integrated into its iPhone, iPad, and Mac lineups.

Is a lot of this just hype like crypto?

Many on Wall Street believe that artificial intelligence is in a different league than blockchain and cryptocurrency, with far more concrete applications. Advanced Micro Devices and Intel Corp. are rolling out new chips to counter Nvidia's market dominance.

However, there are dissenting voices. Rob Arnott, founder of Newport Beach investment company Research Affiliates, has called Nvidia a great company but warned even last year that its stock performance is unsustainable.

“Overconfident markets paradoxically transform brilliant future business prospects into even more brilliant current stock price levels,” Arnott wrote in a research note. “Nvidia is today’s exemplar of that genre: a great company priced beyond perfection.”

Bloomberg News contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.