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Nvidia's $70 million Florida supercomputer hobbled by DeSantis law

Michael Smith, Bloomberg News on

Published in Business News

When Chris Malachowsky, a billionaire co-founder of chip giant Nvidia Corp., bankrolled one of the world’s biggest supercomputers at the University of Florida, Ron DeSantis predicted the machine would be a magnet for artificial intelligence talent.

Almost four years later, the Florida governor’s anti-China crusade is preventing some highly skilled AI researchers from ever setting foot in the state.

HiPerGator AI, built with Nvidia’s lightning-fast AI processors and housed near a futuristic new computer-science building bearing Malachowsky’s name, was designed to make UF a leader in using cutting-edge computing for academic research. Malachowsky, a UF alumnus, and Nvidia each pumped $25 million into the project. Florida’s flagship university put up another $20 million.

Academics at UF and other Florida universities want to use HiPerGator AI for everything from developing better strains of wheat to finding cancer-fighting drugs. Yet such work is being stymied, professors say, by a DeSantis-backed law that effectively blocks universities from recruiting from seven countries “of concern,” including two that produce top AI researchers: China and Iran.

“It’s a stupid law for many reasons. The reality is that we need to be attracting talent, not sending them away,” said Danaya Wright, a law professor who chairs the university’s faculty senate. “For some faculty, it will hamper research and set it back for several years.”

The market for AI know-how has been tightening, stoked by investor excitement and big tech companies rushing to grab a piece of the burgeoning industry. Companies like Nvidia are offering large pay packages to AI specialists, exacerbating a shortage of capable hands in the academy.

 

Against that backdrop, recruiting researchers from China, Iran and other countries had helped UF stay in the game, yet DeSantis’ law has hobbled aspirations for HiPerGator AI to advance research and compete with institutions outside the state. Hundreds of UF professors have petitioned university leaders including President Ben Sasse to roll back the restrictions.

UF’s “obligation is to comply with the restriction” on any employment contract with students from the seven countries, including researcher stipends, spokesman Steve Orlando said in a written statement. Sasse, a former Republican US senator from Nebraska, declined to comment.

Florida isn’t alone in placing limits on Chinese students. The Biden administration has been using a Trump-era presidential proclamation to reject the visas of aspiring Ph.D. researchers from China suspected of having ties to the military. Outside the US, Canada put restrictions on Chinese researchers and the Netherlands is considering a crackdown.

Still, the restrictions signed into law by DeSantis raise more questions about how hospitable Florida is to finance, technology and other businesses that flocked to the state during the Covid-19 pandemic. Last year, top financial firms including billionaire Miami resident Ken Griffin’s Citadel successfully lobbied to revise a ban on Chinese nationals investing in Florida real estate.

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