AI Billionaires Club Looks Like a New Gilded Age

After several decades of transformative tech wealth, the AI boom is ushering in another. Not only has Nvidia Corp.’s soaring valuation made co-founder Jensen Huang an extremely wealthy man, but his distant cousin Lisa Su, head of Advanced Micro Devices Inc., is now worth $1.2 billion. A glance at the top 10 richest people in the world shows tech leaders, from Elon Musk to Bill Gates, are still on top.

A positive way of thinking about this wealth spurt is that capital is flooding into an innovative field that could eventually lift a lot of boats. If the AI optimists are right and we’re on the cusp of a new industrial revolution — or “tipping point,” as Huang put it, after Nvidia’s results smashed forecasts — productivity gains and economic growth will be felt beyond the billionaires’ club. The original 18th-century version brought us the likes of inventor Richard Arkwright, whose water-powered cotton spinning machine helped birth the modern world while making him rich. We don’t want to repeat the lost jobs and terrible working conditions that industrialization wrought, but there are ways to manage the disruption.

AI Aristocracy

The less positive view is that this is looking increasingly like the Gilded Age of all-conquering monopolies like John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. Today’s Arkwrights aren’t hobby inventors in their garage; they’re working alongside or inside Big Tech companies like Alphabet Inc. or Microsoft Corp., which are already dominant, with market shares comparable to the General Electrics and DuPonts of a century ago. The soaring net worth of tech bosses is going hand in hand with rising barriers to entry for new competitors, whether it’s the cost of access to the AI models themselves or the chips that power them (such as Nvidia’s), which have doubled in price since 2020, as my colleague Parmy Olson notes.

As the 20th century also showed, excessive market power can lead to collusion and corruption that keeps rivals out, workers down and regulators toothless — the opposite of what we’d want to see in the 21st. Even if you believe the potential for AI could be an IT-revolution-style doubling of economic growth rates over a decade — which in a country like France means adding €500 billion ($540 billion) in gross domestic product through 2034, according to economist Philippe Aghion — the reality could be less impressive and more socially volatile if startups are blocked or deterred from coming to market by big incumbents.

Hence why it’s essential that antitrust authorities keep a close eye on the current AI revolution — especially in Europe, where for the first time in a while there are new contenders in tech emerging. At a recent debate I attended at the European Parliament, Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s top antitrust cop, warned a panel that the current gold rush of AI funding was feeding big companies sitting atop a “nest of existing ecosystems” rather than promising startups.