June 21, 2024 7:00am

Elon Musk and AI in Memphis

Poll members more hopeful than wary of billionaire's proposal to build a supercomputer in Memphis

Photo of David Waters
Memphis, TN Correspondent

Tech billionaire Elon Musk's proposal to build the world's largest (so far) AI supercomputer in Memphis is generating much interest and some concern from Power Poll members.

"This is the kind of project that can propel the Greater Memphis regional growth!" wrote Jason Farmer, founder and CEO of BLP Film Studios. "With concerns around protecting the aquifer and increasing the reliability of the MLGW/TVA power grid, this is a Major-Major Win!"

A sizeable majority (65%) of respondents to June's Power Poll expect the project to happen.

"The project is already under construction to the tune of several millions spent. It is happening," wrote member Andy Cates, chairman of Colliers Memphis.

A similar majority (68%) agree with Congressman Steve Cohen that Musk's project "is great news for Memphis."

"This looks really good on the surface, but I'm more wait and see," wrote state Rep. Dwayne Thompson of Memphis. "I've seen too many people come in promising to save us and to bring us to great prosperity only to leave in shame after a short time. Will Musk be that hero or just another Sidney Schlenker?"

A majority (52%) of Power Poll respondents are most concerned about the large amounts of uninterrupted power and water the factory will require.

"I have not seen a comprehensive list of incentives, benefits and risks associated with this project," wrote Shep Fargotstein, a senior vice president of wealth management at Raymond James. "Memphis has pretty bad record of putting deals together with great fanfare, and a lot of them have quietly not accomplished any positive metric that was expected."

One in five respondents said they were most concerned about Musk and his controversial practices and views.

"This project will benefit the community and possibly provide strategic direction for this industry sector moving forward," wrote Dr. Justin Lawhead, dean of students and vice provost at the University of Memphis. "Musk comes with his controversies and unexpected pivots, but exploring and partnering with ways to diversify our regional economy is worth the risk to me."

Nearly the same number of poll members expressed concern that Memphis could lose the project to another community.

"My biggest concern is our city and county leaders putting safeguards in place in the deal to ensure that we are fully protected should the project not live up to its promises," wrote Charles 'Chooch' Pickard, principal of Charles J Pickard AIA. "I sincerely hope our leaders put clawbacks and other penalties in place should failed history in this regard repeats itself."

Musk, who leads several other companies including Tesla, SpaceX and X (formerly Twitter), has been calling the proposed xAI supercomputer a "gigafactory of compute." The supercomputer would run and train the next version of xAI's Grok, a generative artificial intelligence chatbot.

Generative AI chatbots are computer programs that simulate human conversation. They can recognize, summarize, translate, predict and create content. They can generate high-quality text, images and sound.

Initial reports suggested the xAI supercomputer would be ready by August 2025. But the Daily Memphian reported this week that the supercomputer could start running by this August.

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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