The Next Wave

The Next Wave

John Markoff [7.16.15]

This can't be the end of human evolution. We have to go someplace else.                                 

It's quite remarkable. It's moved people off of personal computers. Microsoft's business, while it's a huge monopoly, has stopped growing. There was this platform change. I'm fascinated to see what the next platform is going to be. It's totally up in the air, and I think that some form of augmented reality is possible and real. Is it going to be a science-fiction utopia or a science-fiction nightmare? It's going to be a little bit of both.                              

JOHN MARKOFF is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who covers science and technology for The New York Times. His most recent book is the forthcoming Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots. John Markoff's Edge Bio Page


I'm in an interesting place in my career, and it's an interesting time in Silicon Valley. I grew up in Silicon Valley, but it's something I've been reporting about since 1977, which is this Moore's Law acceleration. Over the last five years, another layer has been added to the Moore's Law discussion, with Kurzweil and people like him arguing that we're on the brink of self-aware machines. Just recently, Gates and Musk and Hawking have all been saying that this is an existential threat to humankind. I simply don't see it. If you begin to pick it apart, their argument and the fundamental argument of Silicon Valley, it's all about this exponential acceleration that comes out of the semiconductor industry. I suddenly discovered it was over.                

Now, it may not be over forever, but it's clearly paused. All the things that have been driving everything that I do, the kinds of technology that have emerged out of here that have changed the world, have ridden on the fact that the cost of computing doesn't just fall, it falls at an accelerating rate. And guess what? In the last two years, the price of each transistor has stopped falling. That's a profound moment. 

Kurzweil argues that you have interlocked curves, so even after silicon tops out there's going to be something else. Maybe he's right, but right now that's not what's going on, so it unwinds a lot of the arguments about the future of computing and the impact of computing on society. If we are at a plateau, a lot of these things that we expect, and what's become the ideology of Silicon Valley, doesn't happen. It doesn't happen the way we think it does. I see evidence of that slowdown everywhere. The belief system of Silicon Valley doesn't take that into account.

There was a wonderful moment when I went down to cover the DARPA robotics challenge in Southern California. There was a preliminary event in Florida about eighteen months ago where they had the finals. They had twenty-five teams. It was quite an event. It was a spectacle. They built these by and large Terminator-style machines, and the idea was that they would be able to work in a Fukushima-like environment. Only three of the machines, after these teams worked on them for eighteen months, were able to even complete the tasks. The winning team completed the tasks in about forty-five minutes. They had an hour to do eight tasks that you and I could do in about five minutes. They had to drive the vehicle, they had to go through a door, they had to turn a crank, they had to throw a switch, they had to walk over a rubble pile, and then they had to climb stairs.                                 

I'd have been able to do it a lot quicker than five minutes. It took the robot about forty-five minutes. Most of the robots failed at the second task, which was opening the door. Rod Brooks, who's this pioneering roboticist, came down to watch and comment on it afterwards because he'd seen all these robots struggling to get the door open and said, "If you're worried about the Terminator, just keep your door closed." We're at that stage, where our expectations have outrun the reality of the technology.

I've been thinking a lot about the current physical location of Silicon Valley. The Valley has moved. About a year ago, Richard Florida did a fascinating piece of analysis where he geo-located all the current venture capital investments. Once upon a time, the center of Silicon Valley was in Santa Clara. Now it's moved fifty miles north, and the current center of Silicon Valley by current investment is at the foot of Potrero Hill in San Francisco. Living in San Francisco, you see that. Manufacturing, which is what Silicon Valley once was, has largely moved to Asia. Now it's this marketing and design center. It's a very different beast than it was.                                 

I've been thinking about Silicon Valley at a plateau, and maybe the end of the line. I just spent about three or four years reporting about robotics. I've been writing about it since 2004, even longer, when the first autonomous vehicle grand challenge happened. I watched the rapid acceleration in robotics. We're at this point where over the last three or four years there's been a growing debate in our society about the role of automation, largely forced by the falling cost of computing and sensors and the fact that there's a new round of automation in society, particularly in American society. We're now not only displacing blue-collar tasks, which has happened forever, but we're replacing lawyers and doctors. We're starting to nibble at the top of the pyramid.

I played a role in creating this new debate. The automation debate comes around in America at regular intervals. The last time it happened in America was during the 1960s and it ended prematurely because of the Vietnam War. There was this discussion and then the war swept away any discussion. Now it's come back with a vengeance. I began writing articles about white-collar automation in 2010, 2011. 

There's been a deluge of books such as The Rise of the Robots, The Second Machine Age, The Lights in the Tunnel, all saying that there will be no more jobs, that the automation is going to accelerate and by 2045 machines will be able to do everything that humans can do. I was at dinner with you a couple years ago and I was ranting about this to Danny Kahneman, the psychologist, particularly with respect to China, and making the argument that this new wave of manufacturing automation is coming to China. Kahneman said to me, "You just don't get it." And I said, "What?" And he said, "In China, the robots are going to come just in time."                                 

What's largely left out of this discussion about robots, manufacturing automation, and white-collar automation is that all over the advanced world we're seeing a dramatically aging population. What's called the dependency ratio is moving in a direction where he's right, the robots may show up just in time because there may not be enough workers. It's a very different way of looking at the problem than the way in which most people looking at automation see it.

China has a one-child policy. In Japan, the aging situation is even worse. Europe is aging dramatically. The Europeans are now spending $1 billion on robotics to try to build a generation of machines that can take care of human beings who are elders. By 2020, we're going to cross over, and for the first time in history there are going to be more people who are over sixty-five years alive in the world than there are people under five.                                 

My sense, after spending two or three years working on this, is that it's a much more nuanced situation than the alarmists seem to believe. Brynjolfsson and McAfee, and Martin Ford, and Jaron Lanier have all written about the rapid pace of automation. There are two things to consider: One, the pace is not that fast. Deploying these technologies will take more time than people think. Two, the structure of the workforce may change in ways that means we need more robots than we think we do, and that the robots will have a role to play. The other thing is that the development of the technologies to make these things work is uneven.

Right now, we're undergoing a rapid acceleration in pattern recognition technologies. Machines, for the first time are learning how to recognize objects; they're learning how to understand scenes, how to recognize the human voice, how to understand human language. That's all happening, no question that the advances have been dramatic and it's largely happened due to this technique called deep learning, which is a modern iteration of the artificial neural nets, which of course have been around since the 1950s and even before.                                 

What hasn't happened is the other part of the AI problem, which is called cognition. We haven't made any breakthroughs in planning and thinking, so it's not clear that you'll be able to turn these machines loose in the environment to be waiters or flip hamburgers or do all the things that human beings do as quickly as we think. Also, in the United States the manufacturing economy has already left, by and large. Only 9 percent of the workers in the United States are involved in manufacturing.                                 

There's this wonderful counter situation to the popular belief that there will be no jobs. The last time someone wrote about this was in 1995 when a book titled The End of Work predicted this. The decade after that, the US economy grew faster than the population for the next decade. It's not clear to me at all that things are going to work out the way they felt.                                 

The classic example is that almost everybody cites this apparent juxtaposition of Instagram—thirteen programmers taking out a giant corporation, Kodak, with 140,000 workers. In fact, that's not what happened at all. For one thing, Kodak wasn't killed by Instagram. Kodak was a company that put a gun to its head and pulled the trigger multiple times until it was dead. It just made all kinds of strategic blunders. The simplest evidence of that is its competitor, Fuji, which did very well across this chasm of the Internet. The deeper thought is that Instagram, as a new‑age photo sharing system, couldn't exist until the modern Internet was built, and that probably created somewhere between 2.5 and 5 million jobs, and made them good jobs. The notion that Instagram killed both Kodak and the jobs is just fundamentally wrong.                               

The other thing I'm starting to think about is to ask what's interesting to write about beyond robotics, computing, and artificial intelligence, areas in which I've been immersed for the last half decade. I began very early to write about the Internet. I began writing about computer networking in the 1970s, and the broader world didn't catch on to it until '93 to '95. Twenty years of writing about computer networks and arguing that they would transform the way we live and work, and finally the world caught on to it. I was pretty early to understanding that robots and robotics, automation technology, and artificial intelligence were going to have a Renaissance. Now, all of a sudden, it's the white-hot center and I've started to look around for other things that are interesting, that are on the edge, if you will.                                 

What's new and interesting is material science. This is Neil Gershenfeld's world, it's Nathan Myhrvold's world now. Myhrvold is one of the first people to invest in a class of materials—metamaterials—that are important and are going to remake lots of technology and lots of parts of the economy. I've dabbled in metamaterials, I've dabbled in these things called metal organic frameworks. Gershenfeld, at the Center for Bits and Atoms, is building these new kinds of digital materials that will make ordinary things not static, but very dynamic. That's intriguing, but it's half a decade to a decade away. That's where I've been putting my time.                                 

I'm doing it against the background of watching The New York Times go through a fundamental transformation. It took a long time, but you can see a digital culture emerging inside The New York Times right now. It is the case that not only have we become digital, but our website is now not the place where most people read The New York Times. Most people read The New York Times on their smart phones. That is driving a lot of the thinking of The Times. I'm firmly a part of the old guard. I was the first person to write about digital technology and digital culture at The Times. I wasn't born digital in that sense, and so I've watched two cultures—one culture going out the door at The New York Times, and the other culture taking over. I think The Times has a reasonable chance of crossing the chasm. It's not across the chasm yet, but of any of the old line media cultures, The Times has been working hard and seems to be on the edge of making it across. That's what I've been doing.         

Stanford is an example of the transformation of the academy, I guess. We talked once upon a time about these things called ivory towers, and at Stanford that ivory tower idea has gone away completely. An electrical engineer is president of the university. He is someone who has invested in and has started many companies. I knew John Hennessy, the President of Stanford, when he was a professor and then when he was Dean. We talked maybe two decades ago about his challenges in keeping his professors, who were starting to cycle in and out of the university as they started these companies. Now it's this incredibly well-oiled machine, which is essentially serving as a farm team for startup culture.                                 

You go to Stanford to get your ticket punched, and then you go off and you start your company. Or maybe you leave Stanford after a year or two if you're an undergraduate, just long enough to find your startup. I don't know if they'll persist, but right now the whole notion, anywhere in society, of doing long-term research is really under assault.                                 

The NSF budget and the NIH budget are relatively frozen; they're not growing. Venture capitalists are increasingly making short-term bets rather than long-term bets. Google was supposed to be the latest corporate entity that was going to try to fix that. They created Google X that was supposed to do these moon shots. Maybe there's a little bit of it, but  you don't see it very much of the notion of basic research, of doing science. You see applied research everywhere. Even the national labs, you see projects that are intended to find ways to commercialize technology. The notion of science for science's sake is under assault.

This is against the background of a technological culture in America during the middle of the last century, which was based on industry monopolies that could afford to create giant research laboratories—places like IBM, the Bell Labs—and fund researchers to do things that would take place over years. That's gone away. In Silicon Valley, Xerox PARC was started as an effort to get Xerox—the copier company—into the computer industry. They failed to make Xerox a computer company, but it had this wonderful spinoff effect. That is possible, that some of these efforts may still have serendipitous consequences, but nobody is willing to place the long bet anymore. That period of America, that type of technological economy in America is just gone. I don't know if it's any place else in the world either.

There's been a dramatic shift in corporate America, and the time horizons have shortened. Even DARPA, which was created in the 1950s to prevent America from suffering from technological surprise, in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq war DARPA shifted its focus and has become focused on much shorter term results. Clearly something has been lost. In Silicon Valley, we're in the midst of a bubble right now, and it'll be interesting to see what the culture is like after it resets. For the moment, we're focused on things that will return. The term of art is now a unicorn, $1 billion startup in the space of just a short time. There have been some, but there are also lots and lots of failures.             

The question is, how does this current bubble end? Not when, but how? What constitutes a bubble? For me, I can clearly see we're in a bubble economy when relatively more money is chasing relatively few good ideas. When the conversation turns to Uber for "x," you can tell there we're out of ideas, that people are basically just trying to iterate and get lucky. I suppose some of them will be lucky. There was lots of good timing before the collapse of the last bubble, and so this bubble is and will continue to create billionaires. But something will cause a reset, and, for example, you can see this now with regard to new organizations such as The Battery Club.

There was a period when San Francisco first created these exclusive social clubs. There was the Bohemian Club and the Pacific Union Club, and they came into being at the turn of the last century, maybe a little bit before, but a time when there was a generation of great wealth. Now along comes the Battery Club. You can see on a Friday night at the Battery Club the Uber black cars lined up around the block. You can see it in the absurd real estate valuations that are transforming San Francisco. I believe the median cost of a one‑bedroom apartment is over $3000 right now, the median rental cost in the city is over $4000. Real estate prices have gone up pretty continuously since the mid-1990s. They've plateaued occasionally, but now it's amongst the most expensive places in the world to live.                                 

Looking out the windows from my office over south of Market, I can see nine construction cranes. What's being built are banks. This is this kind of wealth that emerges in the developed world now. It's happening in New York, it's happening in London, it's happening in San Francisco, where money that needs to flee from regions of the world that are financially insecure will come and basically invest in a condominium. There are these stacks of condominiums, and you drive past these buildings at night, and there are no lights on. The owners don't need to rent them through VRBO or AirBnB, they just leave them empty. It deforms the city. The capital flows in, in many ways. I can't tell you how many times I've said signs of a bubble top, because you see something that's obviously irrational.                                   

The transportation situation in Silicon Valley is quite amazing right now. You have this crumbling public infrastructure, and now the Internet has made it possible to essentially skim the cream. That's what we're seeing right now. It's now clear to me that the Internet enabled private transportation services that are springing up, ranging from Uber and Lift and SideCar to these premium bus services like LEAP in San Francisco, which will take you in a small bus with Wi-Fi and a fancy seat from the marina to downtown.                                 

There are other systems that are appearing around the country, in places like Boston and Washington. There's a company called Bridj, which has basically a small bus-style transportation system that routes itself based on people calling in. So it's not Uber getting just you, it's a bus that changes its route based on who's calling in. It's kind of an efficient transportation system.                                 

I worry that we'll have two classes of transportation: We'll have the elites, who'll drive in Uber blacks, and we'll have the poor, who wait longer and longer for the public buses that never come because the public system has basically become even more underfunded than it already was. That's still working itself out.                                 

There's another wave of virtual networks emerging in Silicon Valley that are interesting. Not just Silicon Valley, but it's possible now to stitch all the different competing transportation systems together, just with your phone. There are companies like Urban Engines, City Mapper, these are developing apps that allow you to efficiently use multiple transportation systems. The reason why it matters is that there's a prediction that Route 101, which is the artery that goes down the backbone of Silicon Valley, comes to a dead stop in 2020. Basically, the traffic jam is so bad that you need to just park your car and just walk away; it's over.

The question is, will we be able to do something with a combination of these new private ride systems, the virtual networks that are emerging, Google cars, if they come into reality in time to save the creaky transportation infrastructure? BART is falling apart in front of our eyes. It's scary because the rails get fixed while the BART trains are not running across them. The rails are aging and it's a race to the bottom.                                

At the same time, the state is talking about building a high-speed rail system that will go down to LA, except it goes through the Central Valley for political reasons, which is kind of crazy. It's remarkable and sad at the same time to see all these new technologies. At the same time, we're on the cusp of having a Third World transportation system in the highest tech part of America, which is richly ironic.              

There is this perspective that people like Neil Gershenfeld, who runs the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT hold, that there's a value to getting a first-class education—first‑class technical or scientific education—because you can apply that expertise in these high-tech jobs that require technical management. Gershenfeld in particular has an amazing group of students who are all doing remarkable things at a fairly high level in Silicon Valley. He's the anti-Peter Thiel in the sense that Thiel is arguing that if you're bright you should just go out and do it. A couple of examples are Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who took off at certain points because they had a vision. The problem with the Thiel idea is that the vision is not some deep understanding of the particular situation with respect to technology that both Jobs and Gates had. They went because they saw an opportunity and they had a broader vision. Together, they were able to create a new economy.                                

Thiel is basically asking people to be wannabees. I don't have a vision, but I want to be an entrepreneur and the vision will come second. The vision has to come first. I haven't followed Thiel closely, but I haven't seen any fundamental world-changing ideas in the way that Gates or Jobs change the world, in terms of creating new industries, come out of any of that yet.

The argument that some people make is that it's two sides of a coin. Silicon Valley isn't just hacker culture. That was represented by Wozniak. It's that particular combination of an entrepreneur, Steve Jobs, and a technical guy, Steve Wozniak, who just wanted to build a personal computer so he could show it off to his friends at the Homebrew Computer Club.                                 

It was Jobs who said, "Hey, there's a market for this." Rarely do you see that combination in one person. You frequently see it in two people—a guy who's passionate technically and a guy who has the business sense to realize there's a market, and they come together. Earlier, you had a Hewlett and a Packard, where there were two technical guys who became business guys. More frequently now in Silicon Valley you see this interesting combination of a passionate technical person or small group of people and someone who has business expertise. That's what makes a successful company.                

That's what's going on. I don't know enough about Uber to know whether there's actual magic technology. There was technological insight into that idea. The notion of the sharing economy was pioneered by an earlier group of people, before the Uber folks came along. The ideas were there and they jumped on them, and they became the dominant force for whatever reason.                

What worries me about the future of Silicon Valley, is that one-dimensionality, that it's not a Renaissance culture, it's an engineering culture. It's an engineering culture that believes that it's revolutionary, but it's actually not that revolutionary. The Valley has, for a long time, mined a couple of big ideas.                                   

There was Engelbart. Doug Engelbart set in motion the ideas that became personal computing. A decade later, there was Mark Weiser, the second generation. Alan Kay riffed on Engelbart's ideas and he created the idea of the Dynabook, which became the modern personal computer. But it started with Engelbart. Then came Mark Weiser. Mark Weiser had this profound idea that computing would disappear into everyday objects, and everyday objects would become magic. That was the second big idea. The first guy to understand that and take advantage of it was Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs first turned the record player into an iPod, and then he turned the telephone into a computer. Those were two really big ideas.                

One of things I've wondered about for the last decade now is at what point does the first new platform happen first outside of Silicon Valley? The last major platform in the world that defined the picture of commuting was the smartphone. That was 2007. The year before the smart phone, I thought innovation was moving to Europe. All of the interesting mobile applications were happening first at that time in Europe, not in the US. And then the iPhone happened and it all came back to Silicon Valley.                                 

At some point, another major platform is going to come first outside of Silicon Valley. I thought that the Internet made that more possible. Friedman talks about the world being flat, and the Internet did flatten the world, so why shouldn't a global computing platform that's the future come first outside of Silicon Valley? That's entirely a possibility. What is that going to be? What comes after the smart phone? My bet now is it's augmented reality, or some form of augmented reality.                                 

There are a number of small and large companies who are basely arguing and or trying to develop this technology that causes the mouse to disappear, the keyboard to disappear, the smart phone disappear. You will interact with the computing resources that are all around you in the Cloud and wherever else by just speaking and looking through your glasses. I thought that was entirely science-fiction, and more recently I've seen HoloLens from Microsoft. HoloLens was neat, but it's also disappointing because it's clear that Microsoft is still locked in the PC paradigm. They're still trying to reinvent and save the personal computer.                                 

I saw the same technology riffed on by a startup called Magic Leap that Google and Qualcomm and Kleiner Perkins put a half-billion dollars in, and they're trying to raise even more. Magic Leap technology was the first point that I thought there might be something that would be a new computing platform that would be post computer displays and keyboards and mice and the smart phone. The notion that if you want a high-resolution screen, you can simply go like this, and the screen would hang in the air and you would be able to enter text by speaking. I thought that was science fiction, and now I don't believe that it's science fiction, I believe that it's real. It might not show up in the next five years, it might be a decade away, like the mouse was once, but that's my best bet for the next wave of computing. The question becomes does it come from Silicon Valley, or does it come from someplace else in the world?                                 

These new platforms, they're increments, and they only come along every half-decade or decade. The smart phone happened in 2007 and a huge ecosystem was created in its wake. The entire population of the world walks around looking at their phones. This can't be the end of human evolution. We have to go someplace else.                                 

It's quite remarkable. It's moved people off of personal computers. Microsoft's business, while it's a huge monopoly, has stopped growing. There was a platform change. I'll be fascinated to see what the next platform is going to be. It's totally up in the air, and I think that some form of augmented reality is possible and real. Is it going to be a science-fiction utopia or a science-fiction nightmare? It's going to be a little bit of both.                                    

In 2004, maybe 2005, I remember seeing Sergey and Larry, and they both had little Sidekicks on their belts and that was with the modern feature. They had just graduated from the pager world. 2007 comes along, we have the iPhone, then comes Android. They'd hired the inventor of the Sidekick, Andy Rubin, and he went to work for them and built the Android business. Ironically, Android was supposed to be a defensive move against Microsoft, and it just got a little out of hand. It ate the world. It was too good of an idea. I spent a lot of time thinking about what comes next. What comes after smartphones? Smartphones can't be the end of computing. My own bet is that it will be some flavor of augmented reality. Somebody will come out of left field and surprise us and do something really interesting. The question is, is it going to be in five years or is it going to be in ten years or fifteen years?              

Ubiquitous computing, or the Internet of things, is all supposed to disappear. The problem is, is it going to disappear into us? What could possibly go wrong? There is an argument that these machines are going to replace us, but I only think that's relevant to you or me in the sense that it doesn't matter if it doesn't happen in our lifetime. The Kurzweil crowd argues this is happening faster and faster, and things are just running amok. In fact, things are slowing down. In 2045, it's going to look more like it looks today than you think.