An aerial view of Meta (formerly Facebook) headquarters in Menlo Park. on October 28, 2021. Over the past two decades, companies like Meta have built and deployed new technologies at a speed that never seemed possible before.
Image: Noé Berger / AFP
IIt was a scientific milestone that some compared to the first flight of Kitty Hawk. Harnessing the mysterious powers of quantum mechanics, Google had built a computer that needed just 3 minutes and 20 seconds to perform a calculation that normal computers couldn’t perform in 10,000 years.
But more than two years after Google’s announcement, the world is still waiting for a quantum computer that actually does something useful. And it will probably wait much longer. The world is also waiting for self-driving cars, flying cars, advanced artificial intelligence, and brain implants that will allow you to control your computing devices using only your thoughts.
The Silicon Valley hype machine has long been accused of running ahead of reality. But in recent years, critics of the tech industry have noticed that its biggest promises — the ideas that could truly change the world — seem increasingly on the horizon. The great wealth generated by the industry in recent years is usually due to ideas, like the iPhone and mobile apps, that arrived years ago.
Have the great tech thinkers lost their mojo?
The answer, these great thinkers are quick to answer, is absolutely no. But the projects they tackle are far more difficult than building a new app or disrupting another aging industry. And if you look around you, the tools that have helped you cope with almost two years of pandemic – personal computers, videoconferencing services and Wi-Fi, even the technology that has helped researchers develop vaccines – showed that the industry hasn’t exactly lost a step.
“Imagine the economic impact of the pandemic if it hadn’t been for the infrastructure – the hardware and software – that has enabled so many white-collar workers to work from home and so many other parts of the economy to be managed digitally,” said Margaret O’Mara, a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in the history of Silicon Valley.
As for the next big thing, say great thinkers, give it time. Take quantum computing. Jake Taylor, who oversaw quantum computing efforts for the White House and is now chief scientific officer of quantum startup Riverlane, said building a quantum computer could be the toughest task ever undertaken. It’s a machine that defies the physics of everyday life.
A quantum computer relies on the strange ways some objects behave at the subatomic level or when exposed to extreme cold, like metal cooled nearly 460 degrees below zero. If scientists simply try to read information from these quantum systems, they tend to break.
When building a quantum computer, Taylor said, “you’re constantly working against the fundamental tendency of nature.”
The most important technological advances of the last decades – the microchip, the Internet, the mouse-driven computer, the smartphone – did not defy physics. And they were allowed to linger for years, even decades, in government agencies and corporate research labs before they were finally adopted en masse.
“The era of mobile and cloud computing has created so many new business opportunities,” O’Mara said. “But now there are trickier issues.”
Yet Silicon Valley’s loudest voices often discuss these trickier issues as if they were just another smartphone app. This can inflate expectations.
People who aren’t experts who understand the challenges “may have been misled by the hype,” said Raquel Urtasun, a University of Toronto professor who helped oversee the development of self-driving cars at Uber and is now the CEO of self- at the head of the startup Waabi.
Technologies such as self-driving cars and artificial intelligence do not face the same physical hurdles as quantum computing. But just as researchers don’t yet know how to build a viable quantum computer, they don’t yet know how to design a car that can drive itself safely in any situation or a machine that can do anything the human brain can do.
Even technology like augmented reality — glasses that can overlay digital images on what you see in the real world — will take years of additional research and engineering to perfect.
Andrew Bosworth, vice president of Meta, formerly Facebook, said building the lightweight glasses was akin to creating the first mouse-driven personal computers in the 1970s (the mouse itself was invented in 1964 ). Companies like Meta have to design a whole new way to use computers, before packing all of its elements into a tiny package.
Over the past two decades, companies like Facebook have built and rolled out new technologies at a speed that never seemed possible before. But as Bosworth said, these were mostly software technologies built only with “bits” – pieces of digital information.
Building new types of hardware – working with physical atoms – is a much more difficult task. “As an industry, we’ve almost forgotten what it looks like,” Bosworth said, calling the creation of augmented reality glasses a “once in a lifetime” project.
Technologists like Bosworth think they will eventually overcome these obstacles and they are more open about the difficulty. But it’s not always the case. And when an industry has seeped into every aspect of daily life, it can be hard to separate the hand gesture from the realism, especially when it’s big corporations like Google and well-known figures like Elon Musk. that attract this attention.
Many in Silicon Valley believe that waving is an important part of pushing technology into the mainstream. The hype helps attract the money, talent and belief needed to develop the technology.
“If the outcome is desirable – and it’s technically possible – then it doesn’t matter if we’re three years behind or five years behind or whatever,” said Aaron Levie, chief executive of Silicon’s Box company. Valley. “You want entrepreneurs to be optimistic — to have a bit of that Steve Jobs reality-distorting field,” which helped persuade people to buy into his big ideas.
Media hype is also a way for entrepreneurs to generate public interest. Although new technologies may be created, there is no guarantee that people and businesses will want them, adopt them and pay for them. They need to be cajoled. And perhaps more patience than most people inside and outside the tech industry will admit.
“When we hear about a new technology, it takes less than 10 minutes for our brain to imagine what it can do. We’re instantly compressing all the readiness infrastructure and innovation needed to get to that point,” Levie said. “That’s the cognitive dissonance we’re dealing with.”
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