Why Is Silicon Valley Still Waiting for the Next Big Thing?

In the fall of 2019, Google told the world that it had reached “quantum supremacy.”

It was a remarkable scientific landmark that some people compared to Kitty Hawk’s first flight. Using the mysterious powers of quantum mechanics, Google created a computer that took just three minutes and 20 seconds to calculate what ordinary computers could not accomplish in 10,000 years.

But more than two years after Google’s announcement, the world is still waiting for a quantum computer that will actually do something useful. And it will probably wait a long time. 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 anything but your thoughts.

Silicon Valley’s hype machine has long been accused of churning out reality. But in recent years, tech industry critics have noticed that its biggest promises – ideas that could really change the world – seem more and more on the horizon. The great wealth produced by the industry in recent years is generally due to ideas like the iPhone and mobile apps, which came years ago.

Have the big tech thinkers lost their temper?

The answer, those big thinkers respond quickly, is not at all. But the projects they are facing are more difficult than creating a new application or disrupting another aging industry. And if you look around, the tools that have helped you cope with the epidemic for almost two years – home computers, video conferencing services and Wi-Fi, as well as the technology that helped researchers develop vaccines – have been shown to the industry. Not exactly one step lost.

“Imagine the economic impact of the epidemic without the infrastructure – hardware and software – that allowed many white-collar workers to work from home and many other parts of the economy to be digitally mediated,” said Margaret O’Mara, of the University of Washington. Professor who specializes in the history of Silicon Valley.

If we talk about the next big thing, big thinkers say, give time. Take quantum computing. Jack Taylor, who oversaw the quantum computing efforts for the White House and is now chief science officer at Quantum Start-up Riverlane, said building a quantum computer could be the most difficult task ever undertaken. This is a machine that ignores the physics of everyday life.

Quantum computers rely on bizarre ways that some objects are exposed to the subatomic level or to extreme cold, such as the metal freezing below zero to about 460 degrees. If scientists just try to read information from these quantum systems, they break down.

When building a quantum computer, Dr. “You’re constantly working against nature’s basic instincts,” Taylor said.

The most important technological advances of the last few decades – microchips, the Internet, mouse-powered computers, smartphones – did not ignore physics. And they were allowed to conceive for years, even decades, inside government agencies and corporate research laboratories before finally reaching mass adoption.

Dr. O’Mara said. “But now there are more complex problems.”

However, the biggest voices in Silicon Valley often discuss those complex issues as if it were just another smartphone app. It can raise expectations.

Those who are not experts who do not understand the challenges may have been “misled by the publicity,” said Raquel Urtasun, a professor at the University of Toronto who helped oversee the development of self-driving cars at Uber and is now the chief executive of self-driving cars. Driving start-up Wabi.

Technologies such as self-driving cars and artificial intelligence do not face the same physical barriers as quantum computing. But just as researchers do not yet know how to build a capable quantum computer, they do not yet know how to design a car that can safely run itself in any situation or a machine that can do anything that the human brain can do. Could.

Even technology like augmented reality – spectacles that can create a layer of digital images on what you see in the real world – will require years of additional research and engineering before it can be completed.

Andrew Bosworth, vice president of Meta, formerly Facebook, said the creation of the lightweight glasses was similar to the first mouse-powered personal computers in the 1970s (the mouse was invented in 1964). Companies like Meta should design a completely new way of using a computer before stuffing all its parts into a small package.

Over the past two decades, companies like Facebook have created and used new technology at a pace never seemed possible before. But as Mr. Boseworth said these were primarily software technologies created with just “bits” – pieces of digital information.

Building new types of hardware – working with physical molecules – is a much more difficult task. “As an industry, we have almost forgotten what this is,” he said. Boseworth called the creation of augmented reality glasses a “once-in-a-lifetime” project.

Technologists such as Mr. Boseworth believes they will eventually overcome those obstacles and they are more open about how difficult it will be. But that is not always the case. And when an industry enters every part of everyday life, it can be difficult to separate it from reality – especially when it comes to big companies like Google and celebrities like Elon Musk.

Many in Silicon Valley believe that shaking hands is an important part of pushing technology into the mainstream. Hype helps attract money and the recognition needed to create talent and technology.

Aaron Levy, chief executive of Silicon Valley Company Box, said, “If the outcome is desirable – and technically feasible – then it’s okay if we have three years or five years or less.” “You want entrepreneurs to be optimistic – it’s a small part of Steve Jobs’ reality-distortion field,” he said.

Hype is also a way for entrepreneurs to generate interest in people. Even if new technologies can be created, there is no guarantee that people and businesses will see them and adopt them and pay for them. They need coxing. And perhaps more patience than most people inside and outside the tech industry will accept.

“When we hear about new technology, it takes our brains less than 10 minutes to imagine what it can do. We immediately shrug off all the compounding infrastructure and innovation needed to get to that point, “Mr. Levy said.” It’s the cognitive discrepancy we’re dealing with. “

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