What Will Be the Next Big Thing to Come Out of Silicon Valley?

The titans of technology tell us what they think is coming soon to a planet near you

Tech titans collage
Top to bottom from upper left: Jim Clark, Brenda Laurel, Tony Fadell; Carol Bartz, Steve Wozniak; Kevin Kelly, Nolan Bushnell, Marissa Mayer; Larry Page, Jaron Lanier, Tiffany Shlain Illustration by Smithsonian magazine

In 1965, a computer-chip designer named Gordon Moore published a soon-to-be-famous paper predicting that computing power—the number of logic gates that could be packed onto a silicon chip—was about to begin doubling every year. He was right, in a huge way. What was soon called Moore’s Law led to the transformation of some muddy real estate south of San Francisco into Silicon Valley, and we’ve been on a rocket ride of innovation ever since. The personal computer, the internet, the smartphone. The rate of change codified in Moore’s Law has been slowly winding down—Moore acknowledged as much in 2015, on the 50th anniversary of his paper—and yet each blast of innovation still seems to be more disruptive than the last. Today, the Valley is no longer symbolized by two guys tinkering in a garage: It’s defined by thousands of start-ups and hundreds of billions of dollars of venture capital looking to fund new ideas. So what’s next? Where will Silicon Valley take us in the next two decades? I’ve posed those questions to futurists, computer scientists, academics, tech executives—and to men and women who shaped the world we live in today. Here is a distilled version of what they had to say.

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KEVIN KELLY author, most recently, of The Inevitable: The biggest invention in Silicon Valley was not the transistor but the start-up model, the culture of the entrepreneurial start-up.

MEGAN SMITH chief technology officer of the United States, 2014-17: I grew up in it. It’s extraordinary. An entrepreneurial culture of, like, “Hey, how can we solve this?” And really caring about helping each other.

CAROL BARTZ former CEO of Autodesk and Yahoo: It really is just this need to change as fast as possible to enable the next great thing. We don’t even have to imagine the next great thing yet. We just have to get the tools to do something and use trial and error until we have the next great thing.

SCOTT HASSAN co-author of the code for Google’s search engine, founder of the research lab Willow Garage: I try not to predict the future very much, but the one thing I know for certain is that in the future, there are going to be more computers, they’re going to be faster, and they’re going to do more things.

TONY FADELL co-inventor of the iPod, founder of Nest Labs: You’re going to see every single industry, no matter how behind the times they are, adopting technology—deep technology.

HASSAN: Eventually computers are going to do everything. I don’t think anything is safe. Nothing.

KRISTINA WOOLSEY known as the “mother of multimedia” for her work as director of Atari’s research lab and co-founder of Apple’s multimedia lab: Technology is changing fundamental things. It changes where you can live and work; it changes who you know; it changes who you can collaborate with. Commerce has completely changed. Those things change the nature of society.

FADELL: Change is going to be continual, and today is the slowest day society will ever move.

HASSAN: Never, ever try to compete with a computer on doing something, because if you don’t lose today, you’ll lose tomorrow.

BARTZ: We are very arrogant out here that nothing can change unless technology is involved, and technology will drive any business out there to a disruption point.

ANDY HERTZFELD one of the software engineers behind the Macintosh computer, a co-founder of General Magic: Right now the Valley is particularly excited about two things: one of them is machine learning; incredible progress has been made in machine learning the last three or four years. A broader way of saying it is artificial intelligence.

MARISSA MAYER Google employee number 20 and the last CEO of Yahoo: I’m incredibly optimistic about what AI can do. I think right now we are just at the early stages, and a lot of fears are overblown. Technologists are terrible marketers. This notion of artificial intelligence, even the acronym itself, is scary.

TIFFANY SHLAIN futurist, Emmy-nominated filmmaker, founder of the Webby Awards: There’s all this hysteria about AI taking over. But here’s the thing: The skills we need most in today’s world—skills like empathy, creativity, taking initiative and cross-disciplinary thinking—are all things that machines will never have. Those are the skills that will be most needed in the future, too.

MAYER: If we’d had better marketing, we would have said, “Wait, can we talk about enhanced intelligence or computer-augmented intelligence, where the human being isn’t replaced in the equation?” The people who are working on artificial intelligence are looking at how they can take a repetitive menial task and make a computer do it faster and better. To me, that’s a much less threatening notion than creating an artificially intelligent being.

HERTZFELD: The second thing Silicon Valley is particularly excited about right now is artificial reality, or you might say mixed reality or whatever you want to call it.

KELLY: That VR [virtual-reality] vision of the alternative world is still there, but the new thing is this other version of “augmented” or “mixed” reality, where artificial things are inserted into the real world, whether they be objects or characters or people.

HASSAN: VR blocks off your field of vision, and everything has to be reconstructed digitally. And so MR, which is mixed reality, is a technology that can selectively draw on any part of your vision. It can actually include all your vision, if that’s what’s required. MR is, I believe, the next step in how we interface with computers and information and people. It’s all going to be through mixed reality. And VR is a special case of mixed reality.

NOLAN BUSHNELL founder of Atari and, with it, the video-game industry: All of this is on a continuum, and right now augmented reality is a little bit harder than virtual reality, technically.

STEVE WOZNIAK the technical genius behind the Apple II computer and leader of the personal-computer revolution: Because of Moore’s Law, we always have more bits and more speed to handle those more bits on the screen. Well, we now have finally gotten to the point where we have enough computer power that you can put the screen on your head, and it’s like you’re living in a different world; and it fools you. It’s enough to fool the brain.

BUSHNELL: I’ve seen how technology has moved from Pong to what we’re playing today. I expect the same kind of pathway to virtual reality, and I think that 20 years from now we will be shocked at how good VR is. I like to say we are at the “Pong phase” of virtual reality. Twenty years from now, VR is going to be old hat. Everybody will be used to it by then. Maybe living there permanently.

BRENDA LAUREL virtual reality’s first theorist and one of its inventors: The only way I can see that happening is if we completely trash this planet.

JIM CLARK co-founder of Silicon Graphics, Netscape and other companies: Nolan is a good friend, I know him well, and he can get hyperbolic. I do not think people are going to be living in virtual reality. That might be true in a hundred years—not in 20.

BUSHNELL: So when is VR indistinguishable from reality? I’ve actually put a little plot together on that. I think we’re about 70 percent of the way there visually. I think we’re 100 percent of the way there with audio. I think we’re 100 percent of the way there in smell. I think we’re just scratching the surface on touch and fooling your inner ear, and acceleration, and the thing that I think will break the illusion will be food. I think that’s going to be the hardest one to simulate in VR. So when you see the guy in The Matrix having a great bottle of wine and steak? That’s going to be hard.

JARON LANIER coiner of the term “virtual reality” and a founding father of the technology: On some spiritual level, it seems terribly wrong to say, “Well, we know enough about reality that living in this simulation is just as good.” Giving up that mystery of what the real world is seems like a form of suicide or something.

CLARK: Plus I’d rather have real sex than virtual sex.

BUSHNELL: That’s really a matter of haptics—a full haptic body suit, where the suit simulates temperature and pressure on your skin, and various things....

LAUREL: You know what? If the boys can objectify software instead of people, then it’s good for everyone—except the boys.

HASSAN: That same type of technology will be used in tele-operated robots; some people call them Waldos. Think of this device as a set of arms that rolls around, that’s able to do stuff—two hands that can be manipulated from afar. Let’s say it fits where your dishwasher used to be, and whenever you need it, it comes out of there and it unfolds and it’s operated by somebody else in another location that has expertise that you want at that time. You want dinner made? Well, it’s just remote-operated by a chef, in some type of rig, so that when they move their arms, the robot moves its arms, in the exact same way....Then that same Waldo, when that person is done with making dinner for you, instantly switches over to this other person who loves to clean up, and then they go and clean up the whole kitchen for you.

BUSHNELL: In 20 years, 80 percent of homes will have some kind of a robot.

BARTZ: Every inflection point really followed from the fact that you could make something affordable, so that the public or industry could do something with it. You could get this in the hands of more people, which meant it was a bigger market, and on and on, and off you went.

HASSAN: They’ll probably be the same price as a refrigerator. It’s going to be one of those things: You got your car, you got your house and you got your Waldo. But the cool thing about that is, once that kind of stuff comes out, then people will write all these applications that help those people do certain tasks. So you would install an app so that you click on the potato, and then your Waldo takes over and does it for you automatically, really fast, right? So you would have all these application makers making little things that can make someone’s job easier, and then eventually you get to a point where you’re not just controlling one of these Waldos, you will be controlling maybe 3 or 10 or 100 of these simultaneously, and you’re more managing these Waldos now, not controlling them individually. Does that make sense? So you’ve got this huge scaling effect.

CLARK: Yeah, I don’t get excited about the virtual reality stuff, the car driving and robotics and stuff like that. It’s just going to happen. The parts that really get my juices going are the human-computer interface, through the nervous system, and biology transformation. If I was a young man just getting a PhD, I would definitely do biology, because I think that’s where it’s going. A biologist armed with all this knowledge of computer science and technology can make a huge impact on humanity.

ADELE GOLDBERG former manager of the Learning Research Group at Xerox PARC: If you were to predict the future based on seeing what is in the labs today and extrapolate, you would believe synthetic biology is the future, not electronics.

HERTZFELD: Because the idea of bio being the next frontier is based on the silicon, really. There’s about one hundred billion neurons estimated in most people’s heads, and the world knew that 30 years ago and I remember thinking, “Boy, a hundred billion, that’s enormous!” And now I think, “A hundred billion? Hey, that’s not so much!” Right? ...It’s just that Moore’s law has gotten us to the point we’re up to dealing with the biological scale of complexity.

ALVY RAY SMITH computer-graphics pioneer and co-founder of Pixar: Moore’s law means one order of magnitude every five years—that’s the way I define it. And so what do you do with another two to three orders of magnitude increase in Moore’s law? We humans can’t answer that question. We don’t know. An order of magnitude is sort of a natural barrier. Or another way to say it is, if you’ve got just enough vision to go beyond the order of magnitude, you would probably become a billionaire.

CLARK: I think that connecting humans to computers, having that interface, is increasingly going to be possible with a helmet that’s measuring neurological signals from the brain and using that to control things. I’m pretty sure that 20 years from now we’re going to be well into getting the human-computer interface wrapped around a direct kind of brain-fed interface.

HASSAN: We’re going to tap right into the optic nerve, and insert things that you don’t see, but your brain doesn’t know that you don’t see them. We’re just going to insert it right into your optic nerve. We really don’t understand how memory works and stuff like that, but we understand somewhat how the optic nerve works, because it’s just a cable going back to your brain, and, you know, we know in theory how to insert things into it, so it’s just a bunch of engineering work to make that happen.

CLARK: And, as time goes on, I think we’ll get more and more refined at being able to map and infer and project those signals, on the cortex, on the brain, and I feel as certain about that as I feel about anything.

LARRY PAGE co-founder of Google: Eventually we’ll have the implant, where if you think about a fact, it will just tell you the answer.

HASSAN: It’s maybe 20 years away. I mean it depends on how well the market takes up MR, mixed reality. If it really loves it, then it’s going to be sooner, so if it’s slow to pick up, then it’s going to be longer. But I think eventually it’s going to be there.

CLARK: We will for sure be controlling computers with thoughts, and I think increasingly we’re going to have kind of hybrid systems that are kind of biological- and computer-like, and they’re going to be there to make humans more effective at whatever.

KELLY: Then I would say that in 30 years people will be beginning to get used to the idea that you can have artificial consciousness....Yet we’re already there in a sense; it’s already begun and we don’t even recognize it. The first part of it has already been completed, the sense that three billion people are online, so it has begun.

HASSAN: If any one of the technologies that I know of that are being developed right now in Silicon Valley does really well, the world is going to be an amazing place. But the really amazing thing that I think is probably going to happen is that they all are going to do well. So, I’m a superoptimist.

KELLY: What we’re really making here is something that is humanity plus: It’s us, plus the machines, plus the planet.

(photo credits, top to bottom from upper left: Steve Kagen / Getty Images; Hilary Hulteen; Simon Dawson / Bloomberg / Getty images; Peter DaSilva / The New York Times / Redux; Mickey Pleger / The Life Images Collections / Getty Images; VCG / Getty Images; Tony Korody / Sygma / Getty Images; Simon Dawson / Bloomberg / Getty Images; David Paul Morris / Bloomberg / Getty Images; Isolde Ohlbaum / Laif / Redux; Henry Garfunkel / Redux)

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