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Why Is Silicon Valley Still Waiting for the Next Big Thing? – The New York Times

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The tech industry has grown ever more rich off big ideas that were developed more than a decade ago. New things like quantum computing and self-driving cars could take a while.
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In the fall of 2019, Google told the world it had reached “quantum supremacy.”
It was a significant scientific milestone that some compared to the first flight at Kitty Hawk. Harnessing the mysterious powers of quantum mechanics, Google had built a computer that needed only three minutes and 20 seconds to perform a calculation that normal computers couldn’t complete 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 most likely wait much longer. The world is also waiting for self-driving cars, flying cars, advanced artificial intelligence and brain implants that will let you control your computing devices using nothing but your thoughts.
Silicon Valley’s hype machine has long been accused of churning ahead of reality. But in recent years, the tech industry’s critics have noticed that its biggest promises — the ideas that really could change the world — seem further and further on the horizon. The great wealth generated by the industry in recent years has generally been thanks to ideas, like the iPhone and mobile apps, that arrived years ago.
Have the big thinkers of tech lost their mojo?
The answer, those big thinkers are quick to respond, is absolutely not. But the projects they are tackling are far more difficult than building a new app or disrupting another aging industry. And if you look around, the tools that have helped you cope with almost two years of a pandemic — the home computers, the videoconferencing services and Wi-Fi, even the technology that aided researchers in the development of vaccines — have shown the industry hasn’t exactly lost a step.
“Imagine the economic impact of the pandemic had there not been the infrastructure — the hardware and the software — that allowed so many white-collar workers to work from home and so many other parts of the economy to be conducted in a digitally mediated way,” 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, the big thinkers say, give it time. Take quantum computing. Jake Taylor, who oversaw quantum computing efforts for the White House and is now chief science officer at the quantum start-up Riverlane, said building a quantum computer might be the most difficult task ever undertaken. This is a machine that defies the physics of everyday life.
A quantum computer relies on the strange ways that some objects behave at the subatomic level or when exposed to extreme cold, like metal chilled to nearly 460 degrees below zero. If scientists merely try to read information from these quantum systems, they tend to break.
While building a quantum computer, Dr. Taylor said, “you are constantly working against the fundamental tendency of nature.”
The most important tech advances of the past few decades — the microchip, the internet, the mouse-driven computer, the smartphone — were not defying physics. And they were allowed to gestate for years, even decades, inside government agencies and corporate research labs before ultimately reaching mass adoption.
“The age of mobile and cloud computing has created so many new business opportunities,” Dr. O’Mara said. “But now there are trickier problems.”
Still, the loudest voices in Silicon Valley often discuss those trickier problems as if they were just another smartphone app. That 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 chief executive of the self-driving start-up Waabi.
Technologies like self-driving cars and artificial intelligence do not face the same physical obstacles as quantum computing. But just as researchers do not yet know how to build a viable quantum computer, they do not yet know how to design a car that can safely drive itself in any situation or a machine that can do anything the human brain can do.
Even a technology like augmented reality — eyeglasses that can layer digital images onto what you see in the real world — will require years of additional research and engineering before it is perfected.
Andrew Bosworth, vice president at Meta, formerly Facebook, said that building these lightweight eyeglasses was akin to creating the first mouse-driven personal computers in the 1970s (the mouse itself was invented in 1964). Companies like Meta must design an entirely new way of using computers, before stuffing all its pieces into a tiny package.
Over the past two decades, companies like Facebook have built and deployed new technologies at a speed that never seemed possible before. But as Mr. Bosworth said, these were predominantly software technologies built solely with “bits” — pieces of digital information.
Building new kinds of hardware — working with physical atoms — is a far more difficult task. “As an industry, we have almost forgotten what this is like,” Mr. Bosworth said, calling the creation of augmented reality glasses a “once-in-a-lifetime” project.
Technologists like Mr. Bosworth believe they will eventually overcome those obstacles and they are more open about how difficult it will be. But that’s not always the case. And when an industry has seeped into every part of daily life, it can be hard to separate hand-waving from realism — especially when it is huge companies like Google and well-known personalities like Elon Musk drawing that attention.
Many in Silicon Valley believe that hand-waving is an important part of pushing technologies into the mainstream. The hype helps attract the money and the talent and the belief needed to build the technology.
“If the outcome is desirable — and it is technically possible — then it’s OK if we’re off by three years or five years or whatever,” said Aaron Levie, chief executive of the Silicon Valley company Box. “You want entrepreneurs to be optimistic — to have a little bit of that Steve Jobs reality-distortion field,” which helped to persuade people to buy into his big ideas.
The hype is also a way for entrepreneurs to generate interest among the public. Even if new technologies can be built, there is no guarantee that people and businesses will want them and adopt them and pay for them. They need coaxing. And maybe 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 brains to imagine what it can do. We instantly compress all of the compounding infrastructure and innovation needed to get to that point,” Mr. Levie said. “That is the cognitive dissonance we are dealing with.”
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Biden begs for money for 2024 Campaign from local SF Bay Area tech leaders and talks AI

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Biden discusses risks and promises of artificial intelligence with tech leaders in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — President Joe Biden convened a group of technology leaders on Tuesday to debate what he called the “risks and enormous promises” of artificial intelligence.

The Biden administration is seeking to figure out how to regulate the emergent field of AI, looking for ways to nurture its potential for economic growth and national security and protect against its potential dangers.

“We’ll see more technological change in the next 10 years that we saw in the last 50 years,” Biden said as the meeting with eight technology experts from academia and advocacy groups kicked off.

“AI is already driving that change,” Biden said.

The sudden emergence of AI chatbot ChatGPT and other tools has jumpstarted investment in the sector. AI tools are able to craft human-like text, music, images and computer code. This form of automation could increase the productivity of workers, but experts warn of numerous risks.

The technology could be used to replace workers, causing layoffs. It’s already being deployed in false images and videos, becoming a vehicle of disinformation that could undermine democratic elections. Governments, as well as the European Union, have said they are determined to regulate and put brakes on AI before it is too late.

Biden said social media has already shown the harm technology can do “without the right safeguards in place.”

In May, Biden’s administration brought together tech CEOs at the White House to discuss these issues, with the Democratic president telling them, “What you’re doing has enormous potential and enormous danger.”

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White House chief of staff Jeff Zients’ office is developing a set of actions the federal government can take over the coming weeks regarding AI, according to the White House. Top officials are meeting two to three times each week on this issue, in addition to the daily work of federal agencies. The administration wants commitments from private companies to address the possible risks from AI.

Biden met Tuesday at the Fairmont hotel in San Francisco with Tristan Harris, executive director of the Center for Human Technology; Jim Steyer, the CEO of Common Sense Media; and Joy Buolamwin, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, among others. California Gov. Gavin Newsom was also in attendance.

Biden is also in the San Francisco area to raise money for this 2024 reelection campaign. At his first fundraiser of the night, Biden spoke about what he saw as freedoms under siege, particularly for the LGBTQ community and with the overturning of abortion protections by the U.S. Supreme Court. And as president, it’s his job to help safeguard the right to choose.

“I think the American people need to have the confidence that we’re going to do what we say we’re going to do,” he said.

Climate change has also been a priority in Biden’s speeches at the fundraisers. On Tuesday, he told a group that he expects that John Kerry, the special envoy for climate, will soon return to China for talks on reducing carbon emissions.

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Associated Press writer Barbara Ortutay in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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Microsoft makes case for Activision merger amid EU scrutiny

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Microsoft makes case for Activision merger amid EU scrutiny

BRUSSELS (AP) — Microsoft’s Xbox video game division on Tuesday announced new partnerships with Nintendo and chipmaker Nvidia as it tries to persuade European regulators to approve its planned $68.7 billion takeover of game publishing giant Activision Blizzard.

A key audience for the announcements were the European Union antitrust regulators who held a closed-door meeting Tuesday with executives from Microsoft and some of its competitors, including Sony and Google.

Microsoft announced a 10-year agreement with chipmaker Nvidia to bring Xbox games to Nvidia’s cloud gaming service. Microsoft also said it has now signed a similar deal with Nintendo, formalizing a commitment it revealed late last year.

What it does not have is an agreement with Xbox’s chief rival, PlayStation-maker Sony, which has sought to convince antitrust regulators around the world to stop the Activision Blizzard merger.

The all-cash deal, which is set to be the largest in the history of the tech industry, faces pushback from regulators in the U.S. and Europe because it would give Microsoft control of popular game franchises such as Call of Duty, World of Warcraft and Candy Crush.

The European Commission, the 27-nation bloc’s executive arm, has been investigating whether the merger would distort fair competition to popular Activision Blizzard game titles. It’s scheduled to make a decision by March 23.

Microsoft first announced the agreement to buy the California-based game publisher early last year, but the takeover has also been stalled in the U.S., where the Federal Trade Commission has sued to block the deal, and in Britain, where an antitrust watchdog’s provisional report said it will stifle competition and hurt gamers.

Microsoft, which is based in Redmond, Washington, has been counting on getting approval in either the EU or Britain to help advance its case in the U.S.

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Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, said at a Brussels news conference after meeting with regulators Tuesday that he was “not in a position to say exactly what was said in the hearing room” but emphasized that Xbox has a much smaller share of the market than PlayStation does in Europe, and asserted that the deal would be good for the industry by bringing more games to more people.

“For us at Microsoft, this has never been about spending $69 billion so that we could acquire titles like Call of Duty and make them less available to people,” Smith said. “That’s actually not a great way to turn a $69 billion asset into something that will become more valuable over time.”

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Amid ChatGPT outcry, some teachers are inviting AI to class

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Amid ChatGPT outcry, some teachers are inviting AI to class

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Under the fluorescent lights of a fifth grade classroom in Lexington, Kentucky, Donnie Piercey instructed his 23 students to try and outwit the “robot” that was churning out writing assignments.

The robot was the new artificial intelligence tool ChatGPT, which can generate everything from essays and haikus to term papers within seconds. The technology has panicked teachers and prompted school districts to block access to the site. But Piercey has taken another approach by embracing it as a teaching tool, saying his job is to prepare students for a world where knowledge of AI will be required.

“This is the future,” said Piercey, who describes ChatGPT as just the latest technology in his 17 years of teaching that prompted concerns about the potential for cheating. The calculator, spellcheck, Google, Wikipedia, YouTube. Now all his students have Chromebooks on their desks. “As educators, we haven’t figured out the best way to use artificial intelligence yet. But it’s coming, whether we want it to or not.”

One exercise in his class pitted students against the machine in a lively, interactive writing game. Piercey asked students to “Find the Bot:” Each student summarized a text about boxing champion and Kentucky icon Muhammad Ali, then tried to figure out which was written by the chatbot.

At the elementary school level, Piercey is less worried about cheating and plagiarism than high school teachers. His district has blocked students from ChatGPT while allowing teacher access. Many educators around the country say districts need time to evaluate and figure out the chatbot but also acknowledge the futility of a ban that today’s tech-savvy students can work around.

“To be perfectly honest, do I wish it could be uninvented? Yes. But it happened,” said Steve Darlow, the technology trainer at Florida’s Santa Rosa County District Schools, which has blocked the application on school-issued devices and networks.

He sees the advent of AI platforms as both “revolutionary and disruptive” to education. He envisions teachers asking ChatGPT to make “amazing lesson plans for a substitute” or even for help grading papers. “I know it’s lofty talk, but this is a real game changer. You are going to have an advantage in life and business and education from using it.”

ChatGPT quickly became a global phenomenon after its November launch, and rival companies including Google are racing to release their own versions of AI-powered chatbots.

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The topic of AI platforms and how schools should respond drew hundreds of educators to conference rooms at the Future of Education Technology Conference in New Orleans last month, where Texas math teacher Heather Brantley gave an enthusiastic talk on the “Magic of Writing with AI for all Subjects.”

Brantley said she was amazed at ChatGPT’s ability to make her sixth grade math lessons more creative and applicable to everyday life.

“I’m using ChatGPT to enhance all my lessons,” she said in an interview. The platform is blocked for students but open to teachers at her school, White Oak Intermediate. “Take any lesson you’re doing and say, ‘Give me a real-world example,’ and you’ll get examples from today — not 20 years ago when the textbooks we’re using were written.”

For a lesson about slope, the chatbot suggested students build ramps out of cardboard and other items found in a classroom, then measure the slope. For teaching about surface area, the chatbot noted that sixth graders would see how the concept applies to real life when wrapping gifts or building a cardboard box, said Brantley.

She is urging districts to train staff to use the AI platform to stimulate student creativity and problem solving skills. “We have an opportunity to guide our students with the next big thing that will be part of their entire lives. Let’s not block it and shut them out.”

Students in Piercey’s class said the novelty of working with a chatbot makes learning fun.

After a few rounds of “Find the Bot,” Piercey asked his class what skills it helped them hone. Hands shot up. “How to properly summarize and correctly capitalize words and use commas,” said one student. A lively discussion ensued on the importance of developing a writing voice and how some of the chatbot’s sentences lacked flair or sounded stilted.

Trevor James Medley, 11, felt that sentences written by students “have a little more feeling. More backbone. More flavor.”

Next, the class turned to playwriting, or as the worksheet handed out by Piercey called it: “Pl-ai Writing.” The students broke into groups and wrote down (using pencils and paper) the characters of a short play with three scenes to unfold in a plot that included a problem that needs to get solved.

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Piercey fed details from worksheets into the ChatGPT site, along with instructions to set the scenes inside a fifth grade classroom and to add a surprise ending. Line by line, it generated fully formed scripts, which the students edited, briefly rehearsed and then performed.

One was about a class computer that escapes, with students going on a hunt to find it. The play’s creators giggled over unexpected plot twists that the chatbot introduced, including sending the students on a time travel adventure.

“First of all, I was impressed,” said Olivia Laksi, 10, one of the protagonists. She liked how the chatbot came up with creative ideas. But she also liked how Piercey urged them to revise any phrases or stage directions they didn’t like. “It’s helpful in the sense that it gives you a starting point. It’s a good idea generator.”

She and classmate Katherine McCormick, 10, said they can see the pros and cons of working with chatbots. They can help students navigate writer’s block and help those who have trouble articulating their thoughts on paper. And there is no limit to the creativity it can add to classwork.

The fifth graders seemed unaware of the hype or controversy surrounding ChatGPT. For these children, who will grow up as the world’s first native AI users, their approach is simple: Use it for suggestions, but do your own work.

“You shouldn’t take advantage of it,” McCormick says. “You’re not learning anything if you type in what you want, and then it gives you the answer.”

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Associated Press writer Sharon Lurye contributed to this report from New Orleans.

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The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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