Silicon Valley shifts focus to robots and artificial intelligence

Investors are moving away from social media apps, and financing cyborg start-ups instead

A prototype inventory checker, created by Bossa Nova Robotics, glides through the aisles of a supermarket, identifying products via their barcode and alerting shoppers by emitting birdsong chirps

A prototype inventory checker, created by Bossa Nova Robotics, glides through the aisles of a supermarket, identifying products via their barcode and alerting shoppers by emitting birdsong chirps

 

For more than a decade, Silicon Valley’s technology investors and entrepreneurs obsessed over social media and mobile apps that helped people find new friends, get a lift home or crowdsource a review of a product or a movie.

Now Silicon Valley has found its next shiny new thing. The new era in Silicon Valley centres on artificial intelligence (AI) and robots, a transformation many believe will have a payoff on the scale of the personal computing industry or the commercial internet.

Computers have begun to speak, listen and see, as well as sprout legs, wings and wheels to move unfettered. The shift was evident in a Lowe’s home improvement store this month, when a prototype inventory checker developed by Bossa Nova Robotics silently glided through the aisles using computer vision to perform a task humans have done manually for centuries. The robot, which was skilled enough to autonomously move out of the way of shoppers, alerted people to its presence with soft birdsong chirps. Gliding down the aisle at a leisurely pace, it can recognise bar codes on shelves, and uses a laser to detect items that are out of stock.

Silicon Valley’s financiers and entrepreneurs are digging into AI with remarkable exuberance. The region now has at least 19 companies designing self-driving cars and trucks, up from a handful five years ago. There are also more than a half-dozen types of mobile robots, including robotic bellhops and aerial drones, being commercialised.

Funding in AI start-ups has increased to $681 million in 2015, from $145 million in 2011, according to the market research firm CB Insights. The firm estimates that new investments will reach $1.2 billion this year, up 76 per cent from last year. “Whenever there is a new idea, the valley swarms it,” said Jen-Hsun Huang, chief executive of Nvidia, a chipmaker that was founded to make graphic processors for the video game business but that has turned decisively toward AI applications in the past year.

“But you have to wait for a good idea, and good ideas don’t happen every day.” By contrast, funding for social media start-ups peaked in 2011 before plunging. That year, venture capital firms made 66 social media deals and pumped in $2.4 billion. So far this year, there have been just 10 social media investments, totalling $6.9 million, according to CB Insights. Last month, LinkedIn was sold to Microsoft for $26.2 billion, underscoring that social media has become a mature market sector.

Even Silicon Valley’s biggest social media companies are now getting into AI. Facebook is using AI to improve its products. Google will soon compete with Amazon’s Echo and Apple’s Siri, which are based on AI, with a device that listens in the home, answers questions and places e-commerce orders.

Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, recently appeared at the Aspen Ideas Conference and called for a partnership between humans and AI systems in which machines are designed to augment humans.

The auto industry has also set up in the valley to learn how to make cars that can do the driving for you. Both technology and car companies are making claims that AI software will enable cars to drive themselves with the push of a button by the end of the decade.

Silicon Valley’s new AI era underscores the region’s ability to opportunistically reinvent itself with the latest tech trend. “This is at the heart of the region’s culture that goes back to the Gold Rush,” said Paul Saffo, a faculty member at Singularity University. “The valley is built on the idea there is always a way to start over.”

The change spurred a rush for talent in AI that is intense. “It’s ridiculous,” said Richard Socher, chief scientist at software maker Salesforce, who teaches a course at Stanford on a machine intelligence technique known as “deep learning”. “The number of people trying to get students to drop out halfway through because now they know a little bit of this stuff is crazy.”

How far the AI boom will go is hotly debated. For some, today’s advances will lead to brilliant machines that will soon have human-level intelligence. Yet Silicon Valley has faced false starts with AI before. In the 1980s, an earlier generation of entrepreneurs also believed AI was the wave of the future, leading to a flurry of start-ups. Their products offered little business value at the time, and so the commercial enthusiasm ended in disappointment, leading to a period now referred to as the “AI Winter.”

The current resurgence will not fall short, said several investors. “There is no chance of a new winter,” said Shivon Zilis, an investor who specialises in machine intelligence start-ups. © 2016 New York Times News Service

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