304 North Cardinal St.
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304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124
Sunnyvale, California For more than a decade, tech investors and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley were obsessed with social media and mobile apps that helped people do things like find new friends, get a ride home, or get a review of a product or movie from a large group of people. Now Silicon Valley has found the next thing that looks cool. And there is no button that says “Like.”
Artificial intelligence and robots are at the center of the new era in Silicon Valley. Many people think that this change will have a payoff on the same scale as the personal computer industry or the commercial internet, two previous generations that spread computing around the world. Computers can now talk, hear, and see. They can also grow legs, wings, and wheels to move around freely.
This month, a prototype inventory checker made by Bossa Nova Robotics quietly moved through the aisles of a Lowe’s store in this city. It used computer vision to automatically do a task that people have been doing by hand for hundreds of years.
The robot was smart enough to move out of the way of shoppers and around unexpected obstacles in the aisles. It let people know it was there by making soft chirps that sounded like birdsong. It moves slowly down the middle of an aisle. It can read bar codes on shelves and uses a laser to find out which items are sold out.
Financiers and business owners in Silicon Valley are getting very excited about artificial intelligence. There are now at least 19 companies in the area that are making cars and trucks that can drive themselves. Five years ago, there were only a few. More than a half-dozen types of mobile robots, such as robotic bellhops and flying drones, are also being sold to the public.
“We saw a slow trickle of investments in robotics, and then all of a sudden, boom: It seems like a dozen companies are getting big investments to work on specific robotic niches,” said Martin Hitch, CEO of San Francisco-based Bossa Nova.
CB Insights, a market research company, says that funding for A.I. startups has grown by more than four times since 2011, when it was only $145 million. In 2015, it was $681 million. The company thinks that this year there will be $1.2 billion in new investments, which is 76 percent more than last year.
“When there’s a new idea, the valley goes crazy over it,” said Jen-Hsun Huang, CEO of Nvidia, a chip company that started out making graphics processors for video games but has shifted its focus to artificial intelligence applications in a big way in the last year. “But you have to wait for a good idea, and good ideas don’t happen every day.”
On the other hand, funding for social media start-ups reached its peak in 2011 and then dropped. That year, venture capital firms put $2.4 billion into 66 social media deals. CB Insights says that there have only been 10 investments in social media so far this year. Together, these investments are worth $6.9 million. Last month, Microsoft bought the professional social networking site LinkedIn for $26.2 billion. This shows that social media is now a mature market.
Even the biggest social media companies in Silicon Valley and other big tech companies are now getting into artificial intelligence. Facebook uses AI to make its products better. Google will soon have an AI-based device that can compete with Amazon’s Echo and Apple’s Siri. This device will listen at home, answer questions, and place e-commerce orders. Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, recently spoke at the Aspen Ideas Conference and called for a partnership between humans and artificial intelligence systems in which machines are made to help humans.
Also, the auto industry has set up shops in the valley to figure out how to make cars that can drive themselves. Both tech and car companies say that by the end of this decade, cars will be able to drive themselves with the push of a button, thanks to more powerful sensors and artificial intelligence (AI) software. However, recent Tesla crashes have made people wonder how quickly humans will be replaced by technology.
The new AI era in Silicon Valley shows how the area can quickly change with the times and follow the latest tech trend. Paul Saffo, a longtime technology forecaster and professor at Singularity University, said, “This is at the heart of the region’s culture, which goes all the way back to the Gold Rush.” “The valley is built on the idea that there is always a way to start over and find a new beginning.”
The change caused an intense rush for people with skills in artificial intelligence.
“It’s crazy,” said Richard Socher, who is the chief scientist at software company Salesforce and teaches a course at Stanford on a technique for artificial intelligence called “deep learning.” “It’s crazy how many people are trying to get the students to quit halfway through the class because they already know some of this stuff.”
The valley’s tendency to change dates back to the mid-1970s, when it came out of the ashes of a deep recession in the aerospace industry as a center for making consumer electronics like memory chips, video games, and digital watches. In the early 1990s, the market for personal computers was slowing down. Then came the World Wide Web and the growth of the consumer internet around the world.
A decade later, in 2007, just as mobile phone innovation seemed to be moving away from Silicon Valley and toward Europe and Asia, Apple released the first iPhone. This changed the mobile communications market and made sure that Silicon Valley would remain the world’s center of innovation for at least another generation.
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