Life in Tech is Full of Poignant Surprises
Whenever I go to Silicon Valley — the real place, not the mind space — I try to catch up with my friends and counselors from the old days.
People like Andy Kessler (now a coruscating columnist for the Wall Street Journal, then of the transcendent Velocity Capital) and Rich Karlgaard (now eminent author-Forbes publisher, then editor of the scintillating Upside).
A high point was attending a Stanford track meet with Karlgaard, the savvy former North Dakota state champ half-miler, and taking a run in the morning on the same red track with superstar Chris Solinsky, lapping me every mile or so in preparation for dipping below 27 minutes in a 10K.
This was the era when all of the Internet, wireless, silicon, and software widgets were in their high burn-rate phase (costing more than they returned).
Just as today’s technology buffs see the future in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, 5G next generation wireless, genetic engineering, and crypto advances, in those days you could preen as a futurist by talking up tech fashions of the day. I was already touting virtual reality, all optical networks, broadband wireless, and smartphones (or “teleputers” as I called them).
That was now more than three decades ago. I can recall when Silicon Valley was less finance than fun and games and apricot groves. And a hot game was Nolan Bushnell’s “Pong.”
Beyond Pong, Bushnell’s high point was turning down the shaggy kid Steve Jobs for a job at HP. Who would believe that Bushnell would long outlive Jobs?
Life in technology is full of poignant surprises.
To get a truly Olympian view of the future, however, I would run five miles up Sand Hill Road — yes, actually run — to Summit Avenue where Caltech’s Carver Mead held forth amid the Redwoods near the top.
A Glimpse at my Prophetic Network
A gnome with a goatee and a mesmerizing Delphic voice, Mead had built America’s first tunnel diodes. This was perhaps the first device fully based on the physics of quantum weirdness, which allowed electrons to become waves and “tunnel” through voltage barriers impossible for them to penetrate as particles.
Mead spent so much time quantum tunneling that he came to doubt that particles even exist. “I don’t need that hypothesis,” he told me. The only reason physicists spend all their time blasting things into noisy particularity with huge forces is envy of Isaac Newton’s universal particle theory.
He believes that fundamental reality is found not amid the noise and heat of supercolliders but in the deep revealing silence of cryogenic temperatures near Zero Kelvin. Here everything is waves.
Mead pioneered a course at Caltech on the physics of computation with Nobelist Richard Feynman and neural network inventor John Hopfield. That course defined the field and converged it with the Information Theory of communication.
Deep in nanoscale physics, Mead could see the future of chips like no one else. Mead had tunnel vision of the entire future of information technology.
It was Mead’s quantum insights that prompted his research for what became Moore’s law, which he named after his boss-student at Intel, Gordon Moore.
Based on Mead’s quantum research, Moore famously predicted a doubling of transistor densities on microchips every couple years or so and thus projected the future of Silicon Valley and the computer industry. It was my time with Mead that enabled me to predict the smartphone as the dominant 21st century computer.
Mead has now moved to Seattle to be near his engineering professor son and is pursuing the physics of superconductivity. In Silicon Valley, he ended up helping start nearly 30 companies with his Caltech students.
In the early years, I wrote The Silicon Eye, a book about several of these startups that emerged from his neuromorphic laboratory at Caltech, which pursued his view that the future of computing would be analog neurons in networks rather than silicon logic on chips.
My book Microcosm: The Quantum Era in Economics and Technology, was also largely about Mead and his vision.
Mead’s Caltech neuro-laboratory engendered five or six companies that were so oriented toward the future that they are just coming into their own today.
Strong Investments Lie in Futuristic Tech
The first and most famous is Synaptics, the haptics (touch sensor) company that developed touchpads and touchscreens and is now in a funk without a CEO. Funked futurists with a fertile creative culture can be a buy.
Another was Foveon, Inc., which invented analog film on a chip and was purchased by SIGMA Corp. in Japan. Unlike all digital photography, which is based on catching less than half of the incident photons and guessing at the rest, Foveon photo sensors produce entirely lossless and accurate images. Foveon chips are useful now in surgery and forensics and fabulously dense portraits where digital guess-graphics will not suffice.
One of the most successful of the Mead inspired companies was Audience, which produced noise cancellers for smartphones based on a Mead lab model of the human cochlea in the ear. Headed by one of Mead’s most luminous students, Lloyd Watts, it provided the first successful devices for the iPhone.
Still in his prime as an inventor, Watts is nurturing a new startup. We will be hearing more from him in the Daily Prophecy.
Now just entering a new growth phase is the Mead-chaired and inspired Impinj (PI), which pioneered the technology for the famous internet of things (IoT) under Mead protégé, Chris Diorio. Impinj chips and devices are now all over Walmart warehouses. (If you’re a subscriber to my Gilder Report, you’ve heard plenty about this impressive company.)
Mead’s companies are futuristic, and not for the fainthearted. But if you dare to enter the cryo-tunnel and surf the waves of a great mind, you can get glimpses of genius and growth.
Editor, Gilder’s Daily Prophecy