Marc Andreessen recently wrote a long article in the WSJ which he asserted that “Software Is Eating The World.” I enjoyed reading it, but I don’t think it goes far enough.
I believe the machines have already taken over and resistance is futile. Regardless of your view of the idea of the singularity, we are now in a new phase of what has been referred to in different ways, but most commonly as the “information revolution.” I’ve never liked that phrase, but I presume it’s widely used because of the parallels to the shift from an agriculture-based society to the industrial-based society commonly called the “industrial revolution.”
At the Defrag Conference I gave a keynote on this topic. For those of you who were there, please feel free to weigh in on whether the keynote was great, sucked, if you agreed, disagreed, were confused, mystified, offended, amused, or anything else that humans are capable of having as stimuli-response reactions.
I believe the phase we are currently in began in the early 1990’s with the invention of the World Wide Web and subsequent emergence of the commercial Internet. Those of us who were involved in creating and funding technology companies in the mid-to-late 1990’s had incredibly high hopes for where computers, the Web, and the Internet would lead. By 2002, we were wallowing around in the rubble of the dotcom bust, salvaging what we could while putting energy into new ideas and businesses that emerged with a vengence around 2005 and the idea of Web 2.0.
What we didn’t realize (or at least I didn’t realize) was that virtually all of the ideas from the late 1990’s about what would happen to traditional industries that the Internet would distrupt would actually happen, just a decade later. If you read Marc’s article carefully, you see the seeds of the current destruction of many traditional businesses in the pre-dotcom bubble efforts. It just took a while, and one more cycle for the traditional companies to relax and say “hah – once again we survived ‘technology'”, for them to be decimated.
Now, look forward twenty years. I believe that the notion of a biologically-enhanced computer, or a computer-enhanced human, will be commonplace. Today, it’s still an uncomfortable idea that lives mostly in university and government research labs and science fiction books and movies. But just let your brain take the leap that your iPhone is essentially making you a computer-enhanced human. Or even just a web browser and a Google search on your iPad. Sure – it’s not directly connected into your gray matter, but that’s just an issue of some work on the science side.
Extrapolating from how it’s working today and overlaying it with the innovation curve that we are on is mindblowing, if you let it be.
I expect this will be my intellectual obsession in 2012. I’m giving my Resistance is Futile talk at Fidelity in January to a bunch of execs. At some point I’ll record it and put it up on the web (assuming SOPA / PIPA doesn’t pass) but I’m happy to consider giving it to any group that is interested if it’s convenient for me – just email me.
Once a quarter my partners (Seth, Ryan, Jason) and I spend 48 hours together. Unlike a typical offsite that ten zillion organizations have, we tend to spend less time on formalities and more time on wider ranging, forward looking discussions about what we are doing, both professionally and personally.
Last night, over an amazing meal, we ended up talking about what we’ve been investing in over the past four years. When we reflect on the 37 companies we’ve invested in since we raised our first Foundry Group fund in 2007, we’re delighted with the mix of companies and entrepreneurs we are working with. We have a very clear thematic strategy that we’ve discussed openly, along with a few other key principles such as being willing to invest anywhere in the US and being syndication agnostic.
At dinner we zoned in on all of the current activity in early stage tech. There’s an awesome amount of exciting stuff going on right now and a real entrepreneurial revival throughout the US. Sure, there’s all the inevitable bubble talk going on which I’ve encouraged entrepreneurs to simply ignore and play a long term game instead, and once again many VC firms are spreading themselves wide and chasing after whatever the latest interesting thing is. But entrepreneurship, especially throughout the US, is vigorous, exciting, and creating many really interesting companies, some of which will be important in the future.
When we think about what has driven the success of some of our investments, we realize that we’ve chose the macro environments to invest in really well. Our HCI, Adhesive, and Distribution themes are all great examples of this. With HCI, we are at the very beginning of a massive shift over the next 20 years around how humans and computers interact. Adhesive plays the macros of digital advertising – every year meaningful ad spend is shifting annually from offline to online and that will continue for quite some time. And with distribution we’ve benefitted from the application of the concept of social to extremely large existing online markets where innovation had stagnated.
Our conversation shifted to 2015. While we still believe there are many exciting opportunities within our existing themes, we think that given the velocity of technology innovation and the way we use technology, things will shift dramatically over the next four years. Completely new and unexpected innovations are emerging and entrepreneurs who are obsessed with transforming existing industries, creating radical new technologies, or dramatically changing the use case of existing technology are starting to work in 2011 on things that will matter immensely in 2015.
We have one new investment coming up that reflects this and, when we start talking about it, you’ll see the kind of entrepreneur and company we are searching for. We decided last night to look for a lot more of it. While our deeply held beliefs about what we invest in and how we invest are the same, we’ve decided to open up our intellectual aperture and make sure we’ve incorporated a stronger view of “what is 2015 going to be like” into our thinking.
A post in the New York Times this morning asserted that Software Progress Beats Moore’s Law. It’s a short post, but the money quote is from Ed Lazowska at the University of Washington:
“The rate of change in hardware captured by Moore’s Law, experts agree, is an extraordinary achievement. “But the ingenuity that computer scientists have put into algorithms have yielded performance improvements that make even the exponential gains of Moore’s Law look trivial,” said Edward Lazowska, a professor at the University of Washington.
The rapid pace of software progress, Mr. Lazowska added, is harder to measure in algorithms performing nonnumerical tasks. But he points to the progress of recent years in artificial intelligence fields like language understanding, speech recognition and computer vision as evidence that the story of the algorithm’s ascent holds true well beyond more easily quantified benchmark tests.”
If you agree with this, the implications are profound. Watching Watson kick Ken Jennings ass in Jeopardy a few weeks ago definitely felt like a win for software, but someone (I can’t remember who) had the fun line that “it still took a data center to beat Ken Jennings.”
While that doesn’t really matter because Moore’s Law will continue to apply to the data center, but my hypothesis is that there’s a much faster rate of advancement on the software layer. And if this is true it has broad impacts for computing, and computing enabled society, as a whole. It’s easy to forget about the software layer, but as an investor I live in it. As a result of several of our themes, namely HCI and Glue, we see first hand the dramatic pace at which software can improve.
I’ve been through my share of 100x to 1000x performance improvements because of a couple of lines of code or a change in the database structure in my life as a programmer 20+ years ago. At the time the hardware infrastructure was still the ultimate constraint – you could get linear progress by throwing more hardware at the problem. The initial software gains happened quickly but then you were stuck with the hardware improvements. If don’t believe me, go buy a 286 PC and a 386 PC on eBay, load up dBase 3 on each, and reindex some large database files. Now do the same with FoxPro on each. The numbers will startle you.
It feels very different today. The hardware is rapidly becoming an abstraction in a lot of cases. The web services dynamic – where we access things through a browser – built a UI layer in front of the hardware infrastructure. Our friend the cloud is making this an even more dramatic separation as hardware resources become elastic, dynamic, and much easier for the software layer folks to deploy and use. And, as a result, there’s a different type of activity on the software layer.
I don’t have a good answer as to whether it’s core algorithms, distributed processing across commodity hardware (instead of dedicated Connection Machines), new structural approaches (e.g. NoSql), or just the compounding of years of computer science and software engineering, but I think we are at the cusp of a profound shift in overall system performance and this article pokes us nicely in the eye to make sure we are aware of it.
The robots are coming. And they will be really smart. And fast. Let’s hope they want to be our friends.
Future Shock by Alvin Toffler was published 40 years ago. I must have read it around the time I turned 10. As a kid my parents fed me a steady diet of books that were more than I was ready for at the time, but I gobbled them down anyway. I vaguely recall Future Shock being one of them.
A month ago I decided to read it again. Ironically, it’s not available on the Kindle so I had to buy (and lug around) a paperback copy of it. The one I have appears to be on it’s 62nd printing according to the title page (that’s a lot of books.) I read it over the course of a few days – it’s long as has some sections that require slower reading to make sure you get the nuance.
I love to read “old science fiction” – stuff written in the 1950’s – 1980’s about the time frame from 2010 – 2040. It hadn’t occurred to me that “old futurism” would be equally interesting, satisfying, and enlightening. Future Shock did not disappoint me – it was stunningly interesting, even 40 years later.
Like old science fiction, Toffler got some things exactly right and others completely wrong. Two of the broad themes that were right on target were the “super industrial society” (his phrase for the information age) and what I started calling “mass disposability” as a proxy for the notion of the consumeration of everything. I was completely fascinated by both of these (which comprised about a third of the book), especially with his prediction that, as humans, we wouldn’t know how to deal with the changes that were coming and they’d create meaningful societal disruptions.
There’s plenty of hippy dippy early 1970’s in here (separation of birth mothers from parents, communes as next generation societies, and temporary marriages) that appeared for a little while before vanishing. But much of the societal shifts Toffler predicts either materialized in some form or evolved into something more sustainable.
The last section of the book is titled “Strategies for Survival.” When I read it, I tried to imagine being 45 years old in 1970 and projecting out to 2010. For some reason, I got a little freaked out by this as I began imagining how different today’s world is for someone who is 85 today. Then, I lined this notion up next to the world of a 5 year old today (for example, my niece) and tried to imagine what her world would be like in 80 years. I couldn’t.
If you are looking for something chewy to read over the holidays that will make you think, this is for you.
I snuck another book in last night before I went to bed but was too tired to blog about it. After The New Polymath, I felt like I needed something similar but different so I read Where’s My Jetpack by Daniel Wilson (CMU Ph.D. in Robotics).
It was hilarious. Following are the chapter titles: Jetpack, Zeppelin, Moving Sidewalk, Self-Steering Car, Hoverboard, Teleportation, Underwater Hotel, Dolphin Guide, Space Vacation, Hologram, Smell-O-Vision, Robot Pet, Mind-Reading Device, Anti-Sleeping Pill, Invisible Camouflage, Artificial Gills, X-Ray Specs, Universal Translator, Robot Servant, Unisex Jumpsuit, Smart House, Food Pill, Self-Contained, Skyscraper City, Ray Gun, Space Mirror, Space Elevator, Cryogenic Freezing, and Moon Colony.
Wilson talks about the history of each invention, along with their original sci-fi source as well as the actual lineage of the invention in the real world. It was surprising to me how many of these almost got commercialized but then died for – well – usually pretty obvious reasons.
Of these, the three I want the most is a Jetpack, a Hoverboard, and a Teleportation Machine. Actually, I’d like a portable teleportation machine that my jetpack fits in. Smell-O-Vision – not so much.
If you read one book in 2009, read Daemon.
It’s unusual for me to recommend a book so early in the year. Daemon is only my fourth book of 2009. It’s a first novel. And it’s mental floss. But it’s as close to flawless for a book of its genre.
I first heard about Daemon in December from Rick Klau. I got to know Rick at FeedBurner; he’s now at Google running Blogger. Rick told me that I had to read this book. He pointed me to a blog post he had written in 2007 about it.
“I can remember the feeling I had, sitting in the audience as the credits rolled after seeing The Matrix on opening day. I knew I’d seen something that was different, important, and something that I’d want to see again. And again. When I finished Daemon this afternoon, I had that same feeling. Daemon is to novels what The Matrix was to movies. It will be how other novels that rely on technology are judged.”
I immediately one-clicked it on Amazon. It wasn’t available for the Kindle so the hardcover showed up a week or so ago. I devoured it this weekend. Rick’s assessment was correct – this is by far the best techno-thriller I’ve ever read.
The author – Daniel Suarez (also known as Leinad Zeraus) describes himself as “an independent systems consultant to Fortune 1000 companies … An avid gamer and technologist, he lives in California.” He doesn’t mention that he is a magnificent writer and brilliant storyteller.
I won’t ruin any of it for you. It’s got everything you’d expect in a fast paced book that will appeal to anyone that likes Crichton, Brown, Clancy, or my newfound friend David Stone. The tech holds together well and is completely accessible to non-nerds and nerds alike. It’s a page turner with very little wasted plot or character development. And it sets up the sequel (Freedom) superbly.