A History of Silicon Valley

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These are excerpts from Piero Scaruffi's book
"A History of Silicon Valley"


(Copyright © 2016 Piero Scaruffi)

The Selfies (2011-16)

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Neurotech

The most active company in Artificial Intelligence was, by far, Google. At the end of 2013 Google purchased Boston Dynamics, founded in 1992 in Boston by MIT professor Marc Raibert to build a new generation of robots (never actually sold to the public). It was Google's eighth acquisition of a robotics-related company, and Andy Rubin was chosen to run Google's robotics research. In 2013 Google also purchased Redwood Robotics, a joint venture formed in 2012 by SRI International, Meka Robotics and Willow Garage.

In 2014 Google acquired British-based Artificial-Intelligence company DeepMind, founded in 2011 by former game developer Demis Hassabis and New Zealand-born Shane Legg. DeepMind, more than anyone else, was responsible for the popularity of "deep learning", especially after its program AlphaGo beat the world's champion of go in 2017.

The mix of machine intelligence and crowd-sourcing was, in effect, what had given the Web its "intelligence", i.e. its ability to answer questions about anything.

Multi-billion dollar investments in artificial intelligence and robotics multiplied in the 2010s. Pretty much all the major players acquired some startup operating in this space: Amazon acquired Boston-based Kiva (2012); Yahoo acquired Mountain View-based LookFlow (2013); Google also acquired Industrial Robotics, Meka, Holomni, Bot & Dolly, DNNresearch, Schaft, a Japanese manufacturer of robots, Boston Dynamics and API.ai. Facebook acquired the Israeli company Face.com (2012), founded in 2007 by Yaniv Taigman, and used their technology to to develop the face-recognition feature DeepFace (that Facebook started rolling out in 2015) and in 2015 acquired Wit.ai; Microsoft had Project Adam and in 2017 Microsoft acquired Montreal-based Maluuba (founded in 2011 by two undergraduate students, Sam Pasupalak and Kaheer Suleman); Twitter acquired WhetLab in 2015; Salesforce had project Einstein and in 2016 it acquired MetaMind (founded in 2014 in Palo Alto by Richard Socher) and PredictionIO; IBM acquired AlchemyAPI in 2015 and had Watson project; In 2016 Intel purchased San Diego-based Nervana, founded in 2014 to make processors for deep learning, and fabless computer vision chip-maker Movidius, founded in 2005 in San Mateo by Sean Mitchell and David Moloney; Apple had Siri and acquired Perceptio and VocalIQ (a Cambridge University spinoff) in 2015, followed by Emotient in 2016. In 2015 Yahoo's Flickr division introduced sophisticated auto-tagging and image-recognition features. Flicker was capable of identifying what (not only "who") was in a photograph, and then automatically categorize it.

Silicon Valley startups included: Saffron Technology, founded in 1999 in Los Altos by Manuel Aparicio and Jim Fleming for decision support; Vicarious, founded in 2010 in San Francisco by Numenta's cofounder Dileep George to work on computer vision (one of the most secretive, backed by Peter Thiel, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk); Wise.io, a Berkeley spin-off founded in 2012 by Joey Richards, Dan Starr, Henrik Brink, Joshua Bloom to commercialize the machine learning technology invented by Damian Eads, formerly at the Los Alamos National Laboratory; Viv Labs, founded in 2014 in San Jose by three former members of the Siri team (Adam Cheyer, Dag Kittlaus, and Chris Brigham), to work on an "intelligent" digital assistant (acquired by Samsung in 2016); MetaMind, founded in 2014 in Palo Alto by Stanford graduate Richard Socher. Petaluma-based GTFS (later renamed General Vision), founded in 1987 by Anne Menendez, introduced a 1,024-neuron chip, the NeuroMem CM1K chip, to solve pattern recognition problems. Osaro, founded in 2015 in San Francisco by Derik Pridmore (who previously worked for Peter Thiel), worked on a form of machine learning known as deep reinforcement learning that promised to enable a robot to learn from trial-and error interactions with its environment. MinHash, founded by Naren Chittar and Jayesh Govindarajan in 2014 in Palo Alto (and acquired in 2015 by Salesforce), developed a software to help gather online information to be used for marketing campaigns. Google's acquisition of DNNresearch was particularly noteworthy because that startup was founded in 2012 by University of Toronto's professor Geoffrey Hinton and two of his graduate students, Alex Krizhevsky and Ilya Sutskever, the team responsible for the 2012 paper on deep learning that revolutionized the field of computer vision. In 2015 Google gifted its deep-learning technology TensorFlow, the artificial brain behind its image search and speech recognition apps (replacing 2011's DistBelief), to the open-source world.

In 2016 SoundHound, founded in 2005 in Santa Clara by Stanford's voice-recognition expert Keyvan Mohajer, released the digital assistant Hound, whose voice-command user interface competed with Google Now, Apple Siri and the likes. It was the age of the "chatbot", 50 years after the first one (Joseph Weizenbaum's ELIZA at the MIT). Eugenia Kuyda and Philip Dudchuk founded Luka in Moscow (and moved it to San Francisco in 2015) and in 2016 released the "memorial chatbot" Replika that learned a person's style of chat and could replicate it even when the person was dead.

Bofen Technology, founded in Beijing by serial entrepreneur Jerry Yue (who had previously founded the ecommerce website Benlai.com), and relocated to Silicon Valley in 2016 as Brain, wanted to replace the traditional search engine with an intelligent assistant that, given the context, could find the most relevant information for the user.

More ambitious than the Silicon Valley crew was perhaps Narrative Science, founded in 2010 in Chicago by Kris Hammond, director of the University of Chicago's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Larry Birnbaum, and Stuart Frankel, a former DoubleClick executive. Narrative Science was the grandchild of Roger Schank's experiments in generating narratives, now trying to construct journalist-proof texts out of big data.

New York-based Wochit, founded in 2012 by two serial Israeli entrepreneurs (Dror Ginzberg and Ran Oz), created videos based on the text. In other words, you write the script and the artificial intelligence turns it into a video.

North Carolina-based Automated Insights' Wordsmith, designed by Cisco engineer Robbie Allen, was the most popular "news generator", used regularly in 2014 by the Associated Press to turn earnings reports into narratives that looked like written by professional writers.

Recognizing images was supposed to be Google's specialty but Google Goggles, introduced in 2010, had flopped (and was canceled in 2014). On the other hand, Los Angeles-based Image Searcher, founded in 2012 by Brad Folkens and Dominik Mazur, succeeded with their smartphone app CamFind. The secret was a team of hundreds in the Philippines that was frantically tagging the images submitted by users.

In 2016 Apple bought Emotient, a San Diego startup founded in 2012, that aimed to develop software for reading people's emotions based on facial expression. MetaMind, founded in 2014 in Palo Alto by Andrew Ng's student Richard Socher and acquired by Salesforce in 2016, worked on multitasking neural networks.

CrowdAI was founded in 2016 in Mountain View by two former Google engineers (Pablo Garcia and Devaki Raj) with Nicolas Borensztein, to provide services that need machine learning and computer vision.

Deep Learning was all the rage in the 2010s after a Hinton algorithm dramatically lowered the error rate in recognizing images. Several platforms for deep learning were available as open-source software: Torch (New York University), Caffe (Pieter Abbeel's group at UC Berkeley), Theano (Univ of Montreal, Canada), Chainer (Preferred Networks, Japan), Tensor Flow (Google), etc. In 2016 two major applications of deep reinforcement learning were announced: Toyota's self-teaching cars and Google/DeepMind's AlphaGo, that beat a go/weichi master.

The boom in neural networks generated a parallel boom in datasets: a neural network is useless if not trained when an adequate dataset. Kaggle, founded by Anthony Goldbloom and Ben Hamner in 2010 in San Francisco, quickly became the website of choice for running data science competitions, with half a million data scientists using it in 2017 when Google acquired it.

Nvidia too benefited from the computational explosion of AI and Big Data. Nvidia's fastest processor of 2016 boasted 3,584 cores versus Intel's 28.

This was the era of the first "domestic" robots, like Luna, conceived in 2011 by RoboDynamics in Santa Monica, and Jibo, designed by Cynthia Breazeal, director of MIT Media Lab's Personal Robots group. Asia held the leadership in industrial robots: in 2014 Asia bought 139,300 industrial robots (more than half the world's total), of which 57,096 in China, 29,300 in Japan, 24,700 in Korea, compared with 26,200 in the USA. But attention was shifting to "service" robots, and in this field the Bay Area was rapidly surpassing Boston and Japan in innovation. Savioke, founded in 2013 in Sunnyvale by Willow Garage's cofounder Steve Cousins specialized in robots for customer service. Fellow Robots, founded by Marco Mascorro in Sunnyvale, was similarly focused on robots for retail assistance. Simbe, founded in 2014 in San Francisco, built a robot to check a store's shelves for items that were running out or were misplaced. Suitable Technologies, founded in Palo Alto by Willow Garage's cofounder Scott Hassan, sold a robot for videoconferencing. The robots of Unbounded Robotics (later Fetch Robotics), founded in 2014 in San Jose by Melonee Wise (an alumna of Willow Garage's PR2 project), carried out more sophisticated warehouse chores than the ones of Amazon Kiva's robots. In 2016 SoftBank announced that it was opening a store in Japan manned by its Pepper (first introduced in 2014, the result of a collaboration with France's Aldebaran that in 2008 had introduced the user-friendly Na robot). Roboterra, founded in 2014 in Sunnyvale by Yao Zhang and Yuan Zhou, targeted the educational market. Casabots, started in 2014 by Deepak Dekar in Austin but relocated in 2017 to Redwood City and renamed Chowbotics, built "food service robots" that could prepare scientifically-calibrated dishes.

Thanks to open-source components such as the ROS and to the collapse in sensor prices (after 2010 a Microsoft Kinect could do what an expensive laser scanner used to do), robotic startups were multiplying in the Bay Area. There had been three main poles: Willow Garage, that originated at least eight startups, SRI Intl, that originated at least four, and Otherlab, an independent research lab founded in 2009 in San Francisco by Saul Griffith and James McBride to experiment with new technologies. The Willow Garage diaspora yielded Steve Cousins' Savioke; Scott Hassan's Suitable Technologies; Melonee Wise's Fetch Robotics; Jeff Gee's and Mirza Shah's Simbe Robotics; Radu Rusu's Open Perception; Aaron Edsinger's Redwood Robotics (acquired by Google in 2013); Kaijen Hsaio's Mayfield Robotics (Redwood City, 2015); etc. SRI spawned Grabit and Intuitive Surgical. Otherlab incubated Kevin Albert's Pneubotics, working on metal-less "soft" robots (capable, for example, of handling food). In 2012 Kurt Konolige and Gary Bradski of Willow Garage founded Industrial Perception (IPI) in Palo Alto to build 3D-vision guided robots ("robots that can see").

While Google kept testing its self-driving car and Apple launched the top-secret "Project Titan" under Steve Zadesky, in 2015 Tesla updated the software on its electric cars with self-driving features, and in 2016 General Motors acquired Cruise Automation. This San Francisco-based startup, founded in 2013 by Kyle Vogt of Twitch.tv fame (who as an MIT student had worked on self-driving car projects) was developing a system for retrofitting cars with self-driving features. Similarly, in 2015 hacker George Hotz, who became famous in 2007 at the age of 17 for "unlocking" the iPhone and then worked at Vicarious, launched his own self-driving car startup, Comma.ai at San Francisco's "Crypto Castle", aiming to create a self-driving kit to turn existing cars into (quasi) self-driving cars. He demonstrated a prototype illegally in 2016 on a Silicon Valley highway. In 2015 Toyota invested $1 billion in the Toyota Research Institute, headed by Gill Pratt (formerly at DARPA and MIT), to conduct research on automated driving in Palo Alto and Boston.


click here for the other sections of the chapter "The Selfies (2011-16)"
(Copyright © 2016 Piero Scaruffi)

Table of Contents | Timeline of Silicon Valley | A photographic tour | History pages | Editor | Correspondence