In the fall of 2019, Google announced to the world that it had achieved “quantum supremacy”.

It was a important scientific milestone that some compared to the first flight at Kitty Hawk. Using the mysterious powers of quantum mechanics, Google had built a computer that took just three minutes and 20 seconds to perform a calculation that normal computers could not do in 10,000 years.

But more than two years after Google’s announcement, the world is still waiting for a quantum computer that actually does something useful. And it will most likely wait much longer. The world is waiting too self-driving cars, flying cars, advanced artificial intelligence and Brain implants that allow you to control your computing devices with just your thoughts.

Silicon Valley’s hype machine has long been accused of running ahead of reality. But in recent years, the tech industry’s critics have noticed that its biggest promise — the ideas that could really change the world — seem ever further on the horizon. The great wealth that the industry has generated in recent years is generally thanks to ideas like the iPhone and mobile apps that came out years ago.

Have the great thinkers of tech lost their mojo?

The answer, these great thinkers are quick to react, is absolutely not. But the projects they tackle are far more difficult than building a new app or disrupting another aging industry. And if you look around, the tools that helped you navigate a pandemic for almost two years — the home computers, the video conferencing services and Wi-Fi, even the technology that helped researchers develop vaccines — have the industry Showing the hate didn’t exactly lose a step.

“Imagine the economic impact of the pandemic if it weren’t for the infrastructure – the hardware and the software – that enabled so many employees to work from home and made so many other parts of the economy digital respectively. said Margaret O’Mara, a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in the history of Silicon Valley.

As for the next big thing, the great thinkers say, give it time. Take quantum computing. Jake Taylor, who oversaw the quantum computing effort for the White House and is now chief science officer at quantum startup Riverlane, said building a quantum computer might be the toughest task ever undertaken. This is a machine that defies the physics of everyday life.

A quantum computer relies on the strange ways some objects behave at the subatomic level or when exposed to extreme cold, like metal being chilled to nearly 460 degrees below zero. When scientists just try to read information out of these quantum systems, they tend to break.

When building a quantum computer, Dr. Taylor: “They are constantly working against the basic tendency of nature.”

The major technological advances of the last few decades – the microchip, the Internet, the mouse-controlled computer, the smartphone – did not defy physics. And they were allowed to mature in government agencies and corporate research labs for years, even decades, before finally reaching mass acceptance.

“The era of mobile and cloud computing has created so many new business opportunities,” said Dr. O’Mara. “But now there are trickier problems.”

Yet the loudest voices in Silicon Valley often discuss these trickier issues as if they were just another smartphone app. That can inflate expectations.

People who aren’t experts and understand the challenges “may have been misled by the hype,” said Raquel Urtasun, a University of Toronto professor who helped oversee the development of self-driving cars at Uber and is now the executive director of Uber self-driving company. driving start-up Waabi.

Technologies like self-driving cars and artificial intelligence don’t face the same physical obstacles as quantum computing. But just as researchers don’t yet know how to build a usable quantum computer, they don’t yet know how to construct a car that drives itself safely in any situation, or a machine that can do anything the human brain can do.

Even a technology like augmented reality – glasses that can superimpose digital images on top of what you see in the real world – requires years of additional research and development before it’s perfected.

Andrew Bosworth, vice president at Meta, formerly Facebook, said the construction of these lightweight glasses is comparable to the development of the first mouse-driven personal computers in the 1970s (the mouse itself was Invented in 1964). Companies like Meta need to create a whole new way of using computing before they can pack all the pieces into one tiny package.

Over the past two decades, companies like Facebook have developed and deployed new technologies at a rate never before thought possible. But as Mr Bosworth said, they were mostly software technologies, assembled entirely from ‘bits’ – pieces of digital information.

Building new types of hardware – working with physical atoms – is a far more difficult task. “As an industry, we’ve almost forgotten what it’s like,” Mr. Bosworth said, calling the development of augmented reality glasses a “one off” project.

Technologists like Mr. Bosworth believe they will eventually overcome these obstacles and are more open to how difficult it will be. But that’s not always the case. And when an industry has infiltrated every part of daily life, it can be difficult to separate hand waves from realism — especially when it’s big companies like Google and well-known figures like Elon Musk who are garnering that attention.

Many in Silicon Valley believe hand waving is an important part of bringing technology into the mainstream. The hype helps attract the money, talent, and belief needed to build the technology.

“If the outcome is desirable — and it’s technically possible — then it’s fine if we delay three or five years or whatever,” said Aaron Levie, chief executive of Silicon Valley company Box. “They want entrepreneurs to be optimistic — to have a little bit of that reality-warping field of Steve Jobs,” which helped persuade people to go along with his big ideas.

The hype is also a way for entrepreneurs to generate interest from the public. Even if new technologies can be built, there is no guarantee that people and companies will want them and will adopt them and pay for them. You need persuasion. And perhaps more patience than most people, both inside and outside of tech, will admit.

“When we hear about a new technology, it takes our brain less than 10 minutes to visualize what it can do. We’re immediately compacting all of the compounding infrastructure and innovation needed to get to this point,” said Mr. Levie. “That’s the cognitive dissonance we’re dealing with.”

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