Chapter 4

Future Stories

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We all love a good story, and stories about the future are especially great, as they are full of possibilities. With this book, I’m trying to bring into focus how our software-driven future is being built. We will look at the technology powering the hard work of the visionaries building this future, but in classic Silicon Valley style, I’m going to be disruptive and break some rules by adding fiction to a mostly non-fiction book.

The stories I tell in this chapter could very well be real. While painting a picture of the future, they tell us a little bit about how it’s being built right now. People around the world are hard at work bringing their ideas to life with only a laptop and a few cups of coffee. To reiterate, these are not real people or real stories, but the trends and technologies they speak of are very real.

Drone Dreams in Palo Alto

It was one of those warm summer days in Palo Alto, California, and like most other days, the main street of the city, University Avenue, was full of people. Lots of young people carrying backpacks and wearing earphones were rushing to wherever they needed to be. You couldn’t really tell the difference between those who worked in startups and those who were students of the nearby Stanford University. On one of the by-lanes that intersect with University Avenue sits the famous Coupa Cafe, a place of startup dreams, the kind of place where you’d run into famous founders or overhear someone pitching their idea to a VC.

This is where the story of our protagonist, Peter Kim, starts—actually, more like a few streets down, at Philz Coffee. He’d rather sit in the sun and enjoy the free Wi-Fi than be a part of the startup crowd at Coupa. Peter recently graduated from UC Berkeley, where he studied computer science and was always dreaming up or hacking on ideas with his small group of friends. He had recently moved to Palo Alto and was spending time meeting interesting people and looking around for jobs.

The idea had struck him suddenly. It was much like in the cartoons when a lightbulb pops up above someone’s head—well, almost. One day, Peter was sitting in his rented apartment room, uploading videos he’d taken with his quadcopter drone while at the same time looking up a neighborhood on Google Maps using the Google Street View technology. Putting the two together, he thought, “What if a squad of drones built a high-resolution map of a city? You could get amazing views of any city, with angles of buildings and structures that the Google Street View cars could never get. You could even have live videos of events happening in real time. It would be like something straight out of science fiction.”

Before the end of the week, he had sold the idea to three of his closest friends from college. All of them were good engineers. They had spent many beer-filled nights together dreaming up things they could build, and Peter’s idea seemed like the one they were looking for. And so now the guys had gathered at their regular table outside Philz Coffee to brainstorm building it.

It’s around these simple cups of coffee at nondescript cafes across Silicon Valley that our future is often mapped out. All it takes is a few smart, passionate people and a healthy dose of technology. Peter’s team knew they would have to innovate, to build technology to back this massive endeavor, to create what didn’t exist. They knew this was a pretty involved idea that needed hardware and complex software to make it work. There would be massive amounts of video and other data they would have to deal with.

The discussion swayed between deep and technical to fun and visionary. Someone mentioned how virtual reality was right around the corner and somehow this could all tie into that. A couple of them brought up making money, which was quickly brushed aside. It’s often fashionable to make fun of Silicon Valley as a place where the product precedes the business model, but, in reality, teams driven by passion for what they’re building rather than monetary gains have often created fantastic things and as a side effect built global brands and enormous wealth. If Peter’s idea were to succeed, it would be a treasure trove of data that could power not just one but many amazing products that people would pay for. The whole team agreed that it was important to first get the technology right, so they decided that they should find a supplier who could build them a drone to their specifications.

The excitement of the day hardly gave them pause to notice that it was already evening. A coolness had settled into the Palo Alto air. The staff at Philz was slowly packing up for the night. It was time to head home. Peter and the other team members headed off in various directions, promising to catch up later on Slack, the popular cloud-based collaboration tool.

As Peter walked home, navigating the active downtown streets filled with people enjoying dinner, street musicians playing at full volume, and courteous and happy members of the Hare Krishna group dancing and singing, his mind was full of thoughts. He was mesmerized by the possibilities of his idea. He imagined the educational uses. Students anywhere could experience the mighty redwood forests by flying through them on their screens, or they could see the Taj Mahal in India in a way never before possible. It was easy for him to get excited by the future and lose focus, so he quickly brought his thoughts back to the problem at hand: the actual drone hardware.

His walk had taken him past the Caltrain station on the Stanford campus. What troubled him was that the team didn’t have hardware experience. Add to that the work involved with manufacturing a drone and designing drone software, which would distract from their ultimate goal. It would slow them down and consume resources, and, in what could be the final nail in the coffin, it would be really hard to scale. The ability to scale (grow) your idea while minimizing your resource consumption (burn) is considered a critical component to success in the Valley—go big or go home.

The walk was really doing its job. Walking was how Peter got his best thinking done, and the cool evening air and the beautiful Stanford campus certainly helped. He was so absorbed in his thoughts that he failed to notice a distant buzzing in the air as he walked closer to Stanford’s Main Quad. It soon got louder, and he finally noticed that it was coming from right above him.

“Sorry, if it’s bothering you. We can stop.”

Peter turned around to see two kids wearing university hoodies. One of them was holding a controller. Peter guessed that the thing buzzing over him was a drone that he couldn’t see in the dark and that these kids were flying it.

“Not a problem,” he said. “It’s not bothering me. Does it have a camera?”

Soon the three of them were talking about the drone and what it could do and how much it cost. Peter asked about the video footage, and the kids were happy to answer: “We put it on YouTube mostly.”

Later that evening, Peter was back in his room, chatting on Slack with the rest of his team. It had dawned on him that they didn’t have to reinvent the drone. They were already popular, and they would only get cheaper, better, and more common. The core value of his idea was the amazing videos captured by the drone. Although he loved YouTube and probably spent too much time on it, he felt it didn’t do justice to drone footage. Peter thought of each video of any part of the world captured by a drone as a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that, when put together in the right way, would create a beautiful flyby experience of the entire planet. He knew his team would need to focus on the software required to consume this massive amount of video footage streaming in from personal drones all over the world and piece it together so their users can experience the world in a whole new way.

Serendipity is a big part of what makes Silicon Valley a special place. A lot of ideas evolve from random interactions and meetings between diverse people with diverse skills brought together by the immense concentration of technological talent in this small part of California. They often say that creativity is what comes out of connections between diverse ideas. Peter was not married to the idea; he was in love with the vision. Deciding to focus on the software was their first step towards making it reality.

The next morning, the team’s Google Hangouts and Slack channels were buzzing as they tried to sketch out their vision, to define it on paper. Peter had a minor in design and was busy putting together a mock-up of what the web and mobile user experience would look like. The goal was not to worry about making it look pretty but instead first make it functional. The design helped the engineers in the team understand what would be needed in terms of code to bring the design to life.

As the whole picture began to take shape, this small team of software engineers soon understood the enormity of the task ahead of them. They would be taking in a large volume of video data—many petabytes of it—and they would have to process it and make it available quickly as their users explored the site. This would require some serious computing and data storage power. Each video would have to be stored along with geographic data of where it was taken. As a user flew from one side of the Taj Mahal to the other, the software would have to find a new video and serve it instantly to bring the experience to life.

Peter had taken the Caltrain up to Mountain View, just outside of Palo Alto, for the day. He was meeting an old friend who now worked at Google. He had brought his bike along to get from the station to the Google campus, which was a good twenty-minute ride. The plan was to meet at the Coffee Lab, an employee-only specialty coffee bar on the campus.

Sitting outside “Building 43,” waiting for his friend, Peter overhead a couple of engineers talking about a magical-sounding platform called the Google Cloud. It could effortlessly handle whatever amount of work you threw at it, and it had a storage solution spanning the planet that could quickly deliver data to any user anywhere. The engineers spoke about how it got cheaper the more you used it, and how something called Moore’s law made it happen. And because the cloud was built on the same underlying infrastructure that made Google possible, it could make any idea possible.

Over the next hour, Peter quizzed his friend about the cloud, and the more he heard the more he liked it. The coffee was pretty good too.

On the train ride back, Peter thought about the amazing time he lived in. Software was central to all progress and at the core of every innovation. He lived in a time when cloud platforms brought the ability to build world-changing ideas to everyone’s doorstep. It was a time when the ubiquity of the Internet and the powerful personal pocket computers we call smart phones allowed ideas to touch millions of people in deep and personal ways. It was a time when anyone with coding skills, a creative mind, and a laptop could change the world. He felt inspired by all he had experienced and learned today, and it helped that a polite Google self-driving Lexus SUV with that spinning thing on top had waited patiently for him to slowly cross the road.

The team sat down together at their regular cafe hangout. A new drone equipped with a 4K video camera sat on the table between them. Choosing the Google Cloud had really done wonders for the team’s productivity. Their code was capable of taking live video streaming from the drone camera and making it available to their users across the world through a series of processing steps that took mere milliseconds. An excited group of early users, mostly drone enthusiasts, had formed a community around their site, now named Drone View, and spent hours flying their drones around popular landmarks, uploading their videos for fame and glory.

The product was beautiful and engaging. The team huddled around a laptop to watch the statistics dashboard of the cloud platform to see how their usage grew as thousands of new users discovered them every day. Users could visit landmarks such as St Paul’s Cathedral. The software stitched together video as they flew from one side of the church dome to the other. The cloud worked its magic, scaling up resources when needed and down when not, streaming video over a dedicated high-speed infrastructure directly to the users’ browsers.

The team sat back with their coffee. They were proud of their baby. It was now alive and kicking. If the Valley had anything to say about this, it wouldn’t be long before VCs and angel investors started beating down Peter’s door, trying to be the first to fund them. Peter would be one of the startup people. Maybe he’d spend more time at Coupa, or maybe not after all he still enjoyed free Wi-Fi.

Singapore 2025 AD

Ravi rolls out of bed and with groggy eyes stares at his wrist. The bold San Francisco font of his Apple Watch reads, “9:00 a.m., April 18, 2025.” He mutters to himself, “Damn it! I’m late again.”

He knows the AI in his Apple Watch is aware of his class schedule and that it had tried to wake him at the right time while monitoring his sleep cycles and the traffic outside, but, as usual, he had ignored it. There isn’t any time for breakfast, but at least his coffee would be ready. He had set up his morning routine to include the coffeemaker brewing his favorite blend. Grabbing his bag, phone, and coffee, he rushes out the door.

As he turns the corner, the elevator doors opens, and he steps inside. The building software had been informed by the AI in his apartment that he had left his unit, and it had predicted with a high probability that he would be approaching the elevator soon, so the logical thing was for it to open the elevator door in anticipation of his arrival.

Ravi steps out into the hot Singapore sun. It’s scorching as usual, but for some reason he enjoys it. He stands there for a couple seconds to orient himself. Singapore had just installed a country-wide self-driving bus network. AI-driven buses were speeding across the city-state in dedicated lanes at very high speeds and unmatched efficiency. The buses, all powered by solar and software, are accessed via the contactless NETS payment cards, making for quite a magical experience.

Ravi sees a sleek Tesla parked across the street. The Uber logo on the windscreen glows a subtle shade of red, the same color as the “Your ride has arrived” notification on his watch. The bus stop is still a bit of a walk away, and he is late.

“Uber it is,” he says to himself as he enters the car. He’s always enjoyed Teslas. They’re so silent, and this one even smells nice.

The driver turns around and offers him a bottle of water. Ravi sits back and, as he opens the bottle to drink, laughs to himself. He thinks it’s funny how a software-driven rating system maintains the quality of the ride and is probably responsible for getting him this bottle of water. Somehow, whenever he needs a ride, an Uber car is always right there waiting. It’s almost as if they predict the possibility of his needing a ride. A subtle hint on his watch telling him that his housecleaner has just entered his apartment snaps him out of his thoughts and back to reality.

The car arrives at his college campus. He jumps out and rushes to his class. Ravi studies product design, a field that brings form and functionality together. It’s about creating things. A younger him wanted to be an artist, but he ultimately changed his mind when he found out that product design pays better.

His day at school is like every other day: busy. Time passes fast or slow; it’s sometimes a drag, sometimes a blur. He spends most of his time working on his tablet device and with 3-D printers, instantly bringing his designs to life. There are no real classrooms in his college. It’s more about the serendipity of being around others learning similar things. All the teaching happens over the web, and it’s easy to get podcasts of any lecture for later. The labs are everywhere, and everyone always seems to be busy building something. The class Ravi likes the most seems far removed from design. It’s about data: how to find it, manage it, and analyze it for product insights, or, simply, how to create designs from data.

He feels a tap on his shoulder.

“Are you going to the party later?”

Ravi turns around. It’s a friend. “Yes. At eight, right?”

His friend nods.

“See you there, lah.”

His Snapchat feed has been going crazy all day. Everyone is excited. A new club has opened at Clarke Quay, Singapore’s clubbing district.

Ravi gets up, puts his tablet into his messenger bag, throws the bag over his shoulder, and heads out into the street. A gentle buzz on his wrist tells him he needs to drink some water. His body needs it. He continues walking, making a note to grab some water once he gets to the club.

The hot Singapore air swirls around him. He quickens his pace. The bus stop is right ahead of him, and it has air conditioning. As he passes the sliding doors, he hears a gentle beep. The bus shelter knows he’s there. The bus stop is simple. It’s minimal and very quiet. He glances at his phone. It has the screen up, already showing him when the bus to Clarke Quay will arrive. He loves how the software he needs is always right there working for him. He remembers a time when he was younger when he had to look for apps, install them, and use them manually—it was so much work. His bus will arrive in two minutes. The software scheduling the buses knows about the big party at the club opening. It knows that droves of young people will need to get there. It knows where the colleges are and what time the rush will begin. It’s reconfiguring bus routes and deploying more buses to make things optimal for the travelers.

The bus pulls in. It’s quiet and smells so clean. He’s almost forgotten the smells of the toxic filth that vehicles would pump out before Singapore went fully electric five years ago. The bus is full of young people dressed to party. He smiles to himself. How did the route scheduling software know? He wonders if it has a Snapchat account.

The inside of the bus is spacious. It rolls ahead smooth and fast, zipping down the protected bus lanes with minimal stops. Since all the buses are driven by software and are networked together, they run at speeds considered unsafe for human drivers, seldom stopping or slowing down. Stopping buses pull away from the traffic and are passed by those behind them at high speeds. At certain bus-only intersections, they cross each other without stopping, like a grand orchestra, all coordinated by sophisticated routing software and some AI.

Ravi walks over the bridge into Clarke Quay, an area of the city packed with clubs and partygoers. He walks past a series of dancing fountains, heading onward to the opening night of a new club called AI Lounge.

The music inside is loud. He can feel the bass in his chest. He scans the room for his friends. While he was on the bus, Ravi followed the activity inside the club on Snapchat live, but his headphones clearly did not do the club’s sound system any justice.

The club’s interior is a giant dome. The dance floor is in the middle, surrounded by the bar. Ravi sees a friend and walks towards him. The music seems to soften as he nears the bar. It must be targeted at the dance floor, he thinks. His wrist buzzes. His watch displays an offer to buy the song currently playing at a discount. He ignores it. He finds it odd that there is no DJ to be seen. There is no booth with a guy inside waving his hands and getting the music going.

Ravi’s friend leans over. “The ‘AI’ stands for ‘artificial intelligence.’ The music is created by software, lah. It’s by a startup out of Berlin.”

Ravi is surprised. “It’s really good.”

“Unique. Created for today, for this crowd. It will evolve throughout the night.”

Barely having a chance to reply, Ravi feels a hand grip his shoulder as someone pulls him towards the crowd.

“Stop talking. Come and dance.” It’s the girl he is there to meet.

He looks at her, smiles, and gently walks towards her, disappearing into the dancing crowd.

Ravi’s world is managed by software. It makes life easier for him. It allows him to focus on the things he cares about. He still controls his life. He makes the decisions; the software is only there to support him.

The world I depicted in this story is not a future featuring flying cars. Instead, it’s one where software and data work together to remove obstacles, making people’s lives more efficient and enjoyable. Our future will be made up of gains big and small, such as apps that stream to your phone based on predicted needs, electric cars that drive themselves, or bus networks that constantly optimize their services using AI. Multiply these benefits of varying degrees with how they will affect the lives of millions of people and what you get is a pretty great future.

That Uber car that was waiting for Ravi? He didn’t call for it. A software algorithm used data to predict that a driver should wait at the spot where Ravi was one of a few potential riders.

Ravi’s watch runs its own mini neural network, using data from its sensor to make sure he drinks water when he begins to get dehydrated or breathes deeply if his stress level increases.

The contactless NETS card is tied to Ravi’s identity and pays for him as he goes about his day.

Ravi lives in a future where AI is not just for making mundane predictions. It also takes over creative jobs. DJs are replaced by startups that work with clubs, each with their own neural-network-powered music-generation software, orchestrating large parties around the globe with their cloud-based software. AI-generated music is not far from what’s possible today. Google’s project Magenta is currently exploring models called recurrent or adversarial neural networks to do just this.

This future world is managed by software, powered by data, and built on the cloud.

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