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John Markoff: The past, present and future of Silicon Valley

No region in the world has been more synonymous with technological innovation. How long will this last?

A view of Silicon Valley at dusk from Monument Peak in the East Bay

A view of Silicon Valley at dusk from Monument Peak in the East Bay. | iStock/yhelfman

John Markoff is perhaps best known as a science and technology writer for The New York Times, but he is also a fellow at the Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence at Stanford.

In both roles he is a keen observer and chronicler of the rise of Silicon Valley as the heart of the technological revolution of the past six decades.

While Silicon Valley remains the preeminent technology center in the world today, Markoff cautions that nothing lasts forever and a demise can often be just as swift as the rise. The next big thing in tech, he says, will be a surprise and it could come from anywhere. To remain at the top, Silicon Valley cannot rest on its laurels, but must continue to innovate like no other.

Markoff has noticed a shift in emphasis in recent years from faster and cheaper computers to artificial intelligence and robotics that may be opening new frontiers to technologists outside of Silicon Valley for the first time in many decades. He says the biggest problem for society will not be losing jobs to robots, but rather dealing with rapidly aging populations around the world. The question, he says, isn’t which jobs will be the first to go, but rather who will be available to fill the jobs that remain.

You can listen to this episode of The Future of Everything on Sirius XM Insight Channel 121iTunesGoogle PlaySoundCloudSpotifyStitcher or via Stanford Engineering Magazine.

Full Transcript

Russ Altman: Today, on The Future of Everything the future of Silicon Valley. Periodically, in human history every now and then there is an unusual mix of opportunity, capital, talent, technology in a geographical region that concentrates this and creates perhaps an unusual period of creativity, invention and sometimes great impact on a global scale. Far beyond, what you might expect from that local geography.

I like to think about the Italian Art Renaissance in the 15th and 16th century, focused in Florence. So, removed from Rome, the seat of Italian power and the church power. The Medici family and others provided capital. There was a network of business connections there was a good supply of marble, and paint supplies. And, things were advancing, and then a few masters Giotto, da Vinci, Michelangelo emerged from this pool of kind of opportunity as masters. They integrated the lessons from the past, they added their own vision and there was this revolution in art that seemed to advance from static 2-D depictions, mostly of bible scenes to dynamic three-dimensional art that many people, even today are captivated by. Books have been written about Florence.

Why then? Why there? We’re not gonna do that today. But I love that it is related to the Bubonic plague. And the fact that one-third of European people died from this terrible disease. But that took pressure off the farmers who could then produce extra food. Yadda yadda yadda.

Now, we have the growth of Silicon Valley. Now, I don’t wanna push this too hard. This was not an art, and it’s not clearly about art, or about cultural things. But there was digital technologies and there’s a somewhat parallel story.

Removed from the seats of power in Washington D.C and New York. The power and influence. There was this West Coast place which actually even 50 years ago was mostly fruit farms. But companies arose, Hewlett Packard, Intel. There was this University, Stanford University. Disclaimer: I’m an employee of Stanford University that provided a growing technological work force in both engineering and science. These masters weren’t artists — far from it. Although, well we could discuss that. But they were industrialists. You had Hewlett and Packard, you had the Gordon Moore, and the Intel founders. Steve Jobs and then of course Jerry Yang from Yahoo!, Sergey Brin, Larry Page. And recently now we know about the founders of Facebook, Uber, Twitter, etc. A remarkable concentration of talent, opportunity, technology. Creating a singularity, you could argue that in this area that was just a fruit farming area.

So, Silicon Valley perhaps has helped usher in an era of AI, machine learning and the gig economy. Now, as I said I don’t want to oversell this analogy and let’s also remember what happened to Florence. It did not maintain its preeminence in art. Wars and important changing trade patterns reduced the available capital, reduced it as the center of the world in many ways. The reformation changed the religious dynamics. The Catholic church had various reactions against humanism. The pendulum and perhaps the luck of Florence ran out. And Florence became once again a local geographic region. It’s great to visit, it’s great to eat there but it is not really particularly, the center of anything right now.

What does the future hold for Silicon Valley?

John Markoff is a fellow, former fellow at the Stanford Center for Advanced Study and Behavioral Sciences. He’s a current fellow and research affiliate at the Human-centered Artificial Intelligence Institute at Stanford. He has been a science writer at the New York Times for more than 20, 30 years. He’s covered the general computer industry, Silicon Valley in particular during this time that I just described of great innovation and disruption both in good and bad ways.

John, you have written that Silicon Valley may be over optimistic, both at the rate of expected future progress, and also the benefits that that progress will bring to society. Perhaps it’s peddling some things. How do you see this manifesting? And is it a byproduct of hyperbolic marketing, purely? Or does it indicate potentially the beginning of the end for this period of Silicon Valley flourishing innovation.

John Markoff: Boy, I love your analogy to Florence. Because I think about that a lot and I think about it particularly in the context of fragility. How fragile is the Valley. Nothing lasts forever. Clearly the arc of technological innovation in the last couple of centuries has been from east to west. There’s always the implication that it may continue to go west perhaps to China. You know, the question of where Silicon Valley came from is a really interesting one as well — you brought that up — what’s new, I mean I always thought there’s a lot of serendipity. I mean Shockley came here —

Russ Altman: Right.

John Markoff: — famously because his mother was here. What if his mother had been in Iowa?

Russ Altman: Exactly.

John Markoff: And then there’s this wonderful thing that David Brock who’s the staff historian at Computer History Museum recently discovered, Shockley didn’t come here to build the transistor. He created a transistor company, but when he left Bell labs in the early 50s he was super — there was an automation phase. It’s kind of an interesting thing considering where we are today.

Russ Altman: Yes, yes.

John Markoff: An automation fad, and he came here to build a robot. He got money from Beckman, who was his investor. And it devolved down, first, into a company whose first intent was to build a company to build a robot eye. Because he wanted to build an automated factory. So, Silicon Valley’s roots are actually in robotics and AI. Which I think is not known, largely.

Russ Altman: No, that is not generally appreciated.

John Markoff: And it’s just a wonderful sort of — it devolved down into transistor company and then of course the traders left and they went to Fairchild.

Russ Altman: Right, right.

John Markoff: And all of that happened. But then — so, I guess you know when I was a reporter in 2006 I was spending a lot of time in Europe. And it looked like innovation in mobile software was moving to Europe. Nokia, and Sion were there.

Russ Altman: Yes.

John Markoff: And I had this sense, that the ball was moving overseas in that direction. And then the iPhone happened. In 2007, the mobile platform came to the Valley.

Russ Altman: You’re right, we all had Nokia phones in 2005, 2006.

John Markoff: At some point. That’s right.

Russ Altman: And it was like where the heck is Nokia. Why don’t I see signs on it when I drive down 101.

John Markoff: Yeah. Absolutely.

Russ Altman: It was not a thing from Silicon Valley.

John Markoff: So, the way I think about it, there are a couple things. It’s really interesting to me to think about where the next IT platform might come from. Will it come from Silicon Valley? It’s not guaranteed. I mean, there’s lots of speculation it might be augmented reality, it might be speech. There clearly will be something after, if you walk down the street in San Francisco half the population is looking at the palm of their hand.

Russ Altman: Yes.

John Markoff: That can’t be the end of user interface. There has to be something after that. So what’ll it be?

John Markoff: The sooner — the other thing I have to say is the visionaries are almost always wrong. It’ll surprise us. It’ll come out of left field. It might come from China.

Russ Altman: So what about this idea, where does it, where does this idea come from that the marketing from Silicon Valley in terms of the pace of progress has been a little bit misleading and perhaps the data doesn’t support —

John Markoff: Yeah.

Russ Altman: The looking back at how fast things have been and how fast they’re going to be.

John Markoff: I can’t tell you in my career how many press releases I’ve gotten that have the word “revolution” in them.

Russ Altman: Yeah.

John Markoff: And in fact I think the reality of Silicon Valley is there have been a couple of big ideas. Personal computing, networks, ubiquitous computing, and then there’s been a lot of great engineering. This is an engineering center. But big ideas that actually break paradigms only come along, every once in a while. We had a free ride for 50 years on Moore’s law. What I would argue is because not only did things get exponentially faster, but cost fell exponentially as well. And that drove the creation of new markets at regular intervals. It was kind of a free ride.

Russ Altman: Very interesting.

John Markoff: Computing, went through these different stages, mobile phones in a sense happened because of cost and other related factors. Not because of brilliant innovation often.

Russ Altman: This is The Future of Everything. I’m Russ Altman, I’m speaking with John Markoff about innovation in the last couple of decades.

How much of it, I guess, how much of it was designed and deserves credit, so let’s — and, how much of it was free luck and a free ride. So let’s dig a little bit deeper. So Moore’s law, in what sense — First of all for those who are not familiar Moore’s law is the general idea that computing every 18 months, computing power roughly doubles. In a remarkable turn of events for the last 20 or 30 years, that actually has been true. There is a profound concern now that engineers will not be able to maintain that. And that that will lead to putting the brakes on a lot of things. I guess what you mean by we’ve, they’ve been lucky and been getting a free ride is that they didn’t have to worry about being particularly clever in their software or even in their hardware because they could count on Moore’s law giving them vastly greater computer power very soon.

John Markoff: Yeah.

Russ Altman: But what is the world like when that flattens out?

John Markoff: Well —

Russ Altman: Is that the concern?

John Markoff: Yeah. That’s the concern, so basically the cost of Silicon stopped falling at an exponential rate around 2015 because we’d hit that wall we all knew was coming. And that’s not to say it’s over; there may be some way around or some new acceleration. But for the moment things have slowed down dramatically. So we’re in this new era.

And I had this wonderful moment about two and half years ago it was actually Engineering School Industrial Partners Program here. Everybody was wringing their hands about how we’d hit the wall. I ran into this Harvard computer architect and he was just wild with enthusiasm. Because he said “Now it’s our turn.”

Russ Altman: Interesting.

John Markoff: You’ll make, and that’s in fact what we’ve seen. What we’ve seen is new architectural designs most of them in terms of chips that do AI kinds of algorithms better but that’s where the innovation has been. So, that is — we’re not saying that innovation is over but it’s not in the lock step acceleration model of Moore’s law. It’s based on human ingenuity.

Russ Altman: And this could be one of the changes that opens up the world and allows other places, other institutional structures to kind of take over in the innovation leadership.

John Markoff: Absolutely, for example lets hypothetically, everything in AI is now about big data. So that argues that those with most data win. Google, Amazon, Apple, China.

Russ Altman: Yes.

John Markoff: As in a nation-state. But what if there is an algorithmic that break through that works off of small data. That changes the entire playing field.

Russ Altman: Right.

John Markoff: So it could — there’s interesting stuff happening in AI approaches that may not be based on the current state of the art neuro-nets and deep learning.

Russ Altman: Fantastic. So okay, so you’ve written a lot about, you know I love — I love that you’re a journalist. I should say as a disclaimer to anybody listening I am not a journalist. My mother sometimes calls, My mother is only person I know, for sure listens to this show. Hi mom, I know you’re listening. She’ll call me every now again and said “You let that guy off the hook. You’re a bad journalist.” And I had to say mom, I’m an enthusiast. I’m not a journalist.

But as a journalist, I love you’re trained to look at situations and kinda cut the B.S. from what’s really happening. And you’ve looked for example at AI and jobs. What’s your impression, there are a lot technologists saying Well, don’t worry about this, we’re gonna everybody will adapt. And they’re forging ahead.

John Markoff: Yeah.

Russ Altman: When you look at it from your journalistic trained eye, what do you see as the reality?

John Markoff: Okay. Couple of things. I had to come around to that view. I was part of that, in fact I helped create that current sort of period of anxiety that we’re in about jobs and technology. I began writing about the impact of AI and white collar around 2010, 2011. And I was in that camp. Then I had an important sort of interaction with Danny Kahneman, who is the behavioral economist.

Russ Altman: Very famous.

John Markoff: I was on this rant about how automation would come to China and It would lead to disruption because of the loss of jobs. And he stopped me and he said you don’t get it. He said, in China they’ll be lucky if the robots come just in time. And I said what do you mean? He walked me through the demography of modern China. I began looking around the world. And all of sudden I realized that the most important things happening in the world today are demography not technology.

Russ Altman: Ah.

John Markoff: All over the world except for Africa and the Middle East, the world is aging at a rapid rate. And he’s really right. The issue is care and dependency. So I changed the question I asked as a journalist. I used to ask when will there be self driving cars? Not anymore. I ask when will there be an robot that can safely give a shower to an aging human? And nobody has a good answer.

Russ Altman: This is The Future of Everything. I’m Russ Altman, I’m speaking with John Markoff who just changed the question. This is great. So, demography is driving technology is kinda the core concept that you just alluded to.

John Markoff: Yeah.

Russ Altman: Does that change our level of optimism? Should we now think, well, self-driving cars and AI for care of elderly? I think what you implied is not only should we be rooting for that we need for it to come soon or we for example might not have the work force to —

John Markoff: That’s right

Russ Altman: — to take care of our parents and ourselves in the next 20 to 30 years.

John Markoff: Absolutely. I mean Rod Brooks, who’s a pioneering roboticist, says with a bit of humor, that self-driving cars will be the first elder care robots. Which actually may be true. And if you think about that, if self-driving cars did show up, they could give people who are sort of bound to home new mobility. And that would be a very great thing.

Russ Altman: I Just had a very good friend say that their parents are driving and they don’t think they’re safe, and how people all over, certainly all over the country and probably all over the world, are trying to decide how do you have these tough conversations about many issues —

John Markoff: Yeah.

Russ Altman: — where there is a very important and difficult loss of autonomy associated with aging. You want to obviously support the elderly in a caring, loving way. But, they can be a danger to themselves and to others.

John Markoff: Yeah.

Russ Altman: And this is not a solved problem. And its only getting worse.

John Markoff: The world is gonna look so different in a half century. Already, more people in the world as a whole are older than 65 , than under five. By the middle of the century the number of people over 80 globally will double and will go up seven fold by the end of the century. That’s the most important factor in the world.

Russ Altman: So as you look at this, do you now worry so now I’m flipping my perspective a little bit. Do you worry that with this challenge to Moore’s law and the difficulty in getting that next doubling every 18 months that this is happening at kind of a perfect storm of just when we need Moore’s law the most, because were not, we do not have robots to help take care of my parents.

John Markoff: Exactly.

Russ Altman: Or to drive them around. I need them to exist soon. And now at the same time were having some technological resets. Is this a potential crisis?

John Markoff: Well, I think that the — there is a crisis, I think, in elder care. We do have to think about that as a society. The other question about markets and sort of the work force. The work force is not gonna change as fast as some people worry because of this slowing down. How many job categories, census job categories, have gone away in the last three decades? One. Elevator operators. The kind of rapid change. In 1995 when Jeremy Rifkin wrote the End of Work, the American economy grew more than it ever had grown in history in the next decade.

Russ Altman: Right.

John Markoff: The whole thing about jobs going away here we are in a full employment economy. We’ve had a half century of the micro-processor and a decade of deep learning. So something else is going on. It’s a more, and I think what the deal is, it’s very easy to point to jobs that might go away. It’s much more difficult to look at jobs that might be created. We have a very difficult time understanding what the future is gonna look like.

Russ Altman: I hate to be Mr. Renaissance, but I have spent time in Florence. And in fact the thing I was saying about the Bubonic plague. The farmers said we’re in big trouble now because there’s nobody to eat our food but they did not suffer because this middle class emerged of merchants, and people who created jobs and industries and guilds that didn’t even exist a hundred years before. There was plenty of economic churn to support these folks. It’s an exactly the example that you’re referring to. Actually amazingly good things in many ways happened when you had some free time.

So I’ve often wondered is the AI, robotic revolution if it ever happens. Is that actually gonna free up people to do things that we’ve had on our to-do list for a long time, that really society needs.

Fantastic. We should now talk about the work force. You referred to that a little bit. What is the challenge in training young people for the future that is hard to predict?

John Markoff: Boy, let’s see if there are good examples. You know, the nature of education has changing in interesting ways. Sebastian Thrun and others at Stanford predicted that were gonna have this new kind of education and universities would go away. Universities don’t appear—

Russ Altman: The MOOC, the massive —

John Markoff: That’s right, online classroom. And MOOCs exist now, and universities are still thriving. The visionaries are always wrong.

Russ Altman: We don’t know.

John Markoff: Yeah.

Russ Altman: This is The Future of Everything. I’m Russ Altman, more with John Markoff about the future of technology and computing, next on SiriusXM insight 121.

Welcome back to The Future of Everything. I’m Russ Altman, I’m speaking with John Markoff, about technology, history of technology and computation and the future of technology and computation. John, you’re currently working on a biography about Stewart Brands, who was associated with the he was a Stanford graduate student and he’s associated with the Whole Earth Catalog. I think you believe this to be a critical, kind of historical moment in time. So tell us about the Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brands, and why we should care.

John Markoff: Yeah, okay. First of all, Stewart was a Stanford student. He studied biology here in the 1950’s. He’s associated with a couple of very important events, that were instrumental in creating what I think of as a California perspective or world view, ideology. One of them was the Whole Earth Catalog. Before that there was something called the Trips Festival. Which was the most visible and most successful of these things that Ken Kesey organized called the acid tests.

Russ Altman: Ken Kesey was a famous LSD guy.

John Markoff: He participated in these experiments in Menlo park. They were financed by the CIA. Then the drug kinda leaked out into the surrounding community. And people like Stewart began experimenting with it. Some formally, and some recreationally. My generation experienced LSD as a recreational drug. But it was part of a cultural shift. And the Trips Festival which happened in January of 1966 in San Francisco at the Longshoremen’s Hall. It was organized by Stewart was important because it was the moment that the 10,000 hippies in the Bay area realized that there were 10,000 hippies. It created a community. There was a direct line to Haight-Ashbury and to the counter culture. It also led directly —

Russ Altman: Into the summer of 1968.

John Markoff: Summer of love, that’s right. All of that grew out of that moment, in a very direct sense. They hired to help organize it, this guy who had been a publicist for the Mime Troupe by the name of Bill Graham.

Russ Altman: Pretty famous guy.

John Markoff: He became famous, Bill Graham at that moment realized that there was money in music and the day after the Trips Festival he went out and leased the Filmore. So it led also directly to the San Francisco music scene. So it was the spark. So dial the clock forward a couple of years—

Russ Altman: What, just one quick question. What did they do at the Trips Festival? Was it a discussion, was it music?

John Markoff: It was all — it was several things. Stewart showed this multi-media slide show he’d produced called “America Needs Indians.” Which was important in the creation of the American environmental movement of the 1970’s. He showed that for the last time. But then a couple of rock groups like Big Brother before Janice, the Grateful Dead, not the Warlocks, let’s see who else played — three different rock groups played. And it was really the sort of the moment that you know the rock, the San Francisco rock concerts —

Russ Altman: By any chance was it Jefferson Airplane?

John Markoff: No, Jefferson Airplane wasn’t there they played before at the Family Dog —

Russ Altman: Okay they were a favorite of mine.

John Markoff: Favorite of mine too. As a matter of fact, I used them to title a book that I wrote. Yeah, so all that sort of happened the culture sort of emerged. But by that time, Stewart who was the bridge between the beat culture, which had been in North Beach in the 50’s and early 60’s and hippe culture. He was done with that. He moved down the peninsula he came down here to help organize an education conference festival that never really happened. And after that failure, this is sort of Silicon Valley cultural thing about fail fast. He had a mentor his name was Dick Raymond, who had something called the Portola Institute was just up the road here in Menlo park and Stewart got this idea, and it was largely because his friends were going off to communes. That he would create a catalog, perhaps a little bit like the Sears robot catalog.

Russ Altman: Which was a dominant thing in the 60’s and 70’s.

John Markoff: That’s right there was no Google.

Russ Altman: I remember spending hours in the Sears catalog.

John Markoff: That’s right. And there was no Google. How could you find interesting things? So he came up with this notion of a catalog of tools. And his idea was a truck store, that he would drive around to the communes. And he would sell them stuff they need. Well, he did that about two times and then he realized that communes had no money. So that wasn’t gonna work. So he pivoted, in a classic kind of Silicon Valley way

Russ Altman: This is great.

John Markoff: And he created this catalog that went from 1,000 copies in the fall of 1968, to winning the national book award in 1972. It really became the bible of my generation. And I can’t tell you how many people I’ve run into, that said you know I saw something in the catalog, and my life took a right hand turn, or a left hand turn. That it really changed people’s lives.

Russ Altman: This is The Future of Everything. I’m Russ Altman. I’m speaking with John Markoff about the Whole Earth Catalog. Okay so tell us more. How did it impact the world? Does it connect at all to the Silicon Valley that then emerged?

John Markoff: Okay, it’s super complicated. And I’m now writing Stewart’s biography, I’m trying to —

Russ Altman: Take your time because we have at least four minutes.

John Markoff: So in 1962, Stewart’s had just gotten out of the army and he was visiting the computer center at Stanford. And he saw something that really stuck with him. He saw these two kids sitting in front of a graphical computer display. Remember they didn’t exist at that point.

Russ Altman: This is very experimental.

John Markoff: Having what he thought of as an out of body experience and what they were doing is they were playing a game called Space War. Which was the first video game. That had been invented by at MIT and had been imported to Stanford and I would argue that that was the first inkling of a something called “cyber space.” Stewart saw it first. And he kept that in the back of his mind. In 1972 he shut down the Whole Earth Catalog, and he was sort of becoming a journalist. He wrote this really important article for Rolling Stone which dealt with the two laboratories on both sides of Stanford campus. One was the Stanford Artificial Intelligence laboratory and the other was Xerox Park, which had just opened. And that was the first window, that people like me had that there was this thing called the internet coming and there was this thing called personal computing coming. Stewart saw it first. And he alerted the world to it. So he was sort of playing the role of a journalist at that point. But you sort of dial the world even farther forward and he set up this thing called The Well in 1985 in Sausalito, and there too, it’s complicated. Because there was this explosion of what do you call it sort of digital utopianism. And he was part of that digital utopian movement.

Russ Altman: So he bought in.

John Markoff: Absolutely.

Russ Altman: So he moved from the counter culture, beats, hippies he came literally south 20 miles started seeing computers, starting thinking about the future and that is a direct connection then. And does that spirit? Maybe you’ve written this, and I apologize. I’ve read that the Whole Earth Catalog embodied a spirit that is still traceable to current Silicon Valley utopianism.

John Markoff: Yeah.

Russ Altman: Is that an overstatement?

John Markoff: It is a debated statement. There are two recent books this is where Stewart becomes kinda Rashomon. Franklin Foer’s “World Without Mind” — so there’s a Zeitgeist shift that’s happened. In 2016 Silicon Valley went from being able to do no wrong, to being able to do no right.

Russ Altman: It was an amazing turnaround.

John Markoff: Just turned. And the two books that best sort of capture this are Foer’s book. And he goes right back to Stewart and sort of — Stewart is patient zero. I think he gets it wrong.

Russ Altman: Okay that might’ve been what I —

John Markoff: And then there’s Johnathan Taplan’s book. It’s called “Move Fast and Break Things.” Very similar book, but he has a more sophisticated understanding of what happened. He goes back to the digital utopians and Stewart was one of them. But there was a second wave and those are the digital libertarians. And it went from utopianism to libertarianism and I think that’s the sort of arch. Stewart started as sort of sympathetic with Ayn Rand but he ended up in the middle of the 1970’s working in Jerry Brown’s administration — first administration. And he came away with this sense of the value of good government. So it’s just wrong to think of Stewart as a complete libertarian.

Russ Altman: I see.

John Markoff: That’s not what he is.

Russ Altman: So there’s another trail that says were gonna build this utopia. And you guys are preventing us from doing it. We are now libertarians because we want to be able to just build it.

John Markoff: Yeah.

Russ Altman: He wasn’t necessarily part of that strand —

John Markoff: No.

Russ Altman: But responsible, maybe, I don’t wanna overstate it, responsible use of — what would be the word — stewardship of this technology in an advancing —

John Markoff: He was very optimistic but Stewart was always someone who saw nuance and paradox. He is seen as the person who said information wants to be free. That’s not what he said. At the first hackers conference —

Russ Altman: Aha.

John Markoff: What he said was, information wants to be free and information wants to be very expensive. That’s Stewart. Understanding the nuance —

Russ Altman: That’s interesting because that information wants to be free you can trace directly to statements of the Google founders and the Facebook founders. That’s one of their mantras.

John Markoff: Yeah.

Russ Altman: And as we know, they have not always been led well by that mantra. And they’ve gotten themselves into very sticky, thorny situations because you need to moderate that with other considerations.

John Markoff: And Stewart is an optimist. He was particularly an optimist about technology having an important role and impact on the world. There’s this arc — the first sentence of Whole Earth Catalogs was “We are as gods, and we might as well get good at it.”

Russ Altman: Wow.

John Markoff: So 20 years ago with Danny Hillis, who’s this computer scientist, he set up this organization called the Long Now foundation to build a clock. A mechanical clock to run for 10,000 years as a demonstration of long-term thinking. It’s almost finished. Jeff Bezos picked up the tab, it exists. It’s in Texas.

Russ Altman: So were building it. Is it a pendulum?

John Markoff: It is not a pendulum — is it a pendulum? Let me think. Is it a pendulum? Yes. It’s a pendulum.

Russ Altman: It’s a physical device. It’s not like an atomic clock. We’re not counting cesium vibrations.

John Markoff: No, it will run from air flow and being wound by people for millennia. We hope. But Stewart now has got this de-extinction group called Revive and Restore. Which is sort of him trying to sort of deliver on that original vision of we are as gods. This notion of sort of humans and technology. And they’re trying to bring back the woolly mammoth. Or more importantly —

Russ Altman: These are like the seed banks and the DNA banking so that we can track species that are either extinct or going extinct.

John Markoff: Or modifying species like Coral to make them more resilient in endangered niches in the environment.

Russ Altman: It’ll be a great book. It’s coming out I’m sure as soon as you can finish it.

Thank you for listening to The Future of Everything. I’m Russ Altman, if you missed any of this episode listen any time on demand with the SiriusXM app.