SOON, SOFTWARE WILL know how you feel—and will use that data to sell you things. The gig economy will go global (but it’s not Uber-take-all). The tech industry will finally be inclusive. AI will achieve something like common sense, and it will be open source too. But that future won’t build itself. Actual people (at least for now) have to make these things happen, and they aren’t the C-suite hotshots you always hear about. The 25 people in these pages are the unsung creative, technical, and social visionaries working to bring the incredible world of tomorrow to you today. Get to know them now. Welcome to our second annual Next List.
Encryption has mass appeal
Instant gratification requires total control
Amazon has long favored growth over profits, and in its nearly 22-year lifespan, the company has poured resources into building out a sprawling logistics infrastructure dedicated to giving you what you want almost immediately. Why should you have to wait for days (or, God forbid, leave your house) when you need toilet paper?
Stephenie Landry is the force responsible for the instantaneousness of your gratification—as vice president of Amazon Prime Now, she conceptualized how the company would bring one-hour deliveries to life and assembled the team to work on the problem. “We have something at Amazon called the working-backward process,” Landry says. “We write a press release saying what we would announce to the world, and when I was writing the product concept, I wrote that the experience of Prime Now would be ‘magical.’” Since launching in December 2014, the service has gone live in four countries and more than 30 metropolitan areas around the world. And, as rumors swirl that Amazon may also be working on a global delivery network, Prime Now increasingly looks to be a scaled-down version of the company’s long-term play: to be in complete control of the flow of products in its supply chain, from factories in China and India all the way to your doorstep. That grand planwould involve not only trucks, cargo planes, and drones but also hundreds of thousands of humans working in warehouses and as couriers. And if anything like that aspirational picture of Prime Now actually emerges, UPS and FedEx should probably start prepping their contingency plans as soon as, well, now. —Davey Alba
Startups can be inclusive from day 1
FREADA KAPOR KLEIN
Freada Kapor Klein wants to make sure that doesn’t happen. Once an early executive at office-software pioneer Lotus, she’s now a partner at Oakland-based Kapor Capital. In January the VC firm announced that startups in its portfolio must create a culture of inclusion from day one—by, say, reporting their progress on diversity during quarterly investor updates or adopting tools and training programs to mitigate biases in the hiring process and throughout employment.
And diversity, it turns out, breeds diversity. Kapor Klein says other VCs have asked her how they can work with a more diverse group of entrepreneurs. She tells them: “Start with your own firm.” Indeed, at Kapor Capital, half the partners are black; more than two-thirds of its investment team are either black or Latino; and at the 112 companies it’s invested in, close to 60 percent of founders are from underrepresented backgrounds. But there’s still a lot of work to do: According to a recent report, a mere 11 startups led by black women have received more than $1 million in outside funding. They have typically been funded by the same three investors—and Kapor Capital is one of them. —Davey Alba
GMOs are essential for our survival
“Analysts don’t understand our company,” Kirk says. He doesn’t mind, though, because he’s playing the long game. Kirk believes that GMOs are the future, and he’s willing to wait. In the meantime, Intrexon turns a handsome dime helping livestock farmers breed better animals, funding even bolder forays into altering DNA.
Kirk may be onto something. In November the Food and Drug Administration finally approved GM salmon after a 20-year review process. (Supermarkets, of course, still have to agree to sell it.) And the outbreak of the Zika virus has renewed calls for a genetically modified mosquito that can’t reproduce. To Kirk, this is the kind of solution that humans will need in order to survive the effects of climate change and population growth.
“The engineering of biology is probably the biggest event in the history of this planet,” he says. His embrace of genetically modified organisms is not exactly ideological—just good business. Now he’s waiting for the rest of the world to come around. —Sarah Zhang
The tyranny of the wireless carriers is over
Fox oversees a Google effort called Project Fi. Available with the company’s latest Nexus smartphones, this 21st-century wireless service automatically shuttles you between networks to find the best connection, period—all without interrupting your calls or texts. “The connectivity in these devices is like water,” Fox says.
What’s more, you can pay for all this in small, flat monthly fees—avoiding the overly expensive and complex pricing plans that so often weigh down traditional cell services. The only catch—and it’s a big one—is that carriers have to agreeto allow this kind of switching. But over time they’ll likely have no choice. Manufacturers will build this option into their devices, and consumers will demand it.
Already, Apple lets iPad users easily test multiple cellular carriers and choose between them, and it’s not a stretch to imagine the company making such switching possible on the iPhone next. Thanks to Fox, we’re moving toward a world where wireless networks orbit around us—not the other way around.—Cade Metz
A golden age of coding is here
Swift began as a way to build software for iPhones, iPads, and Macs—a relief for coders who had spent so many years building software with the aging, Apple-centric language Objective-C. Like Google’s Go and Mozilla’s Rust, Swift combines speed of development with speed of execution. But in December, Lattner and Apple took the project to a whole new level: They released an open source version of Swift that will allow developers to create variants that run on any operating system. “We want to see Swift go everywhere,” Lattner says. With this kind of flexibility and speed, it will.—Cade Metz
Augmented reality can be affordable
Earlier this year, Gribetz announced a second version, the Meta 2, which will ship to developers later this year. At $949, it sells for less than a third the price of Microsoft’s HoloLens. Unlike Redmond’s entry, the Meta 2 has to be tethered to a computer to work, but it has a larger field of view and offers gestural control.
The company has raised just $23 million—far less than either Microsoft or Magic Leap, which has attracted $1.4 billion. While Meta has designed its own goggles, it is focusing more of its resources on creating superior software. Initial users, Gribetz believes, will be designers, mechanical engineers, and medical professionals—anyone who can benefit from working with enhanced 3-D models. He’s betting that for now, professionals won’t mind the cord if they’re better able to do their work.—Jessi Hempel
Streaming TV is going global
Nishimura started out buying Scandinavian horror films and Japanese anime for Netflix back when it was known for its DVDs. Today she might pick up a film at Sundance or work with a filmmaker on a project—whatever it takes to build a library of nonfiction features, docuseries, and stand-up specials that, ideally, translate internationally.
It’s working. Nishimura helped develop What Happened, Miss Simone? as well as ultra-bingey series like Making a Murderer. She looks for projects that simply appeal to her, but her team also uses data on what we’ve watched to decide what we’d like to watch.
And she’s ensuring that Netflix’s original offerings aren’t US-centric. Which means, since shows hit at the same time around the world, the tastes of, say, India’s Netflix users may well start shaping what you see in your stream.—Julia Greenberg
Smart drones won’t need expert pilots
That’s where engineer Adam Bry flies in. After working on Google X’s Project Wing drone delivery program for a year and a half, Bry cofounded Skydio to bring truly autonomous drones to everyone. Companies already use drones for tasks ranging from construction site surveys to windmill inspections to wedding photography. The catch is that they usually need to hire a skilled drone pilot for these jobs. Skydio is working to make flying drones easy for nonexperts.
So the company is developing machine learning algorithms that teach drones to “see.” These sensors will help drones not only avoid crashing into buildings, trees, and people but also keep a digital eye on their mission. “It’s the first-ever camera that knows what it’s looking at and can move itself,” Bry says. “Whatever you’re doing, it’s like you have a film crew with you.” Which will be transformative for the efficacy of drones, if not just a little bit terrifying for humans.—Klint Finley
Advertising is becoming a Big Data game
The firm groups people according to where they fall on the so-called OCEAN scale, which psychologists use to measure how open, conscientious, extroverted, agreeable, or neurotic they are. Cambridge surveyed hundreds of thousands of people across the US to generate a statistical model to predict these traits in the broader population.
Using Cambridge’s data, marketers combine a key trait with generic demographic information and then craft a message that’s more likely to appeal to that type. So for someone who’s neurotic, the message would play to fears about a subject. Agreeable people, on the other hand, gravitate toward information about how a given product or idea will benefit society.
Presidential candidate Ted Cruz has been Cambridge’s main client this year, but the firm also works with automotive, retail, and health care companies. And yet there’s still a fair bit of doubt in marketing circles over whether Cambridge’s methods are effective. That stands to reason. After all, Nix says, “once advertising becomes totally data-driven, advertisers are going to have to build their own data agencies or partner with data agencies. That’s going to be a multibillion-dollar shake-up.” That is, if the ad industry is open enough to make the change. —Issie Lapowsky
The battle for global ride-sharing dominance is playing out in China
LIU ZHEN & JEAN LIU
Uber might be in more cities worldwide, and its investors may have graced it with a higher price tag (current valuation: $62.5 billion). But to achieve true global dominance, Uber has to win China, a country that has about 750 million potential riders—a number that will only grow as hundreds of millions of Chinese enter the middle class over the next decade. Indeed, of Uber’s top 10 cities by ride volume, five are in China.
Pshaw. Didi Kuaidi is already in more than 400 Chinese cities and towns, and analysts say it has captured 87 percent of China’s private car-hailing market. In other words, even as Uber wants you to believe that it’s the global leader in on-demand rides, it’s lagging behind in the very market that matters most.
To compete, Liu Zhen has focused her efforts on introducing features that work well with Chinese culture, such as UberCommute, a commuter-friendly carpooling service for medium-length distances, and the ability for riders to pay using Alipay, China’s most popular online payment service.
But Liu Zhen laughs off the idea that there’s any tension. “Family is family; business is business,” she says. “What do you talk with your cousins about? Work? Not really. People talk about their family’s lives, vacations, which schools your kids want to attend.” Pretty normal stuff, even though the fate of the world—OK, the world market for ride-hailing—is at stake. —Davey Alba
The cloud, not ads, will be Google’s biggest business
If that happens, it’ll likely be because of Diane Greene. See, Google also runs what is probably the largest and most advanced private computing network on the planet, with data centers stretching from Oregon to Finland to Taiwan. In recent years, it has invited businesses and developers to run their own software atop this vast network. That’s cloud computing. And Google’s cloud belongs to Greene.
In the early aughts, Greene made it big with VMware, a company she and her husband bootstrapped from research at Stanford University, the same school that gave birth to Google. The difference was that VMware didn’t offer technology to everyday people. It sold technology to businesses. And that’s what Google must do to ascend to the cloud future of its dreams.—Cade Metz
Voice is the next interface
Last year Microsoft launched Project Oxford, a set of machine-learning tools that enable developers to create their own programs. One, for example, can recognize a person and verify their identity based on their voice. Another is a tool for turning written text into audio. “Oxford is trying to democratize AI,” Huang says.
This sets it apart from other efforts like Google’s open source TensorFlow platform, which only makes artificial intelligence available to researchers and programmers. More than 3,000 developers have used the Oxford tools so far. Meanwhile, the tech continues to improve. When Huang joined Microsoft, he says, “I never thought a computer would be as accurate as a human.” But he estimates that within two to three years, computers will be as good as people at transcribing telephone conversations. We know a lot of journalists who can hardly wait. —Jessi Hempel
Wall Street embraces the blockchain
Krishna is the head of research at IBM and the driving force behind the Hyperledger, a new twist on the enormously powerful idea that underpins bitcoin. You see, bitcoin isn’t just a digital currency. It’s a global network of independent computers called a blockchain that oversees the storage and exchange of that currency—no bank, government, or any other central authority required. And the blockchain, it turns out, can track not just bitcoin but nearly anything that carries value, including stocks, bonds, futures, mortgages, and car titles.
In other words, it could transform Wall Street. The Hyperledger is a corporate-backed version of the blockchain that would allow Wall Street to embrace this big idea before it makes the biggest names in finance obsolete. “Once an idea gets out there, you can’t stop it from propagating,” Krishna says. “Only those that embrace it with speed and conviction can take advantage of it.”
Financial giants like State Street, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and the London Stock Exchange have gotten behind the Hyperledger, a signal that Wall Street is learning the lesson that Silicon Valley has taught so many other industries over the years: Embracing your biggest threat is the only way to avoid extinction. Krishna is the guy doing the teaching. —Cade Metz
Messaging is indispensible
The gig economy is more unsettled than ever
The fact of the matter is, as the gig economy grows, the legal status of on-demand workers is more ambiguous than ever. One lawsuit that made much progress is a California class action against Uber, which US District Judge Edward Chen has presided over. Uber has just proposed a settlement agreement in the case under which their drivers will remain contractors. That would seem to get the company off the hook, but given Judge Chen’s own rulings on it in the past, the legal prospects for on-demand companies looks anything but settled.
Chen was tough on Uber. He blocked the company’s previous attempts to stymie the lawsuit—twice. He has said that one of Uber’s main arguments—that the company is only a software-platform provider that connects independent drivers and passengers—hasn’t persuaded him. And he certified the case as a class action so that thousands of drivers in California could join. “I think it’s clear that he’s consistently ruled against Uber on at least the big issues,” says Steven Davidoff Solomon, a law professor at UC Berkeley. “He pushed this case forward with his rulings.”
Though a jury trial, previously set for June, doesn’t seem likely to proceed—assuming Chen approves the settlement—the case shows there are many legal questions still swirling around the on-demand economy. Startups would do well not to take the de facto business model for granted. —Davey Alba
The Gig Economy
Independent films will flourish on streaming platforms
Facial-recognition technology is judging us
MARNI BARTLETT & RANA EL KALIOUBY
At each company, engineers have built algorithms to decode facial expressions. To train these algorithms, each startup recorded millions of expressions, noting tiny musculature movements that were then sorted by emotions—anger, disgust, joy, surprise, or boredom.
The first companies to license this software have been, no surprise, advertisers. Both Honda Motor and Procter & Gamble have tried Emotient to determine how people are reacting to their products. Unilever, Kellogg, and Mars have used webcams equipped with Affectiva’s Affdex software to watch consumers while they’re viewing ads.
Apple bought Emotient in January, and the company isn’t revealing its plans for the software. Meanwhile, with more than $20 million in funding, Affectiva has opened its platform to developers and is licensing its software to everyone from game makers to educators. The technology may be similar, but the business approaches couldn’t be more different. —Jessi Hempel
Gene editing will be a massive business
Haurwitz had shifted gears too. Along with her doctoral adviser, Jennifer Doudna, and other Berkeley scientists, she cofounded Caribou Biosciences to find commercial applications for the technology, whether it’s modifying crops for drought resistance or immune cells for cancer therapy. If someone had predicted her project would turn into a hot startup, Haurwitz says, “I would have laughed pretty hard.”
Last year investors poured hundreds of millions into several Crispr startups. This year those companies are really duking it out for market share. On top of that, Caribou and its chief rival, Editas Medicine, have licensed competing patents that are in dispute before the US Patent and Trademark Office. But the reward of being the first to commercialize Crispr is so great, there’s no time to waste. — Sarah Zhang
Artificial intelligence is smarter when it’s open source
YANN LECUN & GREG BROCKMAN
Yann LeCun, head of AI research at Facebook, is the prime mover behind the company’s deep neural networks—webs of hardware and software that mimic the interconnected neurons in the brain. Facebook uses neural nets to identify who’s in your photos and what goes into your News Feed. Eventually, some researchers believe, neural nets might even achieve something like common sense.
LeCun says a technology this powerful doesn’t evolve in isolation. “We make progress in AI right now through an open process,” he says. “When you do research in secret, you fall behind.” Last fall, Facebook backed up those words when it gave away designs for the hardware that runs its AI. Google did the same with its AI software.
These companies still keep some of their work to themselves. But a new outfit called OpenAI, backed by Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, is taking openness a step further: Under the guidance of CTO Greg Brockman, it’s giving away almost all its research.
OpenAI’s mission has helped it snatch top talent from Google and Facebook. “If you’re doing research, you need really good people around you,” Brockman says. Companies, including Musk’s, will be able to use OpenAI’s findings to further their own goals. But that suits OpenAI: Behind its openness is an anxiety that a too-smart AI in private hands could find a way to unleash itself on the world for malicious ends. Getting the most sophisticated AI possible in as many hands as possible, Brockman and company believe, is humanity’s best chance at preventing an AI apocalypse. —Cade Metz
Inequality is everyone’s problem
Baker continues to be open about inequities in tech, and she wants everyone else to start talking. “I want the people who claim to be allies to speak up,” she says. “Women and people of color didn’t create this diversity problem, yet we’re being tasked with fixing it.” Too many companies are focused on improving diversity numbers, Baker says, and are less concerned with creating an inclusive culture. She’s living proof that it’s not only OK to speak out but important to join this new generation of workers unafraid to tell their employers, “That’s not good enough.”—Davey Alba
India is the new startup machine
A year after he arrived at SoftBank to help founder Masayoshi Son transform the Japanese telecom by investing aggressively in international businesses, Arora has sunk more than $1 billion into Indian startups. His investments include OlaCabs, Snapdeal, and Oyo Rooms—ventures contending to be the Uber, Amazon, and Airbnb of India, respectively. (He’s also invested $1 billion in Korean ecommerce company Coupang.) “It’s not hard to understand that 10 years from now, ecommerce will play a significant role in people’s consumption habits.”
Arora believes SoftBank can be more helpful to startups than other investors because he has recruited a team of 15 people with experience building companies—just like him. After emigrating to the US for business school, Arora began his career in finance. He arrived at Google in 2004, just after the company’s IPO, to build its European sales office. Arora helped Google grow into a 55,000-person global company, and he rose quickly to become its chief business officer before joining SoftBank. He knows how to run an Internet business, and that savvy will help foster a new wave of Asian entrepreneurs.—Jessi Hempel