NEXT LIST 2017
20 TECH VISIONARIES WHO ARE CREATING THE FUTURE by WIRED staff
MICROSOFT WILL BUILD computers even more sleek and beautiful than Apple’s. Robots will 3-D-print cool shoes that are personalized just for you. (And you’ll get them in just a few short days.) Neural networks will take over medical diagnostics, and Snapchat will try to take over the entire world. The women and men in these pages are the technical, creative, idealistic visionaries who are bringing the future to your doorstep. You might not recognize their names—they’re too busy working to court the spotlight—but you’ll soon hear about them a lot. They represent the best of what’s next.
Put Humans First, Code Second
As head of security for Google Chrome, Parisa Tabriz has spent four years focusing on a vulnerability so widespread, most engineers act as if it doesn’t exist: humanity. She has pushed her 52-person team to grapple with problems once written off as “user errors.” They’ve made key changes in how the browser communicates with people, rewriting Chrome’s warnings about insecure network connections at a sixth-grade reading level. Rather than depending on users to spot phishing schemes, the team is exploring machine-learning tools to automatically detect them. And they’re starting to mark sites as “not secure” if they don’t use HTTPS encryption, pressuring the web to secure itself. “We’ve been accused of being paternalistic, but we’re in a position to protect people,” she says. “The goal isn’t to solve math problems. It’s to keep humans safe.” Tabriz, whose father is Iranian, has also made a point of hiring engineers from other countries—like Iran—where state internet surveillance is an oppressive, everyday concern. “You can’t keep people safe if you don’t understand those human challenges around the world.” —Andy Greenberg
Wall Street Can Run on Collaboration, Not Competition
Wall Street is capitalism at its fiercest. But Richard Craib believes it can also be a place for friendly collaborations. His hedge fund, San Francisco–based Numerai, relies on artificially intelligent algorithms to handle all trades. But the 29-year-old South African mathematician doesn’t build these algorithms himself. Instead, his fund crowdsources them from thousands of anonymous data scientists who vie for bitcoin rewards by building the most successful trading models. And that isn’t even the strangest part.
Ultimately, Craib doesn’t want these data scientists to get overly competitive. If only the best modelers win, they have little incentive to recruit fresh talent, which could dilute their rewards. Competitors’ self-interest winds up at odds with getting the best minds, no matter who they are, working to improve the fund. To encourage cooperation, Craib developed Numeraire, a kind of digital currency that rewards everyone when the fund does well. Data scientists bet Numeraire on algorithms they think will succeed. When the models work, Numeraire’s value goes up for everyone. “I don’t want to build a company or a startup or even a hedge fund,” Craib says. “I want to build a country—a place where everyone is working openly toward the same end.” —Cade Metz
Microsoft Will Outdesign Apple
Kait Schoeck wasn’t really supposed to end up at Microsoft. She had enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2009 with plans to be a painter, or maybe an illustrator. “I didn’t know industrial design actually existed,” she says. That changed in school, where she switched majors and eventually caught Microsoft’s attention. The company liked her unusual portfolio—there wasn’t much in it about computers. Now she’s one of the designers working on Microsoft’s Surface products, helping the company achieve what for decades has seemed impossible: outdesigning Apple. Because Schoeck and her team aren’t bogged down by decades of PC-design baggage, they freely break with convention. And because their desks are a few feet from a machine shop, they can build whatever they dream up. “Being able to hold the products we make—that’s when you really know what works,” Schoeck says. Early in her time at Microsoft, she coinvented the rolling hinge that makes the detachable Surface Book possible; her team has also found ways to make touchscreen laptops feel natural, to build tablets that really can replace your laptop, and to turn the old-school desktop PC into something more like a drawing table. Thanks to designers like Schoeck, Microsoft’s machines aren’t just brainy anymore—they’re beautiful too. —David Pierce
Frugal Science Will Curb Disease
While visiting rabies clinics in India and Thailand, Manu Prakash made a damning realization: In remote villages, traditional microscopes are useless. Cumbersome to carry and expensive to maintain, the finely tuned machines are often relegated to a dusty lab corner while medical providers diagnose and treat patients in the field. So the Stanford bioengineer set out to build what he calls “the pencil of microscopy”—a high-performing tool that’s lightweight, durable, and cheap. In 2014 his lab unveiled the Foldscope, an origami-like paper microscope that magnifies objects up to 2,000 times but costs less than $1 to produce. “We quickly realized that writing scientific papers about it wasn’t good enough,” Prakash says. He turned his lab into a mini Foldscope factory, giving away microscopes to anyone who asked. Within a year, the lab had shipped 50,000 of them to users in 135 countries, from Mongolia to rural Montana; this year it aims to donate 1 million. An eager army of DIY scientists has used the tool to identify fake drugs, detect diseased crops, spot counterfeit currency, and more. Earlier this year, Prakash’s lab introduced the Paperfuge, a 20-cent centrifuge inspired by an ancient spinning toy, which can be used to diagnose diseases like malaria. Prakash’s cheap, cleverly designed devices prove that when it comes to public health problems, the high tech (high-cost) solution isn’t always the best fix. Consider his lab’s latest achievement, a method of identifying mosquito species by recording their wing beats. The apparatus required? A flip phone. —Lauren Murrow
TV Ad Dollars Will Get Snapped Up
In March, Snap’s public stock offering became the third-largest tech IPO of all time, raising $3.4 billion. Now it just needs to make money. As of January 2017, the six-year-old multimedia app had lost $1.2 billion, nearly half of that in 2016 alone. Its growth rate is slowing too: After averaging more than 15 million new daily users in each of the first three quarters of 2016, it added just 5 million in the fourth quarter. So last summer, the company poached media industry veteran Jeff Lucas, former head of sales at Viacom. In the wake of Snap’s IPO, he’s been tasked with backing up the brand’s billion-dollar hype with measurable profits. To do that, he’ll need to ward off copycat competitors like Instagram’s Stories and WhatsApp’s Status—direct descendants of Snapchat Stories, a series of snaps strung together chronologically—and lure ad spending away from Facebook and TV networks. He’s reportedly in talks with marketing agencies like Publicis Groupe, WPP, and Omnicom Group to land deals of $100 million to $200 million. In a crowded industry competing for advertising dollars, Lucas will be instrumental in getting those gatekeepers to open their coffers for Snap. —Davey Alba
Encryption Alone Is Not Enough
Thanks to messaging services like WhatsApp, Signal, and Apple’s iMessage, end-to-end encryption isn’t just for spies and cypherpunks anymore; it’s become nearly as standard as emoji. But sometimes an unbroken channel of encryption between sender and receiver isn’t enough. Sure, it hides the content of messages, but it doesn’t conceal the identities of who’s writing to whom—metadata that can reveal, say, the membership of an organization or a journalist’s web of sources. John Brooks, a 25-year-old middle school dropout, has created an app that may represent the next generation of secret-sharing tools: ones that promise to hide not just your words but also the social graph of your connections.
His chat app, called Ricochet, builds on a feature of the anonymity software Tor that’s rendered sites on the dark web untraceable and anonymous for years. But instead of cloaking web destinations, Ricochet applies those stealth features to your PC: It turns your computer into a piece of the darknet. And unlike almost all other messaging apps, Ricochet allows conversations to travel from the sender’s computer to the recipient’s without ever passing through a central server that can track the data or metadata of users’ communications. “There’s no record in the cloud somewhere that you ever used it,” Brooks says. “It’s all mixed in with everything else happening in Tor. You’re invisible among the crowd.” And when invisibility is an option, plain old encryption starts to feel awfully revealing. —Andy Greenberg
Silicon Valley Can Spread the Wealth
Silicon Valley generates astronomical levels of wealth. But you’d be hard-pressed to find the spoils of the tech industry extending far beyond the Bay Area, much less to Middle America. Leslie Miley wants to change that. Early this year he left his job as a director of engineering at Slack to launch an executive-in-residence program at Venture for America. The project is designed to foster the building of tech businesses in emerging markets like Detroit and Baltimore. Starting this September, the residency will place Silicon Valley execs in yearlong stints in several of the program’s 18 innovation hubs, where they’ll advise area startups. The idea is that having well-connected leaders in such places may give local talent ties to Silicon Valley and inspire startups to set up shop in those cities. According to Miley, the program was fueled by industry-wide anxiety following the 2016 election. “Tech enabled people to stay in their echo chambers,” Miley says. “We’re partially responsible.” Not just by building non-inclusive platforms, he says, but by overlooking large swaths of the country in the hunt for talent. —Davey Alba
Our Robots Are Powered by Poets and Musicians
Beth Holmes, Farah Houston, Michelle Riggen-RansomKnowledge Manager | Alexa Information team Senior Manager | Alexa Personality team Managing Editor | Alexa Personality team
Behind your high tech digital assistant is a band of liberal arts majors. A trio of women shape the personality of Amazon’s Alexa, the AI-powered device used by tens of millions of consumers worldwide: Michelle Riggen-Ransom, who has an MFA in creative writing, composes the bot’s raw responses; Farah Houston, a psychology grad specializing in personality science, ensures that those responses dovetail with customers’ expectations; and Beth Holmes, a mathematician with expertise in natural language processing, decides which current events are woven into Alexa’s vocabulary, from the Super Bowl to the Oscars. “The commonality is that most of us have been writers and have had to express humor in writing,” Houston says. Riggen-Ransom oversees a group of playwrights, poets, fiction authors, and musicians who complete weekly writing exercises that are incorporated into Alexa’s persona. (The bot’s disposition is broadly defined in a “personality document,” which informs the group’s responses.) The content is then workshopped among the team; much of it ends up on the cutting room floor. Alexa’s temperament can swing from practical and direct to whimsical and jokey. The art is in striking the right balance, especially when it comes to addressing sensitive topics. “Our overall approach when talking to people about politics, sex, or religion has been to divert with humor,” Houston says. But thanks in part to her female-led team, the bot won’t stand for insults. “We work hard to always portray Alexa as confident and empowered,” Houston says. It takes a village to raise a fake lady. —Davey Alba
Hard Data Can Improve Diversity
Laura I. Gómez
Three years ago, Laura Gómez was participating in yet another diversity-in-tech panel, alongside representatives from Facebook and Google, when she snapped. “This is not a meritocracy, and we all know it,” the Latina entrepreneur announced. “This is cronyism. A Googler gets hired by Twitter, who gets hired by Facebook. Everyone is appointing their friends to positions of authority.” (As someone who has worked at Twitter, YouTube, and Google, she should know.) The breakthrough inspired Gómez to found Atipica, a recruiting software company that sorts job applicants solely by their skill set. That policy may seem obvious, but recruiters are prone to pattern-matching in accordance with previous hires—giving preference to, say, Stanford-schooled Google engineers. Atipica isn’t designed to shame tech CEOs about their uber-white open offices; rather, it presents hard data, judgment-free. The company’s software—which draws on information from public, industry, and internal sources—reveals the type of person most likely to apply for a job, analyzes hiring patterns, and quantifies the likelihood that certain kinds of candidates will accept job offers. It also resurfaces diverse candidates for new job postings they’re qualified for, a strategy that has led thousands of applicants to be recontacted. Last fall, Atipica raised $2 million from True Ventures, Kapor Capital, Precursor Ventures, and others. For Gómez, a Mexican immigrant who was undocumented until the age of 18, the work is personal. “My mother was a nanny and a housekeeper for people in Silicon Valley,” she says. “My voice is the voice of immigrants.” Her company’s success shows that the struggle to diversify tech will be won not by indignant tweetstorms but by data. —Lauren Murrow
Music Will Leave the Studio Behind
Most musicians work in studios, with engineers and producers and dozens of contributors. Steve Lacy works in hotel rooms. Or in his car. One time at a barbershop. Anywhere inspiration strikes, really. And with every unconventional session, Lacy’s proving to the industry that good music doesn’t have to be sparkling and hyperproduced. He dropped his first official solo material in February, a series of songs (he won’t call it an album) made entirely in GarageBand. Lacy plugs his guitar into his iPhone’s Lightning port and sings right into the mic. The whole thing’s a bit shticky, sure, but the point is to show people that the tools you have don’t really matter. He’s no musical lightweight, though. Just 18, he’s already a sought-after producer, making beats with the likes of J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar. Lacy’s own style is a little bit pop, a little bit soul, and a little bit R&B. He calls it Plaid, because it’s a lot of funky patterns you can’t quite imagine together—but somehow it all works. Even he doesn’t always understand why, but he knows it does. Kendrick Lamar told him so. —David Pierce
Microbiology Gets a Little Intelligent Design
For a biologist, Christina Agapakis has an unusual role. At Ginkgo Bioworks, a Boston biotech firm that tweaks yeast and bacteria to create custom organisms for everything from fermentation to cosmetics, Agapakis is a bridge between the technical and creative sides of the business. She works with clients like food conglomerates to figure out how they can use engineered microbes to make their products better, cheaper, and more sustainable. Recently, French perfumer Robertet enlisted Ginkgo’s organism designers to create a custom yeast that could replicate the smell of rose oil. To do that, the designers inserted the scent-producing genes from roses into yeast, which produced floral-smelling compounds—no expensive rose petals necessary. Agapakis then worked with the company’s perfumers to develop new fragrances using this novel substance. “A lot of what I do is think about what this new technology can enable creatively,” she says. Biotech companies are learning that success requires more than good science—it takes imaginative thinking too. —Liz Stinson
Tech Workers, Not CEOs, Will Drive Real, Positive Change
A tweet by @Pinboard reads, “Silicon Valley lemonade stand: 30 employees, $45 million in funding, sells $9 glasses of lemonade while illegally blocking sidewalk.” The account belongs to a bookmarking site founded by Polish-born web developer Maciej Ceglowski. Though he established the handle in 2009 intending to offer product support, Ceglowski now uses the account to gleefully skewer Silicon Valley to 38,700 Twitter followers. Since the presidential election, the developer’s criticism of his own industry has taken a more trenchant tone, energizing a new wave of tech activists. (On Facebook’s refusal to cut ties with Trump supporter Peter Thiel, he tweeted: “Facebook has a board member who heard credible accusations of sexual assault and threw $1.25M at the perpetrator. That requires comment.”) In December, thousands of tech employees signed an @Pinboard-championed pledge at Neveragain.tech, refusing to utilize their companies’ user data to build a Muslim registry. Last year, Ceglowski founded Tech Solidarity, a national group that meets to devise methods of organizing. The effort has become high-profile enough that even C-suite execs, like Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, now attend. For all his trademark snark, Ceglowski maintains that his goal is to foster a more conscientious tech industry. He hopes that Tech Solidarity can develop an industry-wide code of ethics in the coming months—“move fast and break things” needs an update, he says—and eventually lead employees to unionize. He believes the best way to exert influence over powerful tech companies is from the inside out: by empowering their workers. —Davey Alba
China Will Lead the Tech Industry
Connie Chan has a master’s degree in engineering from Stanford, where her classmates were Facebook’s future first employees. She thought that she knew what tech’s leading edge looked like. Then she went to China and discovered she had no idea. On massively popular messaging apps like WeChat, people did way more than just talk. They got marriage licenses and birth certificates, paid utilities and traffic tickets, even had drugs delivered—all in-app. Tech companies in the US, she realized, could no longer take it for granted that they led while the world followed; the stereotype that China’s tech companies are just copycats is obsolete. “If you study Chinese products, you can get inspiration,” Chan says. As a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, she now specializes in helping American startups understand just how much they have to learn as China’s tech industry races ahead of the US in everything from messaging to livestreaming (now a $5 billion market). No matter the protectionist rhetoric coming from the Trump administration, US tech firms see billions of dollars to be made in China, and vice versa. As these two financial giants play overseas footsie, Chan acts as a facilitator. “I spend so much time teaching people what they can’t see,” she says. It won’t stay invisible for long. —Marcus Wohlsen
SOURCES: RHODIUM GROUP; 2016 U.S. DATA: XINHUA NEWS AGENCY
Need Help Choosing a Wine? There’s a DNA-Based App for That.
Advances in genetic sequencing mean that labs can now—quickly and cheaply—read millions of letters of DNA in a single gob of spit. Genomics researcher James Lu and his team at Helix (buoyed by $100 million in funding led by Illumina, the largest maker of DNA sequencers) are harnessing that information so you’ll be able to learn a lot more about yourself. How? There’s an app for that. First Helix will sequence and store your entire exome—every letter of the 22,000 genes that code for proteins in your body. (The technology uncovers much more data than genotyping, the process used by companies like 23andMe, which searches only for specific markers.) Then Helix partners will create apps that analyze everything from your cancer risk to, they say, your wine preferences, ranging from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars a pop. “Where one person may be interested in inherited diseases, someone else cares about fitness or nutrition,” Lu says. “We work with developers to provide better products and context for your genetic information.” Helix’s first partners include medical groups like the Mayo Clinic and New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, which are developing genetic-education and health-related apps, and National Geographic, which offers an app that uncovers your ancestors’ locations and migration patterns going back 200,000 years. Lu imagines future collaborations with, say, a travel service that plans your vacation itinerary based on your genealogy or a food delivery service that tailors menus to your metabolic profile. The project opens new markets for genetic research—and entirely new avenues of self-absorption for the selfie generation. —Lauren Murrow
SOURCE: NATIONAL HUMAN GENOME RESEARCH INSTITUTE
Techies Should Serve Their Country
Matt Cutts could easily have left his job at the US Digital Service after Inauguration Day—as many other Obama staffers did. His wife wasn’t in Washington, and neither was his main gig as Google’s chief spam fighter. But when the time came, he couldn’t walk away. “My heart says USDS,” he wrote to his wife, who eventually joined him in DC.
As a member of the government’s tech task force, Cutts oversaw a team that worked on an online portal for veterans. Had he quit in January, he wouldn’t have seen two USDS initiatives—services for the Pentagon and the Army—through to completion. “The organization deserves to have someone who can help preserve its mission,” Cutts says. It also needs someone who can convince Silicon Valley types that managing the president’s Twitter feed isn’t the only tech job in government. Cutts, who avoids talking politics, has begun recruiting friends in the industry, telling them that no matter whom they voted for, “once you see the sorts of issues you can tackle here, it tends to be pretty addictive.” And you really can change the world (slowly). —Issie Lapowsky
Robots Will Make Fast Fashion Even Faster
Cookie-cutter kicks aren’t good enough for Gen Z sneakerheads. They want customization, and they want it fast. “They get annoyed if it takes three seconds to download an app,” says industrial engineer Gerd Manz, who oversees technology innovation at Adidas. So he is heading up the company’s ambitious new manufacturing facilities—pointedly dubbed Speedfactories—staffed not by humans but by robots. The sportswear giant will start production in two Speedfactories this year, one in Ansbach, Germany, and another in Atlanta, each eventually capable of churning out 500,000 pairs of shoes a year, including one-of-a-kind designs. Thanks to tech like automated 3-D printing, robotic cutting, and computerized knitting, a shoe that today might spend 18 months in the development and manufacturing pipeline will soon be made from scratch in a matter of hours. And though the Speedfactories will initially be tasked with limited-edition runs, Manz, a sort of sneaker Willy Wonka, predicts that the complexes will ultimately produce fully customizable shoes. (You’ll even be able to watch a video of your own pair being made.) “It doesn’t matter to the Speedfactory manufacturing line if we make one or 1,000 of a product,” Manz says. The robot factories of the future will fulfill consumers’ desires: It’s hyper-personalization at a breakneck pace. —Lauren Murrow
Artificial Intelligence Will Help Doctors Do Their Jobs Better
In 2012, Google built an artificial intelligence system that could recognize cats in YouTube videos. The experiment may have seemed frivolous, but now Lily Peng is applying some of the same techniques to address a far more serious problem. She and her colleagues are using neural networks—complex mathematical systems for identifying patterns in data—to recognize diabetic retinopathy, a leading cause of blindness among US adults.
Inside Google Brain, the company’s central AI lab, Peng is feeding thousands of retinal scans into neural networks and teaching them to “see” tiny hemorrhages and other lesions that are early warning signs of retinopathy. “This lets us identify the people who are at the highest risk and get them treatment soon rather than later,” says Peng, an MD herself who also has a PhD in bioengineering.
She’s not out to replace doctors—the hope is that the system will eventually help overworked physicians in poorer parts of the world examine far more patients, far more quickly.
At hospitals in India, Peng is already running clinical trials in which her AI analyzes patients’ eye scans. In the future, doctors could work with AI to examine x-rays and MRIs to detect all sorts of ailments. “We want to increase access to care everywhere,” she says. By sharing the workload, machines can help make that possible. —Cade Metz
SOURCE: INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION OF ROBOTICS