For more than a decade, technology investors and entrepreneurs obsessed over social media and mobile apps that helped people do things like find new friends, fetch a ride home or crowdsource a review of a product or a movie.
Now Silicon Valley has found its next shiny new thing. And it does not have a “Like” button.
The new era centers on artificial intelligence and robots, a transformation that many believe will have a payoff on the scale of the personal computing industry or the commercial Internet, two previous generations that spread computing globally. Computers have begun to speak, listen and see, as well as sprout legs, wings and wheels to move unfettered in the world.
The shift was evident in a Lowe’s home improvement store this month, when a prototype inventory checker developed by Bossa Nova Robotics silently glided through the aisles using computer vision to automatically perform a task humans have done manually for centuries.
The robot, which is skilled enough to move out of the way of shoppers and avoid unexpected obstacles in the aisles, alerted people to its presence with soft birdsong chirps. Gliding down the middle of an aisle at a leisurely pace, it can recognize bar codes on shelves, and it uses a laser to detect which items are out of stock.
Silicon Valley’s financiers and entrepreneurs are digging into artificial intelligence with remarkable exuberance. The region now has at least 19 companies designing self-driving cars and trucks, up from a handful five years ago. There are also more than a half-dozen types of mobile robots, including robotic bellhops and aerial drones, being commercialized.
“We saw a slow trickle in investments in robotics, and suddenly, boom — there seem to be a dozen companies securing large investment rounds focusing on specific robotic niches,” said Martin Hitch, CEO of Bossa Nova, which has offices in San Francisco and Pittsburgh.
Funding in artificial intelligence startups has increased more than fourfold to $681 million in 2015, from $145 million in 2011, according to the market research firm CB Insights. The firm estimates that new investments will reach $1.2 billion this year, up 76 percent from last year.
“Whenever there is a new idea, the valley swarms it,” said Jen-Hsun Huang, chief executive of Nvidia, a chipmaker that was founded to make graphic processors for the video game business but that has turned decisively toward artificial intelligence applications in the past year. “But you have to wait for a good idea, and good ideas don’t happen every day.”
By contrast, funding for social media startups peaked in 2011 before plunging. That year, venture capital firms made 66 social media deals and pumped in $2.4 billion. So far this year, there have been just 10 social media investments, totaling $6.9 million, according to CB Insights. Last month, the professional social networking site LinkedIn was sold to Microsoft for $26.2 billion, underscoring that social media has become a mature market sector.
Even the biggest social media companies are now getting into artificial intelligence, as are other tech behemoths. Facebook is using it to improve its services. Google will soon compete with Amazon’s Echo and Apple’s Siri with a device that listens in the home, answers questions and places e-commerce orders. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently appeared at the Aspen Ideas Conference and called for a partnership between humans and artificial intelligence systems in which machines are designed to augment humans.
The auto industry has also set up camp in the Bay Area to learn how to make cars that can do the driving for you.