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Boom times are back in Silicon Valley. Office parks along Highway 101 are once again adorned with the insignia of hopeful start-ups. Rents are soaring, as is the demand for fancy vacation homes in resort towns like Lake Tahoe, a sign of fortunes being amassed. The Bay Area was the birthplace of the semiconductor industry and the computer and internet companies that have grown up in its wake. Its wizards provided many of the marvels that make the world feel futuristic, from touch-screen phones to the instantaneous searching of great libraries to the power to pilot a drone thousands of miles away. The revival in its business activity since 2010 suggests progress is motoring on.
So it may come as a surprise that some in Silicon Valley think the place is stagnant, and that the rate of innovation has been slackening for decades. Peter Thiel, a founder of PayPal, and the first outside investor in Facebook, says that innovation in America is “somewhere between dire straits and dead”. Engineers in all sorts of areas share similar feelings of disappointment. And a small but growing group of economists reckon the economic impact of the innovations of today may pale in comparison with those of the past.
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Across the board, innovations fueled by cheap processing power are taking off. Computers are beginning to understand natural language. People are controlling video games through body movement alone—a technology that may soon find application in much of the business world. Three-dimensional printing is capable of churning out an increasingly complex array of objects, and may soon move on to human tissues and other organic material.
An innovation pessimist could dismiss this as “jam tomorrow”. But the idea that technology-led growth must either continue unabated or steadily decline, rather than ebbing and flowing, is at odds with history. Chad Syverson of the Univers