R. Stanley Williams works at HP Labs, and he has for a long time. In the video of him that I am watching, his pony tail flows out over his blue-collared shirt, and onto his lumpy sweater. He wants to tell us about Leon Chua, the Einstein of circuit theory, and the mathematics of voltage, charge, current, and flux.
He thinks—though there is some controversy—that he has discovered the memristor, a fundamental piece of circuit theory that Chua's equations predicted. Regardless, he is working on devices that are down on the bedrock of computing. It's all CMOS logic and bits and math. This guy believes that he is changing the fundamental possibilities of computation and information storage.
And Silicon Valley is filled with people like this. They design chips at Intel. They come up with new machine-learning techniques at Google. They redefine data centers at Facebook. They design programming flows for GPUs at Microsoft. They refine antennas at Apple. And it's not just the big places. It's all these small semiconductor shops down in Sunnyvale. It's people working on photonics and optimizing memory manufacturing and building lasers.
Most of the media's attention might be focused on things that are closer to consumer consumption: Snapchat, WhatsApp, Oculus Rift, Uber, new phones, smartwatches. The new new new new thing. It's easy enough to forget that people like Williams exist. The face of technology isn't nerds with ponytails, but legions of fresh-faced youths pouring through the glass doors of a zillion startups into tastefully appointed lobbies, sipping on kombucha from company refrigerators. Brogramming, &c.