Four years in startups

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Life in Silicon Valley during the dawn of the unicorns.

The first time I looked at a block of code and understood what was happening, I felt like a genius.

Depending on whom you ask, 2012 represented the apex, the inflection point, or the beginning of the end for Silicon Valley’s startup scene—what cynics called a bubble, optimists called the future, and my future co-workers, high on the fumes of world-historical potential, breathlessly called the ecosystem. Everything was going digital. Everything was up in the cloud. A technology conglomerate that first made its reputation as a Web-page search engine, but quickly became the world’s largest and most valuable private repository of consumer data, developed a prototype for a pair of eyeglasses on which the wearer could check his or her e-mail; its primary rival, a multinational consumer-electronics company credited with introducing the personal computer to the masses, thirty years earlier, released a smartphone so lightweight that gadget reviewers compared it to fine jewelry.

Technologists were plucked from the Valley’s most prestigious technology corporations and universities and put to work on a campaign that reëlected the United States’ first black President. The word “disruption” proliferated, and everything was ripe for or vulnerable to it: sheet music, tuxedo rentals, home cooking, home buying, wedding planning, banking, shaving, credit lines, dry-cleaning, the rhythm method. It was the dawn of the unicorns: startups valued, by their investors, at more than a billion dollars. The previous summer, a prominent venture capitalist, in the op-ed pages of an international business newspaper, had proudly declared that software was “eating the world.”

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Sundar Pichai of Google: ‘Technology doesn’t solve humanity’s problems’

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Growing up in India, he slept on the floor of a house without a refrigerator. Today, the chief executive is steering Google through the most turbulent period in its history.

Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, last week.CreditCreditErik Tanner for The New York Times

Google is facing more challenges today than at any time in its 20-year history. Employees are outraged over sexual harassment. Executives are under scrutiny for an effort to secretly make a censored version of its search product for China. Google will shut down its social network next year after a security vulnerability was discovered. Political and social debates, including one over building military-grade artificial intelligence, are roiling the work force.

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Inside Silicon Valley’s newest, most autonomous farm yet

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Iron Ox’s robots are currently planting, growing, and harvesting lettuce in a California warehouse.

Inside Silicon Valley’s newest, most autonomous farm yet

Inside a former commercial warehouse in San Carlos, California, a robotic arm is carefully transplanting tiny sorrel plants from one large tray to another. In another corner of the room, a larger robot sits ready to carry other trays–filled with romaine lettuce, bok choy, cilantro, and more than two dozen other types of greens–over to the robotic arm. At the moment, there are no people in the room: This is the headquarters of Iron Ox, which bills itself as the world’s first fully autonomous farm.

“We designed the entire process, from the beginning, around robotics,” says Iron Ox co-founder and CEO Brandon Alexander, who previously worked at X, Alphabet’s so-called moonshot factory, and the robotics lab Willow Garage. “It required us pretty much going back to the drawing board to see what we could do if robots were in the loop.”

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