Building Bridges “Tech Tour” 2019: The American Swiss Foundation Explores Silicon Valley

In late September, the ASF hosted a three-day “Tech Tour” in Palo Alto and San Francisco. More than 50 attendees from across the United States and Switzerland—including 10 members of ASF’s board and advisory councils, 33 Young Leader alumni, and various key partners—took part. They visited the Tesla factory in Fremont, Google Cloud in Sunnyvale, Palantir in Palo Alto, and Genentech in South San Francisco, as well as Stanford University and swissnex San Francisco. Many of the tours, presentations, briefings, and panel discussions were either off the record or under the Chatham House Rule. The following information is presented accordingly, and is combined with open-source material

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By Karina Rollins

Stops on the Tech Tour

The pace of technological change is faster than ever before. Many advances are of enormous benefit to mankind, whether on the small scale of convenience and speed, or on the grand scale of life-saving medical innovations. With such rapid change, new challenges are emerging, most notably the ethical impact of technological advancements on society.

Our “Tech Tour” was designed with this new reality in mind. In addition to providing participants with a forum for deepening relationships with each another, the tour gave participants first-hand exposure to the latest innovations and trends through site visits (Tesla, Google, Palantir, Genentech), panel discussions (Stanford University), and a culminating debate about technology regulation and policy at swissnex San Francisco with leading experts.

The sub-headings of this report intentionally end with a question mark—as a reminder of the unexpected directions and unintended consequences to which these developments can lead.

Tesla: Designing the Future of Human Mobility? Tesla was founded in 2003 by American Entrepreneurs Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning, who named their electric-car company after Serbian-American electricity pioneer Nikola Tesla. PayPal co-founder Elon Musk—the entrepreneur so famously associated with Tesla today—was an early and major funder, and became CEO in 2008.

Today, Tesla employs more than 10,000 people at its factory in Fremont, one of the most technologically advanced automotive factories in the world, with 5.3 million square feet of manufacturing and office space. And yes, the robots are there, too. How many? Well, a lot. In early 2019, the Model 3 body shop alone had more than 1,000 robots. The Fremont factory, a repurposed General Motors plant built in 1962, dominates the landscape abutting Highway 880.  It is in operation 24 hours a day, though not all sections are always active, whether with humans or with robots.

An energetic young guide whisked Tech Tour attendees through the factory for an hour-long tour on electric carts. The robots (mostly variations of robotic “arms”) worked tirelessly behind thick Plexiglass. Some of the largest robots, which lift and carry the unfinished cars, are named after Musk’s favorite comic book superheroes—Wolverine, Iceman, Angel, Beast, and Cyclops. Attendees had the pleasure of meeting Wolverine.

Tesla is working on a truly self-driving car—the end goal being that a newly manufactured car will drive itself from the factory to the home of its new owner.

Tesla’s manufacturing operating system is completely custom built in-house. Tesla recently expanded its presence in Europe, taking over an old Porsche service center in St. Gallen.

Many thanks to Florian Schwab (YL 2014) and Daniel Rasmussen (YL 2018) for opening the doors to Tesla on our behalf.  

 

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Google: Can Machines Learn? Expert staffers at Google Cloud in Sunnyvale—one of multiple Google campuses in the region—told the ASF delegation that Google has three main principles: (1) Focus on the user, (2) think outside of the box, and (3) fail well. The latter meaning that everyone is bound to have some failures, and that one should learn from them. Google’s first and most-used product, Search, as well as many others (such as Gmail, Chrome, Photos, Maps, and Translate), were and remain a huge success, while some other Google products were not.

A Google team member explained that Google distills data into understandable language—that a good analogy is to think of Google doing for today’s public what the printing press did for the public of the 15th century.

More and more, such distilling of language includes the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). A ML evolution is already occurring—machines can conduct real-time voice translations, fix coding errors, and design computer chips.

How autonomous are some of these ML products? Google Translate, for instance, already works for simple conversations, and AI has transformed nearly every Google product. AI tools, which are generally disruptive, can mean that one must rethink those very tools. In essence, AI offers new ways of looking at old problems. While technology, including AI, is developing by leaps and bounds, some aspects of technology, such as customer support, will need humans in the loop for a long time to come.

Stanford PhD students Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google in 1998. Today, along with Amazon, Apple, and Facebook, Google is one of the world’s Big Four technology companies. Current Google CEI is Sundar Pichai. (And for those who must know “the horrible name that Google was almost called,” click here.)

Tech Tour attendees ended their visit with a tour of the new Sunnyvale campus, joining Googlers in their native environment specially designed to spark creativity: from the popular (with Googlers and non-Googlers alike) Gbikes to the volleyball courts to the vegetable gardens. The attendees capped the morning off with a delicious lunch.

Google’s largest campus on the European mainland is in Zurich, home to more than 2,000 Google engineers. You can tour that campus here.

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Palantir: Protecting the Future with Big Data Analysis? Palantir was founded in 2003 by a group of PayPal alumni and Stanford computer scientists—including CEO Alex Karp and Peter Thiel. The name Palantir is a Lord of the Rings reference (where a palantír is a “seeing stone” used for communication as well as for seeing the future, the past, and far-away places).

While the term “data analytics” might not sound exciting, the team at Palantir takes innovative approaches to addressing immediate, real-life problems—from protecting national security to aircraft maintenance to anti-money laundering to coordinating humanitarian aid (for instance, with the veteran’s NGO Team Rubicon). Palantir is known for its focus on counterterrorism. The company has chosen this focus because terrorism is so deeply disruptive to society that it can threaten civilization itself. Preventing terror attacks is a way to keep civilization running.

While Palantir has been called secretive, CEO Alex Karp explained in a 2018 interview that he sees his company as “more shy than secretive. We are not consumer internet, we stick very closely to our own business. … [I]n the national security context, we work hand in hand with most of the security operators in the Western world…with most of the classic clandestine services…”

Some Palantir staffers might even be called shy when it comes to their personal online presence, with one telling the ASF delegation how important it is to always read the terms of service before downloading an application (and not to use it if the terms are unclear), and that it is a good idea to turn off “location” on personal devices and to—literally—step away from one’s devices to maintain one’s identity. Some of the biggest players in global data protection know that data protection begins at home.

When it comes to artificial intelligence, Palantir’s website takes a reassuring stance: “We believe in augmenting human intelligence, not replacing it.”

The visit ended with multiple and delicious lunch and drink choices at Palantir’s cafeteria, the Hobbit House.

Palantir has offices around the world, including in Zurich.

Genentech: Personalized Health Care to Cure the Previously Incurable? Genentech—founded in 1976 by biochemist Herbert Boyer and venture capitalist Robert Swanson in California—became a subsidiary of Switzerland’s Roche in 2009.

Bioengineering—short for biological engineering (also called biomedical engineering)—applies engineering principles of design and analysis to living organisms. Modern biotechnology involves genetic engineering and cell manipulation that goes far beyond the long-existing methods of breeding and fermenting.

Boyer and Swanson wanted “to create a business based on manipulating the genes of microorganisms to produce vital new medicines”—and they did. One year after founding Genentech, they were able to re-create the human hormone somatostatin, and had their proof of concept. Using the same technique, they were able to produce (clone) the human version of the hormone insulin in 1979 (which previously had to be harvested from cow and pig pancreases). Today, Genentech is a global leader in biotechnology, not only in biomedical developments, but also in setting trends for obtaining funding from venture capitalists (as with much other new technology, costs and risks in biotech are high) and patenting molecules. Genentech is known for creating Rituxan, Herceptin, and many other medicines.

Bioengineering uses AI as well—or “advanced analytics” (AA). Genentech distinguishes among AI/AA (any technology that enables a computer to mimic human behavior), ML (an AI technology that gives computers the ability to learn on their own), and deep learning (a subset of ML that allows even further, unstructured, learning).

The field of biomedicine, too, relies on “big data” analytics, or “meaningful data at scale” (MDAS). Digital tools can now understand disease, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is approving algorithms for such purposes. MDAS, AI/AA, and ML are helping pharmaceutical companies and doctors to further personalize medicines and health care—to tailor treatments to individuals. When it comes to treating cancer, for instance, genetic sequencing and “next generation sequencing” (NGS) have allowed researchers and doctors to understand much more about cancer-causing gene mutations in an individual’s body.

Many thanks to Dr. Christoph Franz, chairman of the board of Roche Holding, Ltd., for helping us to arrange this visit.

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Stanford University and swissnex San Francisco: Can Higher Education and Government Foster Entrepreneurship and Innovation? Cutting-edge developments in technology and medicine, innovation, and entrepreneurship are largely associated with the private sector, and, these days, most often with startups. But that does not mean that traditional institutions, even government, do not also play a role. Universities, both in Switzerland (such as ETH Zurich) and the United States, are valuable supporters of innovation by giving entrepreneurs a solid starting foundation, facilitating contacts, and teaching skills from engineering to computer science to business strategies.

John Hennessy, Stanford University’s long-time president (from 2000 to 2016), chairman of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), and professor of electrical engineering and computer science, helped to revolutionize computing. He co-founded MIPS Computer Systems in 1984, while he was at Stanford.

The Tech Tour included a visit to the beautiful Stanford campus, featuring young entrepreneurs who talked about the role that venture capitalists play for startup companies, and John Hennessy himself, who told the attendees about his views on leadership. Hennessy is at the helm of an exciting, new program at Stanford: the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program, a program that invests in future global leaders and supports them as they look at complex challenges through the lens of collaboration and innovation. The evening ended with a beautiful roof-patio dinner under the warm California sky.

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Many thanks to Ravi Belani (YL 2010) for facilitating connections at Stanford University and kicking off the “Tech Tour” with a lecture on “The Spirit of Entrepreneurship.”

The Tech Tour officially ended with a discussion and reception at Pier 17 in San Francisco, the location of swissnex San Francisco. Managed, and partially funded, by the Swiss government, swissnex has five branches—Boston, San Francisco, Shanghai, Bangalore, and Rio de Janeiro—that offer services, support, and connections to Swiss industry and startups, as well as universities, artists, and more. Swissnex describes itself as the “Swiss global network connecting the dots in education, research and innovation. Our mission is to support the outreach and active engagement of our partners in the international exchange of knowledge, ideas and talent.”

With its eclectic areas of interest, swissnex San Francisco was an ideal host for a panel discussion on privacy, security, education, and regulation in the age of accelerating technological change.

Ideas from the Tech Tour

The Tech Tour crystallized some themes that were emphasized by presenters at each stop on the tour—and easily understood and accepted by the attendees at face value. At the same time, some near-uniformly accepted notions in Silicon Valley were met with more diverse and nuanced responses from attendees.

Embracing Failure. Accept failure. Fail well. Learn from failure. Every successful company and its employees, as well as every entrepreneur, agree that failure is valuable. That, ultimately, it is the only way to learn and improve and be successful. This notion may require reminders, but not explanations—it is entirely relatable, not just for business, but to people’s personal lives everywhere.

Welcoming Talent from Around the World.Another common theme was the benefit of having people from around the world in Silicon Valley. That there are innovative, creative, and brilliant people in every corner of the world, and that combining domestic and foreign talent is one of the reasons why Silicon Valley has become the hot spot of success that it is today.

This notion is relatable for Americans and the Swiss who both live in countries that have benefitted from skilled foreign labor and ideas. There was a consensus among Tech Tour attendees that reforms are needed to insure that immigration is legal, and continues to be a source of strength for the United States.

Making the World a Better Place. It is no surprise that the people who work on amazing technological advances believe that they are helping to make the world a better place. And, as mentioned, many new technologies are clearly a boon to mankind. Concerns about risks and unintended consequences were voiced on occasion, reflecting the insights of Microsoft’s president Brad Smith whose book, aptly titled Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age, was given to Tech Tour speakers as a token of appreciation.

Improving Education. When it comes to education in the United States, all agree that far too many schools are in unacceptable disarray and that far too many American students are not getting the education they need. There was a focus on how children need computers to keep up with their peers in good schools, as well as to prepare for a future job. It is noteworthy that the discussion focused on the manner of learning (with computers), rather than on the material that the students should be learning. As one of the Tech Tour attendees observed, the most advanced technologies and gadgets will be of no use to students who are not properly taught the basics of reading, writing, and math. While being tech-savvy is clearly becoming ever more important, there is a sense that technological knowledge is often conflated with basic education.

Computer History Museum and R&R

Tech Tour attendees also had the chance to visit the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. With detailed descriptions, vintage photographs, and real-life examples of computing throughout human history—from the abacus to computers in the year 2000—the museum showcases the evolution of technology.

To round out the weekend, some Tech Tour attendees spent an afternoon of relaxation in the “other valley.” On September 28, happy participants sampled exquisite wines, delectable food, and stunning modern art at The Hess Collection, a beautiful winery with a Swiss connection in Napa Valley.

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Young Leader Contributions

ASF Young Leaders were invaluable to the Tech Tour—both in establishing contacts and in participating in presentations and discussions. Many thanks to:

Young Leaders, ASF board members, and delegates of key ASF partner organizations were represented among the attendees of the inaugural “Tech Tour.”

 

Additional information:

  • “The ‘Godfather of Silicon Valley’ Cautions the Next Generation,” Marie-Astrid Langer (YL 2019 & Tech Tour attendee), Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 2019 (in German)
  • “America’s 21st Century Security Will Be Technology-Based,” Erich Reimer, Newsmax, 2019
  • “This Girl’s Dramatic Story Shows Hyper-Personalized Medicine Is Possible—and Costly,” Erika Check Hayden, MIT Technology Review, 2019
  • “How to Set Your Google Data to Self-Destruct,” Brian X. Chen, The New York Times, 2019
  • “Here’s What You Need to Know About Palantir, the Secretive $20 Billion Data-Analysis Company…” Rosalie Chan, Business Insider, 2019
  • “5 FDA Approved Uses of AI in Healthcare,” Jack Carfagno, DocWire, 2019
  • “Boss Talk with Wendy Young, Genentech,” interview, American Chemical Society, 2019
  • “I Cut the ‘Big Five’ Tech Giants from My Life. It Was Hell,” Kashmir Hill (YL 2019), Gizmodo, 2019
  • “Automating Intelligently Is Tesla’s Manufacturing Advantage,” Carolyn Fortuna, Clean Technica, 2018
  • “The Robots Are Killing Tesla,” Linette Lopez, Business Insider, 2018
  • “Elon Musk Agrees Robot Glut Slowed Production,” Chris Velazco, Engadget, 2018
  • “What it’s Like to Work for the Valley’s Most Secretive Startup, Palantir,” Julie Bort, Business Insider, 2016
  • “How the Tesla Model S Is Made,” Wired video, 2013
  • “Roche Agrees to Buy Genentech for $46.8 Billion,” Andrew Pollack, The New York Times, 2009

Recommended readings for Tech Tour participants:

In advance of our dinner with Professor John Hennessy, former President of Stanford University and Chairman of Alphabet, we provided all Tech Tour participants with a copy of the book he authored last fall: Leading Matters: Lessons from My Journe(2018). In it, Professor Hennessy describes the leadership skills he honed during his time as an academic, entrepreneur, and university administrator.

We also recommended the following titles to all participants in preparation for our Tech Tour:

  • Friedman, Thomas L. Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. Thorndike Press, a Part of Gale, Cengage Learning, 2017.
  • Galloway, Scott. The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Random House UK, 2018.
  • Horowitz, Ben. The Hard Thing about Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers. Harper Business, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2014.
  • Kupor, Scott, and Ries, Eric. Secrets of Sand Hill Road: Venture Capital and How to Get It. Penguin Group USA, 2019.
  • Smith, Brad, and Browne, Carol Anne. Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age. Hodder & Stoughton LTD, 2019.
  • Stone, Brad. The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World. Random House UK, 2018.
  • Thiel, Peter A., and Masters, Blake. Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future. Virgin Books, 2015.