The Optimism of Robert Noyce

June 23rd, 2014

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the Intel Museum in Santa Clara. Entrance was free, but I was forced to hand over my water bottle since I was about to enter the shrine to all things electronic.

After I handed my bottle over to the docent, I stepped into a small, meandering palace of sleek silver and BSOD blue. Large touch-screen panels adorned the walls. Peering into one, you could get a taste of Intel’s history and its near-religious devotion to upholding Moore’s Law. Every year, profits, personnel, and microprocessor density grew exponentially. Like the curve of a smile, the upward-trending curve of improvement seems to define the evolution of microchip technology and the Silicon Valley culture in general; a culture of intelligent optimism.

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I ventured further into the museum. A warm wave of nostalgia washed over me when I encountered the long-forgotten bunny suit plushies behind the glass. A relic of the 1990s, I remember somehow acquiring a shiny, yellow “astronaut” doll with the “Intel Inside” logo emblazoned on its chest. I had no idea what that meant, but to my eight-year-old mind, I assumed it meant “intelligence.” I stared into that faceless void of the doll and wondered if it was man or machine. Although I had no knowledge of the Turing Test back then, the doll made me wonder where to draw the line. Today, I still wonder, with more enthusiasm than ever, when our computers might finally breach the Turing Test and bridge the gap between man and machine. Whether silicon or carbon, whether built by design or through natural selection, a brain is a brain; a soul is a soul. What a liberating and scary thought! It’s a thought I can really take seriously because of technology’s upward trend towards greater complexity, efficiency, and affordability. The science fiction of yesterday is rapidly becoming the science reality of tomorrow. I took one last gaze at the shiny little bunny suit dolls and moved on to the next exhibit.

Around the corner was an exhibit on how microprocessors are made, starting with a clump of silicon and ending with a forty-layered highway of microscopic highways. I made my way through each of the steps, watching Earth become an ingot, and ingots become wafers, and wafers become multi-layered transistors. I watched how a simply lump of minerals transformed into the units of a data-processing machine. It was real-life magic, but it wasn’t a process developed overnight, nor was it a feat accomplished single-handedly. The heart of Silicon Valley is not made of silicon. It’s made of human ingenuity. It’s made of hope.

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As I neared the end of the tour, one exhibit caught my attention. On the wall there was a portrait of a kindly middle-aged man. Above his head was the word “optimism” in bold letters. Beneath it read the quote:

“Optimism is the essential ingredient for innovation. How else can the individual welcome change over security, adventure over safe places?”

The man in the picture was Robert Noyce, one of the founders of Intel and inventors of the integrated circuit. I haven’t seen a more succinct description of the feeling I got being down in Silicon Valley.

The optimism Noyce describes is not mere positive thinking. It includes action. It includes risk. It necessitates boldness in the face of uncertainty and creativity in the face of real challenges. It’s a capacity we humans have. It’s the elixir that will save the world. Like the integrated circuit is to the computing industry, intelligent optimism is essential to making the world a better place rather than merely talking about it. Like all human assets, however, it isn’t immune to error.

In a digital scrapbook, I read about Noyce’s embarrassing stunt in which he steals a pig from a farmer as a weird sort of college hazing ritual. When Noyce was caught red-handed, he was suspended from university for an entire semester. Noyce was an ambitious and studious young man, so this must have been a pretty frustrating experience. Like the disciplinary letter predicted, however, young Noyce rose above this incident and learned from his mistake. Today, I doubt many people remember him as “the pig stealer.” Instead, he has earned the moniker, “Mayor of Silicon Valley.”

Optimism is a powerful concept when applied, but as a word, it has become a mere cliche no one really takes seriously. It’s been mistaken for plastic smiles and delusional cheerfulness. In some ways, it’s deemed uncool to be happy. Maybe being snarky is just the trend of our times, or perhaps it is simply easier for human beings to focus on the negative and whine than to do something to improve their situation. Why is that? Why are people so eager to shoot down innovative ideas and courageous acts of creativity and, instead, focus on their inadequacies? How come when I share my excitement about using the 23andMe DNA kit, those who bother to respond at all have nothing but criticism about the enterprise? Why don’t they see the wonder and awesome possibilities of such a product? I think I know why: fear.

We all live in fear of death, pain, and loss every day. Some of us are better at handling this inevitable fear than others, but one thing is certain: optimism, the kind Noyce and other curious and inventive people have, is not the denial of the grim realities of life. In innovation is creativity within the bounds our scientific realities, then the innovator’s brand of optimism must be deeply realistic; deeply in touch with the gaping needs of humanity. Rather than bemoan problems like hunger, poverty, and global warming, the innovative spirit compels us to find solutions that are both philanthropic and profitable. It’s capitalism at it’s finest, and it’s a realistic way to make a significant impact on the problems we face. Elon Musk isn’t waiting around for NASA to send more people to space; he’s building his own space transportation so that it becomes more affordable to more people. Khan Academy is making high-quality education affordable to virtually everyone. The Money Maker Max, a deceptively simple human-powered water pump, is allowing farmers to save time and money watering their crops and to achieve more economic independence. This is what intelligent optimism looks like. It’s literally changing the world.

References:

  1. “Intel Timeline: A History of Innovation.” Intel Museum. Web. http://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/history/historic-timeline.html
  2. “Robert Noyce.” Public Broadcasting Service. 1999. Web. http://www.pbs.org/transistor/album1/addlbios/noyce.html

Categories: culture