A few times a year, I get to see demonstrations of some of the most mind-blowing technologies and designs—explode-your-head kind of stuff—and I can’t tell a soul about them. Nobody, not even my wife. And certainly not you. Just imagine: You receive an invite from an engineering or product lead to come down and visit with a few folks at, er, Giant Tech Multinational to check out a new project, something they’re excited about and want some feedback on. Most of the time, the people doing the asking are not household names—not the Musks or Sandbergs of the world. They’re unsung talents, the ones doing the actual work of innovation, sleeves rolled up, meals skipped, families missed.
But invitations to see this work usually include a catch or three: NDAs to be signed, recording devices surrendered, personal liabilities assigned, blood oaths sworn (kind of not kidding). Sometime later, in a windowless meeting room, I’m likely to find my jaw resting comfortably on the table or, depending on the import of the technology, the floor. At the end of the meeting, I invariably ask for the chance to tell WIRED readers about the progress. The people on the other side of the conference table have a lot of ways to say no. Afterward, I go scream into the nearest available pillow.
Last year, for example, I got a call asking me to swing down to Mountain View and chat with Jeff Dean, a Google senior fellow and one of the search giant’s earliest engineering hires. Warm, self-effacing, and make-your-eyes-cross smart, Jeff proceeded, over the course of the next hour, to upend my entire understanding of human neuroprocessing. Then he explained how, with enough computers linked together, you could build neural nets that mimic some of the casually impressive feats of human cognition: identifying faces in photos, recognizing spoken words, distinguishing your black luggage from all the other black luggage at baggage claim. And that’s just the beginning. In years to come these neural nets will be able to diagnose medical problems or optimize complex systems like robotic factories.
16,000 | Number of processors in Google's first neural net
Not long after that meeting, a group of us at WIRED realized that we needed to find a better way to tell the world about geniuses like Jeff. The result is the Next List—a collection of people from across the business landscape who are changing the way we live, work, play, and think. Any one of their stories is inspirational, whether it’s Jeff Dean’s neural nets (we got clearance to reveal them), Megan Smith‘s plan to upgrade the US government’s technology, Yael Maguire‘s broadband-dispensing drones, or Tracy Chou‘s powerful tool for bringing more diversity to the technology industry. But together, this eclectic group points toward a new way of thinking about new ways of thinking. These are the people who are inventing the next two decades of what we cover. And for you? No NDA required.
GROOMING BY AMY LAWSON / ARTIST UNTIED; STYLED BY JOANNA ANDREONI/ARTIST UNTIED