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Computing capacity grows exponentially, Bill Maris said, and that's why technological advances are so hard to predict.

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Google Ventures Exec Gives Opening Talk for 'Envisioning Middlebury'

April 14, 2016

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – The yearlong conversation called “Envisioning Middlebury” got underway in McCullough Student Center on April 12 with a lecture by Bill Maris, a member of the Middlebury College Class of 1997.

Maris, the CEO of GV – the venture capital arm of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Inc. – was welcomed to the Wilson Hall stage by President Laurie L. Patton, who defined Envisioning Middlebury as a conversation for all of Middlebury’s locations, campuses, and constituencies “about our perceptions, our visions, our hopes, our thoughts, our ideas, and our concerns about who we are, how we take on today’s challenges, and what our future should look like.”

And who better to cast an eye toward the future than the person entrusted with investing Google’s billions in the fields of life science, health care, robotics, transportation, cyber security, and agriculture?

Maris spoke for under an hour, mostly on the subject of rapid change and how difficult it is to predict. Casually dressed in jeans, jacket, and high-top black sneakers, Maris opened and closed his talk with magic tricks and employed a rapid-fire series of homemade slides to get his points across.

Pacing the stage with a wireless microphone clipped to his jacket, Maris displayed a photo of his mid-1990s Hepburn Hall dorm room on the big screen behind him. (The guest speaker’s fondness for Middlebury was evident throughout his presentation.) Surrounding his bed in the photo were a computer, a telephone, an alarm clock, a television, a flashlight, and a bottle of water.

“Of these six things,” he declared, “there is only one thing that is not in your cell phone right now: that bottle of water. You can’t drink your phone. Today you won’t find these [other] things in your dorm room because they are all in your pocket.”

Holding his smartphone aloft he said, “Look at this phone. It knows when you are touching it. It knows where it is [located]. It can tell you anything you need. The sum of human knowledge is connected to this, and no one saw that coming. And why didn’t anyone see it coming? Because growth typically occurs on a linear curve.”

But computing capacity is different, Maris said. It grows at an exponential rate and it’s hard to see it coming. “Like one, two, four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, sixty-four, one hundred twenty-eight. Going from 64 to 128 is such a leap, it is hard for us to imagine what that feels like … and then all of a sudden something like this iPhone shows up!”

Bill Maris also met with STEM students and got a hug from biologist Tom Root, one of Maris's professors back in the 1990s.

Maris asked his audience of about 175 people to imagine that there was a computer somewhere that tracked every cancer patient for every type of cancer and recorded what treatments were used and what the outcomes turned out to be. With such a wealth of data, physicians could do a much better job at determining treatment protocols, he predicted.  

“And this is just the beginning,” he said, repeating it again for emphasis. “When we think ahead to the year 2030 and what that will look like, there are lots of possibilities that we have never even considered. You and I can’t predict [what they will be] because getting from 128 to 256 is really hard to see. But my job at GV is to try and see that, at least a little bit."

Silicon Valley companies “are great at invention and disruption and all these buzzwords that get overused, but not so great at distribution – at distributing the technologies that we have to enable better, more positive lives around the world.”

“My challenge for entrepreneurs is to think about disruption at least as much as distribution, and when those two curves match, really good things are going to happen.”

Maris closed with a second magic trick, not so much to amaze his audience as to demonstrate that “sometimes the impossible becomes the possible” because, as he later explained, “if you have a worthy goal and systematically reduce the risk, you have a good chance of getting where you want to go.”

Bill Maris’ talk was streamed live to the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and to Middlebury locations around the globe. The Envisioning Middlebury conversation will continue on May 6 when Gardner Campbell, the vice provost for learning innovation and student success at Virginia Commonwealth University, speaks at the Institute in Monterey. Campbell's presentation will be streamed live to Middlebury sites worldwide.

– With reporting by Robert Keren and photography by Teddy Anderson '13.5

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