A new messaging app, called Yo, has created a sensation in Silicon Valley. It is being hailed as the next big thing.
The amazing breakthrough? Sending the word "Yo" to a contact with just one click.
This app received justifiable ridicule from Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert and many others. But some technology industry moguls are taking it seriously. Marc Andreessen wrote on Twitter that people who make light of it are missing the point; that Yo is "an instance of 'one-bit communication' -- a message with no content other than the fact that it exists. Yes or no. Yo or no yo." He referred to the developing world's use of "missed" calls as a communications mechanism and chided the naysayers for being biased. He wrote: "the hilarity around Yo includes two problematic biases: Bias that one-bit comm isn't useful, and bias that all markets are like the U.S."
I don't think Andreessen or the cohort that invested $1.2 million in this venture really understand what the needs of the developing world are or how and why the poor use technology. The "missed call," for example, is a way to send a message to someone with whom you have agreed on what the ring means. The poor in South Asia and Africa commonly use it to send messages to one another without having to use cellphone minutes. A hang-up after one ring might mean I have reached my destination safely or I want you to pick me up. This method of communication comes from necessity rather than from vanity. It is the only means of communication some people can afford.
My concern is that the adulation and funding that the Yo app has received will send a terribly wrong message to entrepreneurs all over the world, encouraging them to misdirect more investment into building more silly apps and other equally meaningless, mindless projects.
Entrepreneurs with world-changing ideas usually have a very hard time gaining funding from venture capitalists. That's why they have to resort to crowdfunding Web sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, appealing directly to the public for investment. Even there, some of the most promising ideas don't get funded, either because it is hard to explain their value or because they are too risky.
The world has many problems to solve. Billions live without reliable energy and lack adequate access to water, health care, and education. More people die from lack of clean water than from war. Our food system, the primary source of income for billions, must grow to meet the needs of another two billion people. Poverty is endemic on the planet. These are some of humanity's grand challenges. And it is not just the developing world that endures these ills: many parts of the developed world do too, particularly in relation to health care, education, and poverty.
The good news is that solutions to these grand challenges are at hand. Several technologies, such as computing, medicine, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, robotics, and sensors are advancing exponentially while their prices drop. These are enabling entrepreneurs to do what only governments and large research labs were previously able to do in solving big problems. Inexpensive sensors can, for example, be used to monitor soil humidity, optimize watering, and build on-farm diagnostic systems that minimize the amount of harmful chemicals used. These can revolutionize agriculture. Other types of sensors can monitor human health and test for disease. Entrepreneurs can build apps that combine health data with genomic data to understand the correlation between our genome, habits, and disease and to develop holistic treatments. They can design robotic assistants to help care for the elderly and build tutors to educate the hundreds of millions of children who don't have access to schools.
Yet Silicon Valley, which could be taking the lead in ridding humanity of its ills, is focused on scoring big hits by solving problems so small they can be said to be non-existent. Yo's roots are in Israel, not Silicon Valley, but the app is typical of Silicon Valley. The venture-capital system, which fuels the technology industry's growth, is geared towards rolling the dice in the hope of receiving returns of five to 10 times the invested capital within five or seven years. Such home runs are rare, and this has sent the system into decline, but little has changed. It's still the silly apps that get the funding and attention.
Investors believe that the quickest hits come from building apps or games that go viral, or from creating Web sites that automate business processes. This was surely the case in the social-media era, when even children who had not completed their college education could write apps. But we've built enough messaging and photo-sharing apps, and have bigger opportunities now. It is possible for the young and the old to solve real problems, to great effect.
It is time for Silicon Valley to step up its game and graduate from the minor league.
This post first appeared in the Washington Post.