Peter Thiel, who spoke by interactive video to the COSM conference last October, is probably the most remarkable of the Silicon Valley insiders. A fuller version of his discussions with tech philosopher George Gilder has just been released.
What makes Thiel (think PayPal, Facebook, Palantir, Airbnb, Lyft, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX) unique is that he so much contradicts the Valley stereotype and is certainly not afraid to tell the Valley its faults. In fact, he moved down to Los Angeles in 2018, fed up with the Valley as a one-party state. He suggested in 2019 that Google be investigated for treason for refusing to work with the Pentagon but helping the Chinese military.
Most of the time, though, Thiel prefers to think, speak, and write about the way information is the true source of wealth, including the ways technology can enrich our lives and—for many of us, this is the big one—robot-proofing our jobs.
Peter Thiel on the Failures and “Self-Hatred” of Big-Tech
A few highlights:
– Thiel senses that the pace of practical innovation in the Valley is slowing down, despite the hype:
It’s become a lot less charismatic in the last five years. The big tech companies are as self-hating as the big banks were in 2009. There is absolutely no narrative of the future left.
And that was just the beginning. Responding to a question from futurist George Gilder (below, right), author of Life after Google, about the recent huge fines and litigation against big tech companies, he says, “The story is not that they have done a lot of bad things but that they have not done enough good things. That remains the core challenge of Silicon Valley.”
Timely words, considering that China, with whom the Valley has been cozy for so long, has seized the opportunity of the COVID-19 pandemic to simply invade Hong Kong and put an end to its democratic aspirations. The Valley is now squirming to avoid sharing in the crackdown on the gallant HongKongers as the cost of continuing to do business with China.
His fundamental question, “How can Google use the rhetoric of ‘borderless’ benefits to justify working with the country whose ‘Great Firewall’ has imposed a border on the internet itself?”, is especially timely because China’s government uses high tech for, among other things, sophisticated racial profiling. He told the New York Times last year,
A.I.’s military power is the simple reason that the recent behavior of America’s leading software company, Google — starting an A.I. lab in China while ending an A.I. contract with the Pentagon — is shocking. As President Barack Obama’s defense secretary Ash Carter pointed out last month, “If you’re working in China, you don’t know whether you’re working on a project for the military or not.”
No intensive investigation is required to confirm this. All one need do is glance at the Communist Party of China’s own constitution: Xi Jinping added the principle of “civil-military fusion,” which mandates that all research done in China be shared with the People’s Liberation Army, in 2017.Peter Thiel, “Good for Google, Bad for America” at New York Times
– Another of his observations that has worn very well over the past few months of endless student assaults on our history and culture (and on the professors thereof) is that universities are failing in their mission to educate and settling for indoctrination instead. Too often, he says, a degree is a cheap form of “salvation” that does not prepare the student for life: “We should be fighting the Atheist Church,” he said of the universities. “Reform does not come from within.”
Thiel has been interested in this problem since the 1990s when he published The Diversity Myth: Multiculturalism and Political Intolerance on Campus (1995).
He has found innovative ways to fight back. He had intended to found a university in 2007 (the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation). But the dismal picture of good founders’ intentions gone bad over the previous century prompted him to develop a program to pay young entrepreneurs to drop out and found a business instead.
– Despite his iconic position as a techie in the world of 5G, Thiel dismisses the idea that machines will take over and put us all out of work: “Information is essentially surprisal. It is unexpected bits. It’s why machines don’t really compete with humans. They are tools that endow people by making people more productive. They make them more employable. Machines are not going to take over the universe.”
In fact, he is well-known for a surprising interview question he likes to use, to detect and champion creative thinking: “Tell me something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on”:
According to Thiel, this interview question helps pinpoint applicants who are innovative thinkers with an abundance of ideas — the type of person who can survive Silicon Valley’s competitive atmosphere.
The question, according to Thiel, tests both originality and courage. “It’s always socially awkward to tell the interviewer something that the interviewer might not agree with,” the billionaire explains.Ruth Umoh, “Why PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel swears by this curveball job interview question” at make it/CNBC
– His 2014 book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, addresses the relationship between information and prosperity. Jonathan Bartlett reflects on one of his topics, an aspect the discussion between Thiel and Gilder on how to create more wealth for more people:
Side information is information that we know but it isn’t simply dictated to us by the environment. Before the iPhone was invented, there was no known price that an iPhone would sell for. Apple CEO Steve Jobs had to draw on his own side information about what users wanted, needed, and would pay for, in order to make the bet that the iPhone would work out. It wasn’t a guarantee and Apple could have lost its investment. As it happened, the side information that Jobs brought to the table allowed Apple to not only make money for itself by selling phones but create opportunities for users to create wealth themselves, thus adding to overall wealth. This was all done by using side information on what users wanted and needed in a phone.
This phenomenon of side information has been described primarily by two economists— George Gilder and Peter Thiel. In Zero to One (2014), Thiel boils down the subject of side information to one single question that investors or entrepreneurs can ask themselves: “What important truth do you know that very few people agree with you on?” That is your side information; it allows you to increase your odds of winning beyond zero-sum by adding wealth.
On the other side of the question, in Knowledge and Power (2013), George Gilder focuses on the need for a society that seeks to expand the economic pie to allow information to be known and tested. He asks, what are the underlying societal requirements for recognizing, testing, and communicating truth? In other words, once side information is known, how do we make sure that everyone benefits from it?Jonathan Bartlett, “How can information theory help the economy grow” at Mind Matters News
Note: Peter Thiel was speaking by interactive video at COSM — A National Technology Summit: AI, Blockchain, Crypto, and Life After Google — October 23–25, 2019, sponsored by the Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence at Discovery Institute, hosted by technology futurist George Gilder.
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How can information theory help the economy grow? New information is the true source of new wealth; everyone wins when we learn how to produce it more efficiently. (Jonathan Bartlett)