Back to the Future: Peter Thiel on Technology and Investment Strategy at the NYC Singularity Summit


At the Singularity Summit in New York City, billionaire Peter Thiel spoke intimately with a group of technology savvy highly connected attendees who regard him as their patron saint. One conference attendee described Thiel as one of the only people to be better looking in real life than the actor who plays him on film, referring to the treatment of Thiel in David Fincher’s “The Social Network.” Thiel and his co-founder at PayPal Luke Nosek, who was also in attendance, have been longtime supporters of the Singularity movement. Thiel mentioned that Luke “wanted everyone at paypal to have a cryonics policy.”


Thiel’s resume is enviable. Stanford Law School, co-founder and CEO of PayPal and mastermind behind the company’s sale to eBay right before the dotcom crash, first outside investor in Facebook, investor, chess champion. Lately Thiel has become an influential activist in the field of education reform through his widely publicized Thiel fellowships which give 20 students under the age of 20 a $100,000 fellowship for stopping out of school for two years. Thiel is less well known in the mainstream media as a philanthropist who funds life extension research. At the Summit, Thiel addressed the audience as those people in whose hands the future lies.


Thiel’s main point during his talk was that our society has become anti-technological and has stopped intimately engaging with long-term predictions of the future. Thiel shared an anecdote with the audience regarding his own support of the Singularity movement in the form of underwriting the longevity research of Aubrey du Grey (also in attendance), which he has done since 2006. Apparently, his philanthropy received coverage in the news and his parents were concerned that his support of Singularity and his focus on the future are embarrassing. Thiel decried the lack of serious engagement with science and technology in society at large.


Thiel pointed out the change in science fiction over time. “Look at Star Trek. Spock wanted to be less human and more Vulcan in the original series. By the time we get to the next generation, Data is focused on trying to be more human and less logical,” said Thiel. The change in science fiction is indicative of a broader cultural shift away from science. Instead, people are focused on globalization and the rise of China. “But what they see is China becoming more like the US. And that’s just not sustainable without deep and significant technological innovation. Why aren’t people talking about technological innovation anymore?” Thiel asked the audience.


Thiel suggested that use of the language of the developed and developing world is itself implicitly anti-technological because it implies that in the developed world nothing more needs to happen. Technological change, according to Thiel, involves radical transformation of the world. He himself has become pessimistic about the rate of our technological development, even though globalization, the importing of what has already worked in certain parts of the world to other parts of the world, is happening apace.


The globalization story, the story of everyone in the world enjoying an increasingly high standard of living, can only work if we have increased technological innovation stressed Thiel. Otherwise, we will have a scarcity of resources that will lead to global conflict. We can have that technological innovation, but we need to work to create it. Added Thiel, “It is the people in this room at this Summit who take the future seriously who really will bring about the technological innovation that we need to transform the world for the better.”


During the Q&A, people in the crowd were curious to hear about Thiel’s own investment strategy. Thiel said that his Founder’s Fund looks to invest in companies that are relying on technology that is mature enough to allow the company’s concept to be implemented within a reasonable time frame but is difficult enough that there will not be lots of competition and copycats. In doing something difficult and unique you create a tremendous amount of value. Above all, as an entrepreneur, work to solve a real problem. “Don’t become an entrepreneur for the sake of becoming an entrepreneur, become an entrepreneur to solve a hard problem in the world” Thiel told the many entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs in the crowd.


Thiel added, “think about why the 20th employee will join your company. The first few employees are co-founders and get credit, the 100th employee is joining a functioning business, but the 20th employee, that’s where it helps to have a unique and compelling story, which is something I look for when I think about investing in a company.” Thiel mentioned Space X, a company run by his fellow PayPal founder Elon Musk which is working to build spacecraft to Mars. “Space X is the only group in the world that is working on getting us to Mars and so they’ve been able to bring together a phenomenal team of brilliant engineers who really care about the project.”


In the technology heavy crowd, the memory of Steve Jobs was certainly in the air and someone in the audience asked whether the tremendous popularity of apple products belied Thiel’s thesis that our society at large is distrustful of technology. Thiel sees apple products, which are designed to feel as if they operate by magic and to hide the underlying technology, as more evidence of our society’s turn away from deep technological innovation. “The iPad fits the Zeitgeist of a society that is distrustful of technology and which attempts to hide technology from view” said Thiel.


Whether or not Thiel is right about the broader societal mistrust of technology, at the Singularity Summit he was speaking to a group of people extremely invested in technology and serious reflections about the future.

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