From: Bryan Bishop (email@example.com)
Date: Sat Dec 25 2010 - 10:51:02 MST
On Sat, Dec 25, 2010 at 11:48 AM, Thomas McCabe wrote:
Facebook, PayPal tycoon embraces sci-fi future
By MARCUS WOHLSEN
The Associated Press
Saturday, December 25, 2010; 12:30 PM
SAN FRANCISCO -- In the movie The Social Network, the character of Peter
Thiel is played as a slick Master of the Universe, a tech industry king and
kingmaker with the savvy to see that a $500,000 investment in Facebook could
mint millions later.
Reality is a little more rumpled.
On a recent December night, Thiel walked, slightly stooped, across a San
Francisco stage to make a pitch to an invitation-only audience of Silicon
Valley luminaries - investors and innovators who had scored sometimes huge
fortunes through a mix of skill, vision and risk-taking.
The billionaire PayPal co-founder didn't tell them about the next big
startup. He wanted them to buy into a bigger idea: the future.
A future when computers will communicate directly with the human brain.
Seafaring pioneers will found new floating nations in the middle of the
ocean. Science will conquer aging, and death will become a curable disease.
If anything can transform these wild dreams into plausible realities, he
believes it is the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley - the minds and money
that have conjured the technological marvels that have already altered
"Do we try to pursue ideas that are weird and have optimism about the
future, or do we give up on all new things and compromise?"
Sitting before him in the audience, among others: Facebook co-founder Dustin
Moskovitz, Yelp co-founder and CEO Jeremy Stoppelman and technology
publishing guru Tim O'Reilly.
As venture capital in Silicon Valley chases the next big mobile app or group
discount service, Thiel was asking for them to fund technological
breakthroughs that some believe in fervently and others see as sheer
He even has a name for it: Breakthrough philanthropy.
Instead of just giving to help the less fortunate here and now, Thiel
encouraged his fellow moguls to put their money toward seemingly far-fetched
ventures that he believes could improve the lives of everyone for good.
Gathered on the stage were eight groups that Thiel thinks are on the right
One was the Singularity Institute, whose members believe in the
near-inevitability of the arrival within the next century of computers
smarter than the humans who created them.
The institute works to ensure that self-programming machines will create a
world that looks more like Star Trek, less like the Terminator.
Another was the SENS Foundation, a group of biomedical researchers seeking a
path to radical life extension based on the controversial aging theories of
computer scientist-turned-gerontologist Aubrey de Grey.
And the Seasteading Institute, led by Patri Friedman, the grandson of famed
economist Milton Friedman. It looks to establish distant ocean colonies to
serve as laboratories for experimenting with new forms of government or
"As innovators, you are the best at finding and nurturing the right big
ideas that can change the world," Friedman told the audience.
The history of Silicon Valley is filled with such ideas. The smartphone, the
Web, the search engine, the personal computer itself - these all seemed
far-fetched until they became commonplace.
To raise money from the wealthy, it's a time-honored strategy to flatter.
Witness the names emblazoned across hospital wings and university buildings.
But building important buildings has never seemed to especially interest
Silicon Valley's elite.
They have "the right kind of cultural DNA to at the very least pay
attention," said Greg Biggers, a longtime software executive who recently
founded a startup, Genomera, that lets members conduct health studies using
their own genetic data.
Biggers said Silicon Valley entrepreneurs would likely be receptive to
Thiel's unconventional message because they succeeded by not conforming to
others' expectations of what was possible.
"This is a roomful of people who bucked the system," he said as he mingled,
glass of wine in hand.
Charles Rubin, a Duquesne University political science professor and blogger
who has written critically about some of the movements endorsed by Thiel,
said these visions of the future align closely with the Silicon Valley
All share the view that "scientific knowledge and technical capacity will
continue to increase at an accelerating rate," Rubin said. "This is a core
idea that practically defines what Silicon Valley is all about: ceaseless
Thiel himself seems to thrive on flouting convention, sometimes in ways that
have led to harsh criticism.
In September, he announced a program designed to discover the next Mark
Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder, by paying $100,000 each to 20 young people
under 20 years old to skip college for two years to learn about
Jacob Weisberg, editor of the online magazine Slate, excoriated Thiel for
the program and what he sees as its underlying impetus.
"Thiel's philosophy demands attention not because it is original or
interesting in any way - it's puerile libertarianism, infused with futurist
fantasy - but because it epitomizes an ugly side of Silicon Valley's
politics," Weisberg wrote.
Thiel is not a traditional conservative - he has donated to Republican
candidates but also to California's marijuana legalization ballot measure.
But he does seem to believe in a trickle-down theory of technology.
Unlike the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has poured billions into
providing basic health care for some of the world's most impoverished
people, Thiel said he wants to prioritize major scientific advances he
thinks will spread to benefit humanity as a whole.
His faith appears grounded in a pervasive Silicon Valley belief that
motivates gifted individuals to achieve on a grand scale, no matter the
apparent hurdles - death included.
But even Thiel admitted he has no idea how long that last obstacle will take
"I would like to say that I would still be doing this even if I thought
there was no chance I would benefit from this in any way," he said in an
interview. "I think we have to work on these things even if they take
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