Below, find a partial transcript from our September 29, 2014 interview with libertarian tech entrepreneur, Peter Thiel
Editor’s Note: We’re trying out a new transcription service this month. These transcripts, while not 100% accurate, are pretty close, and we want your thoughts on their usefulness / relevancy. Let us know in the comments below, or send us a note at OnPointNPR@gmail.com.
TOM ASHBROOK: FromW.B.U.R. Boston and N.P.R., I'm Tom Ashbrook, and this is On Point. Technology is all over these days: iPhones, Android, smart thermostats. Billionaire entrepreneur investor Peter Thiel says it's not enough. Not if we want to create thriving, on this planet marginal innovation. He says we don't do it. We need big new ground up technology breakthroughs. He doesn't trust government. He doesn't trust the corporate world, exactly. It's going to take entrepreneurs, start-ups, he says to save us. This hour On Point: tethnology techno libertarian Peter Thiel, and his view of what it will take to save to build a future. You can join us, on air or online with this conversation is always on. Will technology be our salvation? And join us anytime at on OnPointRadio.org or on Twitter and Facebook @OnPointRadio. A special welcome to our new live listeners in the Dayton region, on WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Joining me now from San Francisco is Peter Thiel: entrepreneur, investor, billionaire. Pay Pal founder. The first big outside money in Facebook. He spotted, funded, Mark Zuckerberg in the early years of Facebook. Elon Musk at SpaceX, the founder of Tesla. Libertarian, often contrarian. His new book is "Zero to One," with Blake Masters. It's all about startups, the future of technology. And he says the future itself. Peter Thiel, welcome back to On Point.
PETER THIEL: Tom thanks for having me on the show.
TOM ASHBROOK: There's a lot in here about starting up companies and in your view the tremendous importance of that. How about we go to the end first, if we could. Peter you describe, you know, several ways that the history of progress or the lack thereof can work and where we stand now. And you make it a kind of a do-or die equation. You look at how the ancients saw human progress or the path of human life on Earth. You look at a plateau that we may be on now. And some people accept now an extinction scenario, a take-off scenario. Could you walk us through those Peter?
PETER THIEL: Will we, we, we've been living in an accelerating technological civilization. For two or three centuries maybe since you know the seventeenth eighteenth century when science and technology really started to take off. And I believe it's still advancing, but at a slower rate than it had in the past and in the last forty years, it has been a story of computers. Information technology, the Internet. The mobile Internet. But many other areas of technology have decelerated a lot. There's been not enough innovation in energy in clean technology. Not that much innovation in transportation, not that much innovation in all the futuristic technology people imagined in the 60s -- space travel. Robotics. Underwater cities. Turning the deserts into farmland or into forests. And, and so we've had innovation in the world of bits but not in atoms. And the word technology has a narrower meaning today than it did forty or fifty years ago. It basically just means computers which reflects this the snare range of progress. Now my, now my view is that, is that, you...with seven billion people on this planet, we cannot go back there and I'm not a techno utopian. I don't think technology is a panacea. I think sometimes it leads to very bad things — nuclear weapons. Where I think of that invention that didn't make the world a better place. But but I think without more technology, we're really in trouble because you, we have to figure out new energy sources, new ways to feed the seven billion people. To take the developing nations to the living standards of the Western world and beyond. And so I think, I think that while technology is not perfect, without more technological progress, there can be no good future.
TOM ASHBROOK: Describe the dynamics that you say we are on an unsustainable path. Now why don't you?
PETER THIEL: Well, like you can even simply look at China and the U.S. Just take two countries on China's plans to become like the U.S. But if everybody in China drove a global car like we have in the U.S., you'd run out of oil or you you know you run into enormous environmental problems with climate change and carbon dioxide emissions and so on. So, so, so for China to catch up to the U.S., you actually need to develop new technologies and not just in the computer. You need to do them and all these other areas and the cell phones that distract us from our surroundings all to distract us from all the ways in which our surroundings are strangely olds in which we live in cities that look like they're hundreds one hundred years old. Subway systems that are decrepit, not quite working. Things like that.
TOM ASHBROOK: There is an extinction scenario in your, in your couple pages of charts here and you take it seriously. Who or what dimensions are there?
PETER THIEL: Well certainly, certainly there are there are all these bad scenarios for technology. Other runaway technology scenarios where it could lead to, to violence in war that could destroy the world you have, you have, you have a worrisome scenario with artificial intelligence. If that gets to be too dangerous. But I think, I think, it's yeah, I think that in a world of scarce resources, you have a much greater risk of conflict. And and I think you know I think the way to overcome scarcity is, is through technology, through innovation. And so we need to, you know, we don't want to have a mouth losing and sort of a problem. We want to but we want take it seriously. It's, we want to try to overcome it.
TOM ASHBROOK: You describe what I would call maybe in mind set problem here where people sort of in, in the developed world. Things have certainly imperfect but people kind of like a lifestyle and they're happy to look out and see the plaque, hold the chart line here and they're all right with that.What's the problem?
PETER THIEL: Well certainly. And if you think everything's fine, then you're likely not to try that hard. You will have low expectations. And low expectations will be met. I think there are additional, there are many areas where I think we could be doing so much better. The example I always give that's fairly straightforward is a biomedical innovation. You know we declared war on cancer. In 1970, was supposed to be defeated by the bicentennial. You know forty four years later, but, but we could be making so much more progress there. It would be inconceivable for someone to clap for a president of the US today to declare war on Alzheimer's. Our expectations are so much reduced for what we can do even though even though you know one third of all the people at age eighty five have dementia. And I think, it's, I don't, I don't think this is acceptable. But I agree with you that we live in a country where by and large people seem to accept this a society where by and large people seem to accept this. They don't rate people. Don't like technology. They don't like science, art. If you look at the Hollywood films, they always show technology that destroys things, that doesn't work. That's dystopian. It's the Matrix or Terminator orAvatar. I watched the "Gravity" movie the other day and you were happy to be back on a muddy island.You'd never want to go into outer space, you know. And, and, and I think, it's I think we have this very conservative bias in the conservative in the sense of not wanting anything to change. And and yet I think there are so many ways things could change for the better.
TOM ASHBROOK: Why do you think — we're not sure exactly what we mean is in this case. But the kind of the world, in your analysis fell off the list of the United States, in your analysis, fell off that "Gung-Ho" technology: "Let's let's think of it and then do it!" track you say in the early 70s. Why?
PETER THIEL: Well I think, I think that there probably a whole set of things that came together and there was environmental damage, people became more aware of that. There was the nuclear weapons danger, people became more aware of. There was, that was a way in which people became our society became somewhat more risk-averse. You know, we sort of replaced the scientists and engineers with with lawyers and bankers, became more financially oriented less, less oriented towards certain other things then let them play a whole set of reasons why it happened. It's quite hard to figure all of them out. But I think, I think, It's sort of done, hasn't quite worked. And I think that the crisis of 2008 shows that we can't simply progress by doing more of the same. If you build more houses you do more of the exact same thing.There's some point where the sort of tract, a horizontal growth that we've had runs runs into a limit. And and so I think there is at this point least an opening to this idea that we need to just try to do some some new things in the U.S. Western Europe, Japan all these other places that are facing in the alternative the sort of secular stagnation at best.
TOM ASHBROOK: You say the crisis of 2008 could look like peanuts if we don't go in a different direction. What would it be direct, that direction. Look like that you're pushing, promoting here?
PETER THIEL: Somehow it is basically just working on starting you know many new ventures in all these different areas are — one of my colleagues from PayPal, Elon Musk started SpaceX and Tesla too, I think are both incredibly inspiring companies. That you know the further the very tangible product. One builds rockets. The other one's the electric car manufacturer. And, and they, they both represent significant sort of quantum step improvements over over the next best alternative. And it's, it's very inspiring. And yet it's also somehow quite rare. There aren't many things like this being done. And I think I am, and this is where I'm again more optimistic. I actually think there's a lot like that that could be done. And it's actually it's not a law of nature that we can't have one hundred companies that are as, as, as, as, as dramatic as a Tesla. It's just, it's just that we we sort of resign yourself to to not wanting the sort of Buck Rogers positive future.
TOM ASHBROOK: You say we're not in the future until we get there.
PETER THIEL: And we could could have and could still do it. And again it's, it's, it's, it's possible that there is some of these things just don't work. And maybe, maybe jet packs are just a bad idea. They should have a jet pack. You know we have a
title on our website. You know, "They promised us flying cars. All we got was one hundred forty characters." Flying cars or maybe maybe they're good, maybe they're bad but, but it's remarkable how all the various things people envisioned. And we've gotten so few of them outside of the, outside of the computer area. And so I think, I think we could be doing more. I think we could be doing more on clean energy. I think we could be doing more on on biomedical and we could be doing more in many of these areas.
TOM ASHBROOK: I'm Tom Ashbrook, and this is On Point. We're talking this hour with super entrepreneur investor Peter Thiel about the future. And what we are going to make of it. He says basically, technology or die — big breakthroughs
or we are in trouble.He's out with a new book. It is "Zero to One: Notes on Startups" or notes on how to build the future with Blake Masters. Came out of a series of lectures he did at Stanford a few years back. Blake Masters was in the room in the hall, took notes. They got together and now, here it is. And you can read it. He's with us from San Francisco today. He is libertarian. He is contrarian. He can be kind of saucy. Here he is on C.N.B.C.'s Squawk Box earlier this month talking about Twitter and pot.
(AUDIO CLIP OF PETER THIEL): Twitter's hard to evaluate. It's that they have a lot of potential, it's a horribly mismanaged company, the people you know probably a lot of pot smoking going on there but farther than that. I didn't really think, but but it's such a such a solid franchise that maybe it works seamlessly today.
TOM ASHBROOK: So you bounce back here and say oh it's a great franchise. Did you hear from Twitter on that front? The pot smoking stuff aside.
PETER THIEL: Will the C.E.O. Dick Costello found that it was very funny, sort of tweeted back saying that he had to have time to get back to me she was as he was busy eating a big bag of Doritos with a snack.
TOM ASHBROOK: Or something sweet...I want to ask you about a few things we've all heard recently. This was September 9th. Cupertino, California. Apple C.E.O. Tim Cook unveiling the latest iPhone.
(AUDIO CLIP OF TIM COOK): These are the new iPhones: the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus. They are without a doubt the best iPhones we've ever done. And I hope you'll agree, they're the best phones you have ever seen.
TOM ASHBROOK: Apple C.E.O. Tim Cook with another "How about how the iPhone?" press conference. Is this it?
PETER THIEL: I should fell, well, I feel it's always unfair to attack Tim Cook because he has almost impossibly large shoes to fill in replacing Steve Jobs. But certainly the iPhone 6. It's a, it's an improvement. It is no doubt the best one. But it's not as big a step as let's say the first iPhone was on and you should make a bigger screens and so there's much more of an incremental improvement. It's very hard won by the way once you're at a size of Apple to come up with innovations that are big enough to really move the dial . They're making $150 billion a year for iPhones, so it's very hard to very hard to move the dial but certainly, certainly we need more than just our phones with bigger screens to move to move it and it's always unfair to blame Twitter or blame Apple as the as the sole problem because they are, they're trying. It's maybe it's like all the rest of us who should be trying a little bit more.
TOM ASHBROOK: How about this when, September 19th on C.N.B.C.. This is founder chairman of the Chinese giant Ali Baba, Jack Ma.
(AUDIO CLIP OF JACK MA): Fifty years later they will say this is a company like Microsoft, like I.B.M. like a lot more, and they changed the world.
TOM ASHBROOK: Ali Baba: is this the world changer, by your standard, Peter?
PETER THIEL: Well it's a, it's a enormously successful company, that will be likely continue to be important for many decades to come. And I think most of the business in China have simply copied models from the U.S. It's you know the Internet in China is is seen as economically somewhat less important but politically more important. And so it's always very closely tied in with the Chinese government. I think Ali Baba will remain protected by the Chinese government and it probably will be or will be a good investment. But it's sort of a it's sort of a globalization play. Where in China, China does not need the way in which the U.S. does because in the next ten to twenty years they're still poor.There's, they have so much room to catch up just by copying things they may run to you know energy constraints other things like that. But, but on the tech, on the computer side, they can just copy things and it's in it's in theU.S. and in the developed world that we need to innovate.
TOM ASHBROOK: Let me ask you then about a program which I know you do. I think you see breakthrough technology. You mentioned below. Lost in SpaceX. You're a big investor in that company. Here was your last, this was a CNBC over the summer.
(AUDIO CLIP OF PETER THIEL): I'm hopeful that the first fuel could be taken from us in ten to twelve years. I think it's certainly possible that, I think that the thing that really matters in the long term is to have a self-sustaining city on Mars to make life multi planetary.
TOM ASHBROOK: There's a long-lost Mr Tesla, Mr SpaceX. It sounds very cool. Does this save humanity? Self-sustaining cities on Mars? Peter Thiel?
PETER THIEL: Well it's certainly, it's a little understated, and I happen to be very biased here as an investor in SpaceX. But but it certainly is a picture of the future that looks very different from the present in a very concrete and very powerfully dramatic way. And I think I think what I do agree. If you want it, there's nothing automatic about it. It could happen. It could not happen to
future.It's not that there's nothing automatic about the future just arriving in some way, it depends on human agency and the desire to build it and I think, I think what you want is the inspiration for SpaceX was to do something dramatic like that.That's what motivates an incredibly talented rocket scientist to work with the woman in the company where it is a hand. And I think you always want to have some magic like that some transcendent sense of mission for these really great businesses.It's not as if it's just about making money.
TOM ASHBROOK: But you don't have the magic. A little bit more at what this future would look like and you say there is no future, until we change the present. But if we can talk about your book for a minute.You're talking about what you did, analyze a sort of an untenable stagnation or plateau. Right now, we don't have enough resources for everybody to keep on this path. You talk about an extinction scenario if we put the technology, we do have to work and fight with each other over resources. You are not very trusting, to say the least, of government. You're famous as a techno libertarian. You talk about cultural revolution a cultural revolution being required here to to build this future described that cultural revolution.
PETER THIEL: Well, well Tom, to build, to build a better future, you have to I think first convince people that it's possible. You have to get people to work. And so there's always aself-fulfilling aspect. We think it's not possible. People won't work on it and it won't happen if we think it's possible, we will work on it and it might very well happen. Like I don't think it's going to happen as a mass movement, as a mass political change. I think it's much more likely to happen in small groups in new new companies new ventures could be new non-profits. But I but I think it's got to be much easier to convince small groups to work on what you want start with maybe twenty or thirty rocket scientists at the core of SpaceX, rather than some mass political movement. And now I am libertarian I am skeptical of our government's ability do things; but not absolute or dogmatic about this. I would like actually to have a government that could do more. But I think you know I think you know a letter from Einstein to the White House mail room would get lost. I think we couldn't do a Manhattan Project, we couldn't do an Apollo Project today. And so there has been this other strange decline in our government's ability to do these things. Like I think it's again our it's somehow our society is not as inspired by science or technology which is why I think progress is more likely to happen in small groups in our time or not at all.