Society Turned Against Tech, Thiel Says

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- Society has become anti-technology and uncomfortable imagining the far future, billionaire entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel told attendees at this month's Singularity Summit -- those most unlikely to fit his criticisms, but also those most likely to agree with him.

Thiel had examples to back up his thesis, with the most surprising one coming when someone in the audience asked about the tremendous popularity of Apple products:
Peter Thiel, the PayPal/Facebook billiionaire, says a society that embraces the iPad distrusts technology.

Apple products, which are designed to feel as if they operate by magic and hide the underlying technology, are indeed evidence of society's turn away from technological innovation, he said.

"The iPad fits the zeitgeist of a society that is distrustful of technology and which attempts to hide technology from view," Thiel said.

Thiel also 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," Thiel said, leaping from science fiction indicative of a broader cultural shift away from science to an economic corollary: People are focused instead on globalization and the rise of China, he said, "But what they see is China becoming more like the U.S. And that's just not sustainable without deep and significant technological innovation. Why aren't people talking about technological innovation anymore?"

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, he said. Technological change, according to Thiel, involves radical transformation of the world, but he confessed to pessimism about the rate of our technological advancement even though globalization -- the importing of what has already worked in certain parts of the world to other parts of the world -- is hurtling along.

The globalization story of everyone in the world enjoying an increasingly high standard of living can work only if we have increased innovation, Thiel says. Otherwise, scarce resources will lead to global conflict.

"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," Thiel says.

The summit was founded five years ago to improve people's thinking about the future and tout radical technologies and "the transformative implications of such technologies," according to the event's Web site, including greater-than-human intelligence and the possibility of eternal life through technological collaboration.

Thiel shared an anecdote with the audience regarding his own support of the Singularity movement by underwriting since 2006 the work of Aubrey de Grey -- the longevity researcher, who famously says the first human beings who will live to 1,000 years old have already been born, was in attendance. When his philanthropy got coverage in the news, his parents worried that his support and his focus on the future were embarrassing, Thiel said.

Thiel's track record shows he can afford to risk some embarrassment: Stanford Law School, co-founder and CEO of PayPal and mastermind behind the company's sale to eBay ( EBAY) right before the dot-com 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 stepping out of school for two years to pursue science projects.

People in the crowd were curious to hear Thiel's own investment strategy. He said his Founder's Fund looks to invest in companies relying on technology mature enough to allow the company's concept to be implemented within a reasonable time but difficult enough that there will not be excessive competition or copycats. Above all, he said, 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 says.

"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 SpaceX, a company run by his fellow PayPal founder Elon Musk working to build spacecraft to Mars. "SpaceX 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."

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