Peter Thiel says he’s trying to get entrepreneurs to go after bigger problems than the ones Silicon Valley is chasing.
By Tom Simonite on September 18, 2014
Peter Thiel has been behind some prominent technologies: he cofounded PayPal and was an early investor in such companies as Facebook and LinkedIn. But he’s convinced that technological progress has been stagnant for decades. According to Thiel, developments in computers and the Internet haven’t significantly improved our quality of life. In a new book, he warns entrepreneurs that conventional business wisdom is preventing them and society as a whole from making major advances in areas, such as energy or health, where technology could make the world a better place—though he doesn’t offer detailed answers about how we might unlock such breakthroughs. Thiel spoke to MIT Technology
Review’s San Francisco bureau chief, Tom Simonite, at the offices of his venture capital firm, Founders
One of the most striking claims in your book is that we haven’t had significant technological progress since around 1970. What about computing?
Progress in computers and the Internet helps with communications, and it’s enabled us to make things far more efficient. On the other hand, most other fields of engineering have been bad things to go into since the 1970s: nuclear engineering, aero- and astronautical engineering, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, even electrical engineering. We are living in a material world, so that’s pretty big to miss out on. I don’t think we’re living in an incredibly fast technological age.
The Founders Fund’s slogan takes a swipe at Twitter: “We wanted flying cars; instead we got 140 characters.” Haven’t things like iPhones and online social networks improved our quality of life?
Some. Just not enough. That line is not meant to be a critique of Twitter as a business. I think the company will eventually become profitable; the 2,000 people who work there will be gainfully employed for decades to come. But its specific success may be symptomatic of a general failure. Even though it improves our lives in certain ways, it is not enough to take our civilization to the next level.
What kinds of technologies might do that?
There are all these areas where there could be enormous innovation. We could be finding cures to cancer or Alzheimer’s. I’m quite interested in enabling people to live much longer. There’s an information technology approach, where we optimize your nutrition and give instant feedback using mobile device technology. But I suspect that there are entire new classes of drugs or processes that could rejuvenate body parts. I also think that tenfold improvements might be possible in nuclear power. There are miniaturization technologies where you have much smaller containment structures, and technologies for disposing of and reprocessing fuel that have been underexplored.
What are you doing to create this kind of technology?
Well, we invested in SpaceX [the private rocket company that has taken over some launches for NASA] in 2008 after the first rockets had blown up. The next one did work. We invested in a few biotech companies, and we’ve been looking at medical devices. These sectors where it’s a multiyear commitment are wildly out of fashion among investors. At the same time, I do think that there will continue to be innovation in information technology in the decades ahead. About two-thirds of our work is there.
What companies would you say are taking on big problems?
Tesla is a really interesting example. Most of the components didn’t involve really great breakthroughs, but there was this ability to combine them. I think we’re generally too drawn to incremental point solutions and very scared of complex operational problems like that.
“[Twitter’s] specific success may be symptomatic of a general failure. Even though it improves our lives in certain ways, it is not enough to take our civilization to the next