Silicon Valley Billionaire Backs Futuristic Philanthropy

Here’s the article from yesterday’s San Jose Mercury News:

Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel worries that people aren’t thinking big enough about the future.

So he’s convening an unusual philanthropic summit Tuesday night , where he’ll introduce other wealthy tech figures to nonprofit groups exploring such futuristic — some might say “far out” — ideas as artificial intelligence, the use of “rejuvenation biotechnologies” to extend human life and the creation of free-floating communities on the high seas.

“We’re living in a world where people are incredibly biased toward the incremental,” said Thiel, explaining that he wants to challenge his peers to pursue more “radical breakthroughs” in their philanthropy, by supporting nonprofit exploration of technological innovations that carry at least the promise of major advances for the human condition.

“Obviously there are a lot of questions about the impact of these things,” he added. “If you have radical life extension, that could obviously lead to repercussions for society. But I think that’s a problem we want to have.”

The 43-year-old financier and philanthropist, who made a fortune as co-founder of PayPal and an early backer of Facebook, will make his pitch to more than 200 well-heeled entrepreneurs and techies during an invitation-only dinner at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.

I’m missing this event because I’m attending the Society for Risk Analysis annual conference in SLC, where I just gave a talk. I wish the best to all my colleagues attending the event, however. Here’s another Thiel quote I liked:

“One of the things that’s gone strangely wrong in the United States is that the future is not really being thought about as a major idea anymore,” he added.

Simple but true. I wasn’t alive in the 50s or 60s so I don’t know exactly what it was like, but from what I’ve read, people cared a lot more about the future. From the 70s onward, the emphasis seems to be more on the past.

Comments

  1. odnamra

    Wow. Just imagine what the people in that room would be capable of if they collectively invested a small fraction of their wealth into Singularity research.

  2. Man from a parallel universe

    The people gathering now could nudge humanity on the path to a very different future. But I’m afraid they won’t.

    In our universe we have what you’d call a “Manhattan Project” (which we didn’t have) going on indefinitely on EVERY major problem. We pour the majority of our economy, octillions, that dwarfs yours, practically unlimited funding into every problem.

    The acquisition of wealth and luxury, which are but man-made objects to be evaluated and compared to other man-made objects (the greater the difference to the average, the greater the “luxury”), instead of knowledge about the universe, are your “elite’s” primary pursuits lacking any meaning whatsoever in the context of deep time and space.

    Instead of preparing your people for meeting these challenges, you’re dumbing them down, creating the greatest number of worst performing minds in history.
    In your reality, the number of people per generation who even try to solve something that needs solving is a handful at best out of billions. What a stupendous anti-accomplishment. A small town can easily house every one of the Great Minds who ever existed in your history.

    We have thousands of millions of hyper-specialized scientists and engineers educated for a single field from birth, far outnumbering your entire civilization. We have special knowledge-continuity educators whose entire duty is to make sure that every advancement in knowledge is communicated to the next generation efficiently in full so that no steps are repeated unnecessarily. All our science is completely open, there’s no competition, no funding proposals to write, no artificial constraints. The outer fringes of knowledge, pioneering science is all we’re interested in.

    And still we find making progress difficult.

    Therefore I suspect you couldn’t even begin to crack the challenges even if you put everything – the trillions your bankers and financiers currently hoard for no apparent reason other than to keep your populace artificially poor to motivate them to work – you have into solving them, and that your inactivity and lack of trying is a psychological coping mechanism: you tell yourself you COULD do it if you just tried. It keeps the confidence and optimism up, doesn’t it? You lack the manpower, the funding, the focus, the dedication, while you imagine futures where things have been accomplished with exactly those things that you currently lack. Many average, unskilled people employ this trick of imaginary future accomplishments, in order to feel competent, and as a whole, humanity, seems to do so, too.

    • Mitchell Porter

      MFAPU, you appear to be laboring under a number of misconceptions about the future of technological discovery (among other things). First, we are going to get to nanotechnology and artificial intelligence within decades, even though we live in a competitive consumerist world rather than a monastic scientific hive-mind, and they are not naturally human-friendly technologies. Nanotechnology can devastate the biosphere and artificial intelligence can pursue goals which are at odds with humanity’s purposes or even with humanity’s existence. Your parallel universe sounds like a 1930s Olaf Stapledon vision of humanity’s future, with its specialized intellectual castes working for centuries to produce incremental progress on the great problems. But it is doubly invalid, first because they couldn’t work so hard for so long without producing a posthuman singularity, and second because you couldn’t achieve the initial conditions of your scenario (do you understand just how big an octillion is?) without a posthuman singularity having already occurred, either. It is conceivable that *after* a singularity, there could be a long period of hard incremental progress such as you envisage, but only because the big changes arising from the revolutionary developments had played themselves out, and by then, the entities doing the progressing might be thoroughly unhuman.

    • Mitchell Porter

      Second, this statement –

      “the number of people per generation who even try to solve something that needs solving is a handful at best out of billions”

      - is bogus (unless several million is still a handful), and this one –

      “A small town can easily house every one of the Great Minds who ever existed in your history”

      - is not, but you appear to misunderstand its significance.

      So, first of all, there are numerous people – far more than a handful – trying to decode the scientific secrets of the universe, end world hunger, and various other ambitious worthy tasks. But lots of them aren’t competent to do it, and many others just happen to have made the wrong guesses about how to achieve their goal. This is where we come into contact with the reality in the second statement: there aren’t many Great Minds in history, but it’s not as if their number could be multiplied by a million with an alternative educational regimen. Genetics plays a big part in intelligence; it places an upper bound on the speed and quality of thought that a person can produce unaided. Also, the people who get retrospectively lionized as geniuses were often fortunately situated, culturally and historically – they were in a position where knowledge had advanced to the point that a big new leap could be made by someone capable of assimilating everything that was then known, and pushing a little further. Place them somewhere else in history, and they would have had much less opportunity to shine.

      • storgard

        You’re pointing out details that are incidental to the message; they’re all obvious gross exaggerations, employed for effect, no doubt.

        The message seems to be: progress is hard, harder than you think, and you’re being pathetically optimistic (and employing soothing psychological tricks) in thinking that they “couldn’t work so hard for so long without producing a posthuman singularity” and that “we are going to get to nanotechnology and artificial intelligence within decades”. How could you even have any idea since, from his point of view, you aren’t even really trying.

        I agree with your assessment of the Great Minds being at the right place at the right time, and the role of genetics – the blueprints for minds (however non-politically correct denying the equality of people may be, most existing science can be easily traced to a relatively narrow pool of genes that excludes the majority of the populace, and in modern times one need not look further than Nobel prize winners and patent applications per nation).

        The general idea pushed forward here seems to be the role Culture plays – the distribution of wealth, its mis and un-application, funding of science, and education; the, mostly idle, trillions in the hands of non-scientists and educators is from a more cosmic and historical perspective just staggeringly dumb – which is arguably a thing we fail at or don’t live up to our potential, not even close, in our current consumerist version of the civilization.

        This gathering could indeed be the start of something new. But I’m not holding my breath either.

        Bring on the Culture of monastic hive-mind of ultra-specialized scholars until the posthuman Singularity is reached.

  3. Lennart

    Awesome! News like this makes my day. It’s very exciting that someone with such financial opportunities shares our concerns and priorities.

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