Peter Thiel, one of the many internet billionaires who has profound doubts about the reality of today’s progress in science and technology and is trying to reboot it, gave two excellent talks at Oxford’s Said Business School and Union on 30th April 2015. Below is my highly condensed summary of the main points he made.
Incidence of war & casualties fell suddenly worldwide from 1815.
Peaceful periods: 1815-1854; 1871-1914; 1945-now
Cause of peace: continuous technology improvement enabling non-zero-sum economic growth.
Then came interlocking world trade: nowadays peace is more profitable than war. But that’s taken the urgency out of international competition. Maybe the Apollo-Soyuz linkup of 1975 symbolized the end of true international competition, hence progress. In 1970 Nixon declared cancer would be solved by 1976, disappointment ever since.
1815-1913 : progress and globalization
1914-1971 : progress only
1971- now : globalization, but limited progress
Environmentalism, globalization are dubious goals – more effective approach is to progress the developed world first, get better technology.
Stagnation is the root cause of our present problems
Our era has progress in (computer) bits but not in atoms, partly due to regulation.
Governments bad at big science projects – we need leaders who understand sci/tech.
Oversight now fails to ask the big question: Will the science work?
Assuming the low hanging fruit has run out is being too easy on ourselves
STEM is a con: there will be few good useful jobs for anyone.
Incentives wrong: rewards academic papers and grants, or get-rich-quick modest innovation.
Don’t delegate your life decisions to educators or anyone else.
In science specialisation->cronyism->fraud.
He’s suspicious of string theory, quantum cryptography, big data, cloud computing:
buzzwords make him suspect intellectual dishonesty.
His Stanford professor Robert Laughlin was hounded when he tried to expose widespread malpractice in science after getting his Nobel.
The universities are broken, hence the need for Thiel fellowships and other initiatives
By definition there can be no simple formula for true innovation.
Be autistic solo believer not crowdthink person (he admits hard to tell genius from self-delusion).
Sceptical of business students. Avoid imitative crowd, psychosocial manias, portfolios, shotgun approach, incubators (but Y-combinator approach maybe useful).
Go with your hunch not research, but be prepared to pivot quickly.
Most people share persistent blind spots: what do you understand that other people don’t?
Don’t outsource problems, angel help is dubious: seek Superman, get con man.
Aim for Minimum Viable Product.
Many breakthroughs haven’t benefited their inventors due to bad business strategy