Free Minds & Free Markets

'Technology Is at the Center'

Entrepreneur and philanthropist Peter Thiel on liberty and scientific progress

I first met Peter Thiel—co-founder of PayPal, angel investor in Facebook, founder of the hedge fund Clarium Capital Management, adviser to the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and self-described libertarian—at a party in his San Francisco home last September. Perhaps 100 digerati wandered through Thiel’s sleek Marina District townhouse, chatting amiably over wine and canapés in rooms filled with up-to-the-minute abstract art.

The party launched the second annual Singularity Summit, held at the nearby Palace of Fine Arts during the ensuing two days. The Singularity, a term coined by the science fiction writer Vernor Vinge in 1983, refers to the eventual technological creation of smarter-than-human intelligence. Just as our model of physics breaks down when it tries to describe the center of a black hole, Vinge observed, our attempts to model the future break down when we try to foresee a world that contains smarter-than-human intelligences. The Singularity Institute takes it for granted that exponentially accelerating information technology will produce such artificial intelligences; its chief goal is to make sure they will be friendly to humans.

In 1987, while studying philosophy at Stanford, Thiel helped found the libertarian/conservative student newspaper The Stanford Review. As a law student at Stanford he was president of the university’s Federalist Society. After working briefly for the law firm Sullivan and Cromwell in New York, Thiel switched to trading derivatives for Credit Suisse Financial. In the mid-1990s, Thiel transformed himself into a venture capitalist and a serial entrepreneur. He returned to California, where he has backed a number of startups. In addition to PayPal and Facebook, Thiel has invested in the social networking site LinkedIn, the search engine company Powerset, and the Web security provider IronPort.

Thiel also joined the culture wars by co-authoring The Diversity Myth: Multiculturalism and the Politics of Intolerance at Stanford (1996), and was an executive producer for the 2005 feature film Thank You for Smoking, based on Christopher Buckley’s politically incorrect novel of the same name. Besides backing the Singularity Institute, Thiel pledged a $3.5 million matching grant in 2006 to the Methuselah Foundation to support its anti-aging research agenda.

I interviewed Thiel between sessions at the Singularity Summit.

reason: I’ve been told you consider yourself a libertarian.

Peter Thiel: I would consider myself a rather staunch libertarian. If we went down a list of litmus-test questions, I would probably score pretty well.

reason: How did that come about?

Thiel: Personal history is always tricky, but it was partially shaped by thinking about the totalitarian disasters in the 20th century. When I was growing up in high school, the Cold War was still very much going on, and the complete lack of freedom seemed like an absolutely terrible thing.

The kinds of authors I read in junior high school and high school weren’t classic libertarian writers, but they definitely pushed one in that direction. So, for example, Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago showed how terrible the totalitarian system was. Or in the fiction context, Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings expressed the ideas that absolute power corrupts absolutely, that the ideal world is one in which people enjoy more freedom, and that that’s a world where you’ll have the greatest amount of human prosperity and happiness and ultimately achievement.

reason: You were a Stanford undergrad and law student. After you graduated, your career seemed to be taking a policy wonk direction.

Thiel: As an undergraduate at Stanford, I started The Stanford Review, which ended up being very engaged in the hot debates of the time: campus speech codes, questions about diversity on campus, all sorts of debates like that. I ended up writing a book on it, The Diversity Myth, the thesis of which was basically that there was no real diversity when you had a group of people who looked different but thought alike, and what really was needed was a diversity of ideas.

In parallel I was obviously on the law track. I worked at a law firm in New York very briefly. I’d always been good at math—I was a nationally ranked chess player as an undergraduate—and I shifted over into trading financial derivatives at Credit Suisse Financial Products in ’94.

reason: How did you make that transition?

Thiel: They gave me a math test, and I got all the questions right.

I moved back to California in ’96. I started a small fund and started investing in tech companies. In the course of that, I invested in PayPal in late ’98. I came on board as the interim CEO, and it evolved from four of us to a 900-person company. At this point, it’s up to about 7,000 people working for the PayPal division of eBay. Basically creating this new payment system from scratch, which was one of these Holy Grail type of things that a lot of people had been focused on. The basic thought was if you could lessen the control of government over money and somehow shift the ability of people to control the money that was in their wallets, this would be a truly revolutionary shift.

In many ways, it succeeded better than we would’ve hoped. I wouldn’t say it changed the whole world, but I think technologies like PayPal have been a major contributing factor toward the weakening of the nation-state over the last few decades. Countries are more competitive. They can’t simply devalue currencies, because people can shift currencies from one country to another.

reason: Of course, Argentina did exactly that a couple of years ago.

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  • ||

    Paypal- those thieving cocksuckers! I hope that asshole gets run over by a garbage truck.

  • ||

    Second Peter Theil story in a few days... weird how that happens.

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  • Bronwyn||

    Although I'm still stuck with paypal for some of my online transactions, I've signed up with the beautifully fee-free Revolution MoneyExchange.

    I am well pleased.

    I'll send referrals if anyone wants to collect $25 and thank me with $10 for the tip :)

    And now, I guess I'll RTFA...

  • Bronwyn||

    Ah. Never mind, I read it in my paper copy.

    I did have to wonder how someone just *decides* to be a venture capitalist. I suppose a big checking account helps... that would disqualify me.

  • Paul||

    I did have to wonder how someone just *decides* to be a venture capitalist.

    I have a funny feeling it's the same way people "decide" to take a couple of years off and do some kind of international, global hiking trek that lands them an interview with Terry Gross on NPR.

  • Bronwyn||

    Paul, I went to boarding school with a bunch of kids who did that. In their case it required that mommy and daddy have a big checking account.

    So yes, I think you're right that there's a common thread here.

  • ||

    My optimistic take is that even though politics is moving very anti-libertarian, that itself is a symptom of the fact that the world's becoming more libertarian. Maybe it's just a symptom of how good things are.

    Damn, I wish I had his optimism. I always feel like I am in a canoe and I can hear the waterfall "somewhere" in front of me but can't see where it is, nor can I row away from it.

  • Tom||

    Peter's last name is spelled "Thiel" not "Theil" as above.

  • Brandybuck||

    FEE recently gave Thiel the Adam Smith Award, and you can find his acceptance speech online at Very interesting listen.

  • Taktix®||

    I always feel like I am in a canoe and I can hear the waterfall "somewhere" in front of me but can't see where it is, nor can I row away from it.


  • ||

    Man, I really hate guys like this... Rich, brilliant, head in the game... I coulda' been like that, but I discovered Motley Crue...

  • ||

    I really do love the dismissal "not even wrong". I predict you will be see the phrase a lot more over the next decade.

  • ||

    I realy enjoyed this article on financial bubbles, globalization, and apocalypse, written by Thiel that marginal revolution linked to a few days ago. As a warning, however, many of the m-r commenters did not care for it.

  • ||

    Is it just me or does anyone else find the concept of "singularity" on par with the resurrection of jesus christ? both are esoteric and give dreamers hope.

  • Paul||

    Is it just me or does anyone else find the concept of "singularity" on par with the resurrection of jesus christ?


  • ||

    A point in the future at which artificial intelligence will outpace human intelligence? What's "esoteric" about that?

  • ||

    Now that GlaxoSmithKline has bought Sirtris, the Government will be inevitably sucked into acknowledging life extension an a legitimate field of research, and the fall-out of the steady progression in applying ever more powerful computers to like science will make radical life extension inevitable. Thank you Peter Thiel, Aubrey de Grey, and Ray Kurzweil: I enjoy hope. But it isn't just the glorious destination, it is the unfolding of the journey that will make the next several decades so wonderful. I like watching the steps being taken day after day, until after a year I find myself on an overlook with a clear view of where we have come from, the next overlook, with the view to the summit ever clearer. What a great time to be alive!

  • ||

    paypal has worked for me for 8 years now. regardless- all the things that suck about paypal are not the fault of the founders.

  • ||

    "I think the purpose of life is life."

    Ah, such clarity.

    I really appreciate his model for philanthropy, as well. I like this guy.

  • ||

    What, no joe vs. Bailey bitchfest?

  • ||

    Not to be too nit picky, because I really liked the article and he seems like a super-bright and articulate guy, but I really dislike when people who've made no effort to understand religion claim that "eastern mysticism says that the purpose of life is death."

    Actually in many religions, the idea of death is the reality of creative destruction. Death is necessary to evolve and move forward. (not unlike the business idea that certain industries and ideas die in order to move forward)

    What is also interesting is how much the idea of the "singularity" is expressed in so many different religions. I know many libs completely dismiss religion, but it ain't all magic and hocus pocus, some of it is very interesting and provacative.

  • ||

    I'm glad to see this here. It did seem too heavy in the buildup of a superhero and too easy on the questioning, but these ideas (life extension, singularity, less economic interference from government) are worth getting out there in the Great Conversation.

  • Ted Stalets||

    Peter Theil - I would love to send you an advance copy of our new book coming out in September of this year (in 4 months), published by The Key Publish in Toronto, Canada. It is entitled Rescue Plan for Planet Earth - Democratic World Government through a Global Referendum. Many of the World Federalists are starting to see the Rescue Plan outlined in this "world's most necessary book" as a pragmatic, workable plan for political evolution as we move from the nation state to world governance.

    For others who are interested, we have 3 free chapters from the book available at the book's website - Rescue Plan for Planet Earth dot com.

    Please note - this is a bottom-up democratic world government - the opposite of a top-down world government which is envisioned by the world's money elite.

    All the best!
    Ted Stalets
    VP -
    Owner -

  • ||

    The definition of Singularity here appears to need some suspension of the laws of physics or economic behavior. A simpler explanation is that it will reach a critical mass where the cumulative efficiencies build on each other.

  • ||

    The whole point about the singularity, is thinking cleverly and creatively about the future. Those who wish to control humanity would like anybody to think too much about the future, and much less about a different future. Technology will help us to transform culture, and eventually evolve into a more mature intelligent specie. Peter Thiel is first and foremost an active optimist we need many like him.

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    And some people enjoy PCP a great deal. Ketamine is a whole different class of drug. She may well have enjoyed it much more, but I'd guess she wasn't incredibly bright considering her tree climbing demise.

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