Balaji Srinivasan: Technology Will Lead to a Borderless World

The Silicon Valley entrepreneur says cryptocurrencies, virtual reality, and mobile devices are helping individuals escape failed institutions.


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"Soon you'll be able to join a VR world, and earn virtual currency in virtual reality," says Silicon Valley entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan. "Which means that, for a good chunk of people in the world, the majority of their waking hours are going to be spent in the Matrix."

Srinivasan believes that new technologies—mobile devices, cloud computing, cryptocurrencies—are rapidly taking us into an era when geography, nationality, and other limitations on our labor and freedom fade away. He says that this evolution will empower individuals and erode the authoritarian capabilities of the state.

Srinivasan is a modern-day polymath who venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has called the person with "the highest output per minute of new ideas of anybody I've ever met in my life." A Ph.D. in electrical engineering, a co-founder of the genetic testing firm Counsyl, and a Stanford computer science lecturer, Srinivasan was also on Donald Trump's short list to head up the Food and Drug Administration.

He believes in technology's power to provide a way for individuals to migrate away from ossified institutions and destructive policies. Borrowing a framework from a 1970 political science treatise by Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, Srinivasan described his vision in a much-discussed 2013 talk titled "Sillicon Valley's Ultimate Exit."

Today, he spends most of his time running the cryptocurrency-based startup, which allows users to get paid for small tasks, like responding to emails and completing surveys. It is ultimately, he says, a tool for creating a "frictionless digital workforce." He imagines providing users with a new type of decentralized employment based purely on their skills. Participants would log on, see a feed of tasks they needed to accomplish, and then be compensated accordingly.

While teaching at Stanford a decade ago, Srinivasan and his brother Ramji founded the genetic testing firm Counsyl, which offers a single assay that tests for every major Mendelian genetic disease. The company aims to lower costs, empower parents, and improve the way genetic diseases are identified and treated.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Reason's Nick Gillespie spoke with Srinivasan about his current ventures; how the FDA and other regulatory bodies should adapt to new technologies; the controversy over genetic testing and "designer babies;" how the 1997 book The Sovereign Individual has influenced his thought; his intellectual heroes; and how he's contributing to "Silicon Valley's ultimate exit."

Interview edited by Justin Monticello. Camera by Paul Detrick and Monticello. Music by Grégoire Lourme, Silent Partner, Blue Giraffe, and Hare.

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The interview has been edited for clarity. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.

Balaji Srinivasan: One of the things I think a lot about is, if you've got an existing system, and it's ossified, there's at least two responses to it. There's more than two, but at least two. One is, you know, voice, which in its extreme is revolution. Revolution is extreme voice, where it's saying, "Oh, I'm so dissatisfied, let's take the whole thing over." And then democracy is, you know, like a much more limited version of that, but still also effective in many cases. You know, you could actually vote to go and change things. Alternatively, if you believe that it's going to be too hard to change things that way, but you're also cognizant of the fact that certain people like it that way, there's an alternative you can pursue, which is exit. You say, "Okay, I'm not going to be able to change the system, I recognize why you guys have it the way it is, but it doesn't suit my preferences, so I'm going to leave and start something new."

All progress is really the process of: You exit, you build something up, and then it gets ossified, and the next generation exits again. For example, a startup starts, and what happens is the libertarian founder ends up rebuilding the state. That's to say, you start it like an individual, and often people do that because they want to have total autonomy and control, and then what they find is as they get to a certain scale, well, they sort of need to have some policies. They need to have something in place so that you don't have like 500 autonomous people just moving in their own direction, but you have 500 people working as a team.

Nick Gillespie: A startup gets big enough, and then you've got to bring in an HR person.

Srinivasan: Exactly.

Gillespie: And then you've got to start saying, "Oh, no, you got to wear shoes in the office, you got to do this, you got to do that."

Srinivasan: All that type of stuff, exactly. And so, as you transition from like burn rate to bus number, bus number is how many people could get hit by a bus for this thing to continue enduring….Once your bus number has to be bigger than one for every position, you start to actually have to view people as replaceable, because if they're not replaceable, you haven't done your job right as, you know, the founder. And that's a critical transition that happens in companies, where they transition from a collection of individuals to a multicellular organism.

Now, what happens is, if that goes too far, you get initiative being kind of constrained, you get bureaucracy, you get all these kinds of things that potentially in the long term are to the detriment of that multicellular organism, and they cause people to leave, and that's exit, and then you start a new thing.

Srinivasan sees his current venture,, as a tool that ultimately could provide workers exit. The company allows individuals to get paid for accomplishing small tasks, like completing surveys and answering emails.

Srinivasan: What if we could kind of exit the current system of how folks try to employ others, and get jobs, and so on, and actually have like a completely frictionless digital workforce, where you could hire anyone, from anywhere, and if they had the merit, they could do the job?

Now, there's all kinds of national boundary issues, compliance issues, regulatory issues, etc, but as an ideal, what if you start with something which pays you to reply to emails, but then in five or 10 years, you open up anywhere, and you've just got a feed of tasks, and that's your job. You know, sort of actually like Marx talked about even, you know, in the manifesto. In The Communist Manifesto, he talked about, "Hey, wouldn't it be awesome if you could be a hunter in the morning, and a tailor at night, and switch through all these different professions?" You know, what if you could actually do that in such a way that didn't involve killing millions of people, like communism did?

Gillespie: Right.

Srinivasan: What if you could just actually, you know, flip through these tasks, look at all the ones you're qualified for, do this, this, and this, guess what, you've made $100 for that day?

Gillespie: And it's an interesting twist on exit, because you know, the pilgrims left, or the Puritans left England, moved to America to try something.

Srinivasan: Right.

Gillespie: Here, you can stay in Nigeria, and you can do it.

Srinivasan: You can exit in place.

Gillespie: I mean, we're living in multiple communities and multiple orders at any given point in time.

Srinivasan: That's exactly right, and I think that's… What technology is doing is it's reducing the barrier to exit, and there's two dimensions on which that is true. The first is the dimension that you just remarked about, which let's call that the cloud dimension. Because of cloud, you can earn from anywhere, you can collaborate from anywhere, and soon you'll be able to join like a VR world, and earn virtual currency in virtual reality.

Gillespie: And finally realize that you hate your coworkers in the cloud just as much as you do in the office.

Srinivasan: Maybe. Yeah, exactly.

Gillespie: With more freedom. It's utopia.

Srinivasan: Right, so you can hit the back button, and just warp into another virtual reality. So, I think that particular combination by the way, VR with virtual currency, is going to be a huge, huge thing. We haven't yet hit, you know, the next dog leg up in VR. There's something missing. There's probably gonna be an iPhone-of-VR kind of moment. Something is not yet being, you know, out there in the market. But, when that thing actually hits, you're going to see something very interesting, which is, if you take the number of hours you spent looking at a screen, for many people, many of the folks who are information workers, that's the majority of waking hours of your day, especially if you add up the, you know, I'm out looking at your phone, and your tablet and what have you.

So a good chunk of that, maybe all of that, gets replaced with a VR helmet, which means that for a good chunk of people in the world, majority of their waking hours are going to be spent in the Matrix. You're going to be earning in the Matrix, and you're going to be earning with coworkers who are from Brazil and Japan, and all this other stuff. And so machine translation becomes extremely important, realtime machine translation. Digital currency becomes extremely important, because you need to be able to transact across borders. And where people are being organized is by their interest, not necessarily by their geography.

So, let's call that the cloud axis, where you can kind of just put on your VR headset, jack in, and you know, you'll be part of whatever kind of group around the world you want. The two senses that are missing are taste and smell, but you'll be able to get sight and sound, and then we'd have to make some kind of omnidirectional treadmill, so you can get touch. So, haptics, people probably know about, you know, your hands will vibrate and so on. Omnidirectional treadmills are kind of what they sound like, where you don't just walk in one direction, but you can walk in 360 degrees. Being developed for games now, they give a much more immersive experience. And so, combination of those three, you can do most things, other than taste and smell.

The second major axis is mobile. And what I think about a lot with this is mobile is making us more mobile.

Srinivasan: Your geography becomes less important. And by that, what I mean is, you know, there's a logic that is held, really since the treaty Treaty of Westphalia, which is that, implicitly, your neighbors share your values, and your physical neighbors and you roughly agree on what the law is for that jurisdiction.

Increasingly, what's happening is, you know, you live in an apartment complex, and you won't even recognize your neighbors, but you have long conversations with somebody 1,000 miles away. You know, there's a one-liner which says, "Snapchat is on a straight line with the dissolution of the nation-state," because you're spending intimate moments with people who are hundreds or thousands of miles away and you don't know your next-door neighbor.

Srinivasan says Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are another key technology in creating a borderless world because they make it possible to transfer value anywhere in the world without relying on a trusted intermediary.

Srinivasan: With, if you're sending a message to 1,000 people in 100 different countries, and you want to pay them about $10 to reply to an email, or fill out a survey, that would be the kind of thing where wire transfer fees would kill you if you're using Swift to do that, and it would just be a huge hassle to try to automate all those wires. Plus, it would be hard to get people on the other side to set up bank account integration for just relatively small amounts of payment.

So, for all of those reasons together, it becomes something, we're paying people small amounts of money across borders quickly, and settling it is the kind of thing that cryptocurrency is very good for, and the blockchain is very good for, that was not possible in the previous world.

Gillespie: In that 2013 talk, you discussed how Silicon Valley is a physical place but it's separating from other great cities. Boston as like the ultimate education city, New York as the ultimate commercial, D.C. as the ultimate legal, or giver of laws, L.A. and entertainment. Silicon Valley was separating from that in various ways.

But, is there something about space… Silicon Valley in many ways is the outgrowth of Stanford and Berkeley, and a couple of other universities, plus one or two companies going back to the '50s, whether it's Fairchild Semiconductor,or whatever, you know, where you can kind of create a family tree. With that kind of stuff happen if these people were not meeting in close proximity, and can you replace that in virtual space?

Srinivasan: Yeah, so that's a very important question. I think though that there's a bunch of factors that are going to lead to decentralization of technology out of Silicon Valley. There's the cost of real estate here. There is, you know, just the fact that immigration to the U.S. is becoming more challenging in many different ways—

The home countries are getting better now. Like, you know, India's really not that bad to live anymore. And every year, remote work technology becomes better and better. You get Slack, you get, you know, like, better mobile hangouts in video, and all those things kind of keep improving. Companies that are just starting out, they have something very interesting, which is they have the ability to go and negotiate with cities and negotiate with countries.

So for example, let's say you're a country that's got a sovereign fund, you want to attract technology to your locale. You say, "Guess what, we're not going to regulate cryptocurrency for the next 10 years—blockchain regulation moratorium. Come on in, the water's warm. And, we'll also take a 5% stake in your company through our sovereign fund." So, I think you're going to see a lot more stuff like that.

Gillespie: Does that bother you as a form of crony capitalism that might really screw up markets?

Srinivasan: So, no, it doesn't. And the reason is because, first, disclosure. Like, it's something where it's going to be done in a very aboveboard way. These are reputable sovereign funds and whatnot. Second, there's competition, because you know, if Dubai wants to get in the bidding, if Israel wants to get in the bidding, if Estonia does, I'm sure that company would be interested in the thing. Third is, there should, if everything goes well, be a significant benefit to the locale. You know, because guess what, they've got the next Detroit, or the next Wall Street, or whatever they are, because they adopted self-driving cars, or they adopted cryptocurrency and blockchain earlier. So you know, whereas crony capitalism is usually more like a bribe or a payoff that's done non-transparently, that's done without a competitive process, and that doesn't actually benefit the population.

Gillespie: So, do you think of the locale, and I guess part of it depends on the final price tag, but we have seen just a grotesque outpouring of graft. Of honest graft, public graft from cities saying, "You know, Amazon, put your headquarters here, and we'll give you $5 billion. We won't charge you any taxes. We'll build the infrastructure. We'll do this." Dallas says they're going to build a high-speed rail stop, you know, at the Amazon HQ if it comes to Dallas. Where the train would go from there, who knows?

Srinivasan: Right.

Gillespie: I mean, is there any way that that's actually good for capitalism, or good for markets?

Srinivasan: Well, so first is, it's a refreshing change from the opposite, which is, if you have a jurisdiction that takes a large entity like Amazon for granted, they can just pile on the taxes, pile on the regulations, and eventually they, you know, whether they kill the golden goose or they just stop it from building in that region is one thing. So, this is a refreshing change in the other direction, frankly.

With that said, there's principal agent issues, where, for example, that agent's high-speed rail thing, or what have you, or maybe it's something where the mayor or the governor is effectively spending money out of their own, not out of their own pocket, but out of their constituents' pockets for something that's not actually that beneficial. I think what happens is, over time, you get a market process that lands you somewhere in the middle, and you get something where your local mayor or governor is, you know, if they don't act in your interest, well, you also have the ability to move because taxes got too high in your region.

Gillespie: You used to, particularly on your Twitter account, which is kind of gone missing lately, or silent, but you used to cite the 1997 book The Sovereign Individual a lot.

Srinivasan: Sure.

Gillespie: What is that book, and how does that inform your worldview?

Srinivasan: Awesome book—probably, you know, one of my top five or what have you. And it's also Peter Thiel's, one of his favorites. He's talked about that. Other folks like it a lot in Silicon Valley. The thing about that book is it's kind of like the book of prophecies. And what I mean by that is it was written in 1999, and you open it and you read through it, and many of the sentences seem like they were ripped from last week's headlines.

Gillespie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Srinivasan: And some of them have yet to happen. And so, what's remarkable about this is that typically when you take a nonfiction book, like say, you know, like a Malcolm Gladwell book, or something like that, you can often summarize 400 pages in a sentence. Whereas, The Sovereign Individual is the opposite, where I could take a sentence in it, I could expand that into its own book.

So in a nutshell, the thesis is that there's different ages of history, and you know, during these different ages, the relationship between property and violence has changed.

And now we're transitioning from that into a new era, where the network, and the nature of property, with respect to digital currency, and other kinds of things you relate to the blockchain, is something where no amount of violence can solve a math problem.

Gillespie: I wish you had told that to my nun math teachers.

Srinivasan: Ah, sure. Yes. Well, they could apply it to you, might not make it—

Gillespie: It did not solve many problems.

Srinivasan: Right. But, the thing about that is, you might see $100 million in the Bitcoin blockchain, but first you need to identify that person who has that, which is nontrivial on its own right. And then second, you have to figure out how to get that private key from that person, which again is not that easy to do. It's not like, you know, the wire transfer system, where you can just hit a button and just garnish the wages, or debit the account.

So that's a very new thing, which is, it's kind of like carrying around a bar of gold, except it's carrying around an arbitrary amount of money on a piece of paper, or even in your head, and that's just a very new thing. And so because of that, what that does is it shifts the logic of violence. Where it used to be that if you had, you know, the biggest military, you could always take the most money, but that's not going to necessarily be the case as things move forward.

What The Sovereign Individual is about is tracing that thesis through, and much more detail than we're currently talking about, and saying, "OK, what happens when you can't just see somebody's money?" Now, [there's a good thing when that happens], which is that, well, everything becomes voluntary, and you know, if you're a wealth creator, you can keep the wealth that you create. There's bad things that happen, which is that if robberies happen, if criminals happen, it's harder to follow the money, cut off their flow of funds.

And so, one of the things that, you know, the guy predicts is, you're both going to have more upside and more downside. You're going to have these incredible cities and organizations that push the frontiers, and you're going to have lots more petty crime. But one thing you're probably also going to have a lot less of our massive wars. There might be like one big transitional war as you kind of go into the new era, but after that point, because you can't just see his funds, it becomes harder for governments to just seize funds for their military to start wars. So, on net, I think it's actually a very positive thesis for kind of humanity, but there's going to be some rocky transitional moments between now and then.

Srinivasan actually began his career as an entrepreneur with a health care startup. While he was teaching at Stanford a decade ago, he and his brother Ramji founded the genetic testing firm Counsyl, which aims to improve the way genetic diseases are identified and treated.

Gillespie: What are the most popular services that Counsyl offers to people?

Srinivasan: It's got several different genetic testing services, but the first, and the kind of the flagship product, is a test for every major mendelian genetic disease. One way of thinking about this is, prior to Counsyl, it was common for doctors to go and sort of imprecisely bucket people by ethnicity. So, this couple is African American, this couple is Jewish American, this couple is Southeast Asian, and so on, and then they would say, "OK, this group is at risk for sickle cell anemia, and this group is at risk for Tay-Sachs, and this group for beta thalassemia, and whatnot."

But, for many different reasons, first is that ethnic bucketing is imprecise. For example, Obama is at risk for both sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis, because he's in at least two ethnic groups. And second, it's actually, it's not just imprecise, it will mean that you don't catch every risk allele. You know, there's African Americans who have cystic fibrosis genes. And third, is it's also something which is error-prone, because you sometimes don't test somebody for something that they should of been tested for.

So instead, what we were able to do is take all of these mendelian genetic diseases, and test for them in one assay, which is actually cheaper than the blood-based assays that used to happen, with this new kind of genomic testing. And before, you'd have to basically do these individual tests for each one, and now you can do just one unified test.

Gillespie: And then, what do people do with that information? I mean, is it that they, you know, if they both realized they're, you know, the husband and wife or whatever our Tay-Sachs carriers, then they choose not to have kids, or do they do IVF, and stew selective embryos, and things like that?

Srinivasan: The earlier you know, the more options you have. So you know, Dor Yeshorim, for example, actually does this kind of testing even before marriage, so that a couple can choose whether to get married or not. That's an organization that does Jewish genetic testing and matchmaking together. If you know, after marriage, but before conception, then yes, you can do in vitro fertilization, plus a procedure called preimplantation genetic diagnosis, where you take a plate of embryos that have been fertilized, you diagnose them prior to implanting into the mother's womb, and you find the one that does not have the genetic disease.

Gillespie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Srinivasan: It's also possible to do other kinds of things, but that's the most common procedure.

Gillespie: So, this is a real radical empowerment of individuals.

Srinivasan: Yes.

As gene editing technologies advance and costs plummet, some bioethicists have expressed concern that in the future parents will abort children with genetic diseases or create so-called "designer babies" whose genes are altered to improve their intelligence or physical appearance.

Gillespie: The state of Ohio at the end of 2017, banned—and I don't how they're going to enforce this—but they banned abortion based on amniocentesis, or a sonogram that showed that a fetus has down syndrome. How do you feel about that kind of intervention?

Srinivasan: Well, so first, the IVF PGD thing that I talked about is not abortion.

Gillespie: Right.

Srinivasan: And so, the advantage of that is it's something that, you know, both increases reproductive choice, so it's something that the left can get behind, and it reduces the number of terminations, because you know prior to, you know, when the child is [conceived], so that's something that the right can get behind. So in general, we try to look for those kind of win-win ones.

Gillespie: Right.

Srinivasan: With something like the Ohio matter, I think it's very hard to get inside a woman's head and try to restrict her autonomy on something like that. Certainly, I'm not in favor of a law like that. But you know, I think that it's also something that's very difficult to enforce, because you can probably just drive across the border.

Gillespie: So again, to bring it back to exit, you know, this is the type of thing where the law, a state, you know, big or small, tries to maintain a certain code, you know, a law, and people can exit that system relatively easily.

Srinivasan: Right. Yeah, that's right, and I think—

Gillespie: And I guess what your technology would do at Counsyl is that it allows, it helps, you know, not always and not perfectly, but it helps you really minimize the chances you're going to be in a situation where something like that would be a—

Srinivasan: That's right. Because basically, by knowing prior to the pregnancy, that's when you have both more reproductive choice, and you have fewer terminations, so you don't actually have to have that trade-off. You know, if you know prior to it. And that's generally the Silicon Valley thing, is the more information you can get earlier, the more educated and informed decision you can make.

Gillespie: You talked with President Trump about being the head of the FDA, based on your experience with Counsyl. What was that like, what was he like, and what would you have done if you had actually become the head of the FDA?

Srinivasan: Well, I think that the current head of the FDA is actually doing some good things. Like I like what Scott [Gottlieb] has been doing on the legalization of DTC genomics, and he has reduced barriers to entry for medical apps, and stuff like that. I think that there are areas, like CRISPR for example, where the United States is potentially in danger of falling behind.

Gillespie: And CRISPR is relatively easy gene editing.

Srinivasan: Yeah, that's right. Yeah, so very fundamental technology, which is just being pursued aggressively, for example, in China. There is a Wall Street Journal article on this the other day, but it's common knowledge to the people who are in the field. So, there's areas where, you know, it just may be something where, you know, computer innovation happened in the United States, but many kinds of biotech innovation may just have to be done outside the United States.

Gillespie: And is that because, I will try to say it as politely as possible, and I am not sure that it will be, but it's just that in certain countries, either the government is in charge, and they can kind of force a level of experimentation we're uncomfortable with, or they don't have the same kind of moral hangups, you know, that we might have in the United States?

Srinivasan: I think it's a little different than that. This is not 1970s China, where it's like, you know, forced abortions and so on.

Gillespie: Right.

Srinivasan: This is much more of a free market. You know, I'm not saying—

Gillespie: I'm thinking also even South Korea has clearly been doing a lot of stuff that would not even be tried in the United States.

Srinivasan: Right, right, right. So, I think a different way of thinking about it is that these are still, you know, civilizations, countries that feel like they're on the rise. And you know, when America was kind of confident like that, there were plenty of folks who were volunteer test pilots. You know, planes didn't just start to fly themselves, there were guys who took very substantial risks as being the first people to pilot an experimental aircraft, and a bunch of people died.

If you go to the history of automobiles, or aviation, or railroads, a lot of people died. If you look at the history of chemistry, there was, you know, the CRC handbook of chemistry and physics, prior to kind of the modern era, has lots of tastes and smells for compounds, because people used to just taste and smell new compounds.

Gillespie: Right.

Srinivasan: And I'm sure there was some guy who, you know, sniffed some cyanide, and the last thing he wrote down was almonds, and he collapsed, and he took one for the team, basically, and kind of advanced science. And so, you know, the way I sort of think about it is, if euthanasia is legal, if you can choose to end one's own life, if it's legal to go and bungee jump and skydive, if it's legal to go and fight in a war and potentially die for a futile reason—well, then it should be legal to take an informed risk for a treatment that can help you. I mean, essentially: your body, your choice.

I would try to have the United States be competitive for the rest of the world. And one way that you could do that is actually tried to keep most, or really all, of the existing FDA intact, but look to what the FAA, and you know, some other regulatory agencies are doing. So for example, the FAA has these drone zones that have been opened in various areas, which are meant to, in lightly populated areas, allow the flying of drones with less regulation. There's also these so-called fintech regulatory sandboxes, where you could have startup companies with less regulatory overhead than they would have, you know, if they had to comply with the full panoply of laws.

Gillespie: So it's almost like charter schools, where you give a space for innovation and experimentation.

Srinivasan: [That's a] loaded term, but I call it a special innovation zone, by analogy to a special economic zone. Relatively few people know how big a deal special economic zones are, but outside the United States, they were like the primary engine of growth for China and for other countries. And if we did something like that here, where we already got a precedent for it, with the drone zones and the self-driving car zones and so on, we might be able to have a zone, let's say, you know, the Mayo Clinic was overseeing it, where it was willing doctor, willing patient.

Gillespie: Who are your intellectual and business heroes, and how do you identify yourself kind of ideologically? What do you call yourself?

Srinivasan: So, what do I call myself? So, I'd say pragmatist, technologist, and I for the most part try to decline any kind of political or ideological label outside of those. For many reasons. One is that, you know, like I do believe in the ability of technology to improve the world, and I would like to have the largest possible coalition behind something like that. And I think that ideological and political labels tend to repel more than they tend to attract. You know, whereas a new technology, you don't need to be a Republican or Democrat to buy cryptocurrency or use ridesharing or stay in an Airbnb. And in fact, many of the earliest adopters are Democrats actually, even if it's like arguably anti-regulation.

Gillespie: There were various moments in the 2016 campaign where Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton both talked down the sharing economy, or the gig economy, but they almost exclusively took Uber or ridesharing companies to campaign events.

Srinivasan: Yeah. So I mean, it's one of those things where I think the ideal is to get something which is so useful as a technology that even people who might disagree with certain aspects of it ideologically, nevertheless, it improves their lives. So, at least the way I try to identify is, I'm a technologist who wants to build things that improve people's lives. I think I was able to do that with my first company, hopefully we can do that with, you know, this and other ventures.

Gillespie: Well who… Yeah, I mean you have the PhD, in electrical engineering?

Srinivasan: Electrical engineering, yes.

Gillespie: So I mean, who are the egghead heroes of your life? Who are the technologists that you look up to?

Srinivasan: I'd say Srinivasa Ramanujan, you know, India's greatest mathematician. He's got a kind of a romantic story in India, because he sort of the combination of the Einstein there, like you know, the smart guy, but also a rags to, quote, riches story. Even though he didn't get rich, he was truly destitute in India, and was able, through pure genius, to actually become a mathematician at Cambridge,and publish a number of papers. And he died in a young way, very romantically. There's a movie on him last year, The Man Who Knew Infinity, based on the book by Robert Kanigel.

So he is definitely a hero, and he is somebody who motivates me, because one of the things I'd like to do at some point in the future is have like a worldwide talent search for all these kids around the world, and South America, and Nigeria, in the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, and India, and China, who for whatever reason, you know, the 20th century like missed out on them, or missed out on their parents. And so now they could actually, with the Internet, have that opportunity to rise. So that's one person who I think about a lot.

Second person, Lee Kuan Yew. So, not necessarily a scientist per se, but definitely—

Gillespie: This is the father of Singapore.

Srinivasan: Father of Singapore, that's right. A pragmatist, who if you read his… You know, he's written a lot. He gave a bunch of interviews. He had a great book, From Third World to First, and that's literally what he did. He took a country that really had no natural resources or any advantages, it was a swampy kind of land, it was a postcolonial society, it was riven by language, it had all these different ethnic groups there that weren't necessarily all that friendly, and he turned it into one of the wealthiest countries in the world. And the choices he made there, I think, are really interesting to look at, because Lee Kuan Yew, you would not describe as easily pigeonholed, as libertarian, or conservative, or socialist, or nationalist—

Gillespie: I mean, he actually mixes from a lot, because of he was definitely for economic freedom, also kind of authoritarian, but also kind of socialistic in the level of government services that are provided by Singapore.

Srinivasan: That's right. Like, Singapore's HSA is simultaneously both to the right and to the left of the United States. So you know, the HSA there, the way it works is you are forced to save in a separate savings account, which is to the left of the US, because it's not just a tax, it's like a forced savings account. But then you can spend, and a completely free-market way, from that forced savings account, so that's like to the right of the American system, because it's no insurance, or doesn't work in the same way. So it's just something which is sort of outside the bounds.

And that's something I think about a lot in the context of startups for example, because startups have a combination of classically right and left aspects. They have some degree of hierarchy, they have capitalism, they have funding and runway and profit, all those kinds of metrics obviously, which are typically right-of-center metrics. But they work in large part because they're egalitarian, they're mission-driven, they have informal attire, they have a "screw the man" attitude, and the best ones actually genuinely perpetuate, or accomplish a revolution. And that's definitely not a right-of-center thing. That's not "respect the existing hierarchy," etc.

Gillespie: Do you think as, you know, effectively you're living your entire life in the 21st century, are these… I mean, we need new categories.

Srinivasan: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well basically, yeah. I'll give an example, which I think is interesting. When Google initially introduced free lunches—this is not like a long time ago, like 15 years ago—it was for many, you know, what I call right-of-center CFO-type bean counters, this was looked at as this really dumb liberal hippie things they were doing. But it actually turned out to be something that was better by both metrics, because it gave both more community feeling within the organization, everybody had something in common, they could all go to lunch, and it was in a sense a seizure from their paycheck.

Gillespie: Right.

Srinivasan: So you know, rather than giving everybody… The right-libertarian thing would be give everybody an extra thousand dollars, and their utility would be increased. That was not what actually happened.

Gillespie: So, you give them a dollar hamburger, and they love you like you are the greatest in the world.

Srinivasan: Well, I'm not saying… It might even be more expensive, right? So, not necessarily cheaper per se, but it is something where there's a solution that was not the classic, like, dollars-and-cents individual solution. That did optimize community feeling. And so I think a lot about stuff like that, where ultimately you're looking for pragmatic best outcome, and not something that just has to be right or left according to a narrow kind of category.

Gillespie: As a final question: Your father, in India, grew up in a house, or a hut, with dirt floors. You grew up in Long Island which is, you know, a mild improvement.

Srinivasan: Sure.

Gillespie: You have a one-year-old child, who now is growing up in the Bay Area, in San Francisco, very successful set of parents. What are the things that need to… You know, what kind of world do you think your son will grow up in, and what are the one or two things that will either make it much, much better than it is today already or will like plunge us backwards in time?

Srinivasan: That's a good question. I mean, I think this transitional area that we're going through now I think is going to be something where there is both nationalist and socialist responses to this kind of emerging cloud economy, that are often going to be very negative. So, one thing I think a lot about, with my son actually, is I probably want him to go Satoshi. And by that what I mean is, you know, Satoshi Nakamoto is the first pseudonymous billionaire, but he won't be the last. One of the great things about Satoshi is, you know, you couldn't discriminate against him, both positively or negatively. You know, if he's Bill Gates's son, or daughter, you wouldn't know that, but you also wouldn't know if he was from disfavored group or whatever in whatever country. He just competes completely on the basis of ideas.

I think that would be a model that I think would be really good, where you know, what I did encourage him to do is try to do something like that, where he can make his own name on his own basis. Not to say that Dad is real famous or whatever, but just that I'd want to start him at kind of that equality of opportunity level. And then he knows whatever he achieves is kind of on him. In terms of the kinds of things I would look out for, I think it's going to be pretty good, like the transitional kind of thing. I believe in the Steven Pinker thesis for the most part, that violence is decreasing. We're aware of it more, because there is the 24/7 news coverage, but it is something where, on net, it's getting better.

Gillespie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Srinivasan: And especially if the long-term consequence of cryptocurrency and the blockchain and so on is to limit the ability of states to wage wars. Maybe there's one big one coming up, that would be unfortunate. Assuming he survives through that, I think it will be pretty good.