I am just back from the Singularity Summit that took place in NY during the week-end of 3-4 Oct 2009.
I will make a separate report on the rest of the event, but i was completely blown away by the 30 min speech by Peter Thiel and following panel discussion with Venture Capitalists.
Peter Thiel is president of Clarium, a global macro hedge fund. He is also the founder and chairman of Palantir Technologies, a national security software firm, and a founding investor and board member of Facebook, which serves more than 200 million active users. He helps launch many other new technology companies as a founder and partner of the Founders Fund. Previously, he was founder and CEO of PayPal, which manages more than 175 million financial accounts.
Peter Thiel has philosophy and law degrees from Stanford University, where he occasionally teaches on globalization and sovereignty and serves on the board of overseers of the Hoover Institution. He funds research in artificial intelligence and life extension technologies.
See for his other investments on the above link to Wikipedia. It also becomes very apparent what a fine crew must have been at the basis of PayPal. Many of the ex-PayPallers have created very successful companies.
Also his philanthropic endeavors in the Singularity Institute, the Methuselah Mouse Prize foundation (Michael Rose himself was also at the conference) and Dr. de Grey’s work on extending human life span are some examples where Thiel’s long term vision is. I will come back later in this blog post on “time horizons”
But back to his 30 min speech at the Singularity Summit.
First his appearance. He made me immediately think about Steve Ballmer: his eyes are hypnotizing. His body language shows "withhold energy”. His jaws and mouth tense. Ready to explode. Clearly fit and in top shape. Laser sharp attention when somebody asks a question. Always listening and answering with respect.
And he delivered his speech without any supporting slide, and – as far as i could see – without any notes nor an autocue or something like that. Wow !
The title of his speech last Sunday was “Macroeconomics and Singularity”.
He started his speech with letting the crowd choose between a number of catastrophe scenarios: from bio-terrorism, to nuclear war, global warming, and a couple more like that.
His thesis was that the biggest disaster that could happen would be that the Singularity does not happen quickly. It was the start of a staggering discourse on why innovation – and especially disruptive innovation – is key to the continuation of our society. And in a grandiose move, he interweaved the financial crisis in to all of this.
Credit only works against a background of growth. But if claims of the future (singularity is a good example) don’t realize, that has a big impact on credit, on to be expected returns (which he claims are way too high for non-risk taking investments), and on the basis (growth) of our society at large. Society would still be “functioning” by fixes such as working till the age of 80, or earn less, or have low returns on capital, but that’s not what we understand with progress.
Investing in “tech” firms like Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, and even Google is betting that they will churn their revenues and profits in the foreseeable future. In other words, this is betting that nothing disruptive is going to happen.
A lot of this is driven by short term return horizons. We seem to fix the short term problems, but are stuck with the chronic long term problems.
Having a longer time horizon may be the biggest Chinese advantage.
Some other interesting quotes from his speech and following panel discussion:
- The short run becomes the long run
- All experts are biased in a positive direction, especially when presenting their start-up to VC’s
- The risk of the return of fascism is very underestimated (this is about the emergence of a totalitarian regime trying to control AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) in a (pre)-Singularity time-frame.
- I tend to invest in companies that will loose money for a long time, and a look for disruption
- For every dollar that the government invests in opera, art, etc i want to see a dollar go to technology
- We need to dramatically re-invest in technology education, even at primary school
- I don’t like Darwinism, i prefer guaranteed survival. I could not resist a smile as right after this panel discussion there was Dr. de Grey himself on the agenda.
And about companies to invest in:
- I am mainly looking at the team. And the potential of the people in that team to stay together for the long run, before founders start to argue and have a “farm" shoot-out”
- And whether this team is capable to attract excellence. (I personally love this one as a measure for running a successful company)
- He took his investment in Palantir Technologies as an example for this, where hiring seems to be organized around these themes. Co-incidentally, i had a meeting with Palantir the day before the Singularity Summit. I have mentioned them already several times in my blog and i would like to get them to Innotribe at Sibos 2010.
The effect of his speech was obvious. Where all other speakers at the event got max 2 rows of 4 people queuing for asking questions, there was immediately a row of 15 people of the auditorium eager to ask questions. You could feel the electricity in the air with each response from Peter Thiel.
This guy is sharp. Has vision. Has cred. Has Clout. Is a super-entertaining speaker. Has a story to tell to the financial industry. Peter Thiel would be an ideal keynote speaker for next year’s Sibos in Amsterdam 25-29 Oct 2010. It’s the first thing on my list today: go and see the organizing committee for Sibos 2010.
Of course, he would be great as well for the first event next year of our little Think Tank on Long Term Future (see previous blog posts).