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Peter Thiel Says Computers Haven’t Made Our Lives Significantly Better (technologyreview.com)
53 points by finisterre on Sept 19, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 61 comments

You know what is damn funny about this....

In 1980, Reagan got elected and cut a ton of forward-thinking basic research. I won't go through it in detail but there was a giant shift from publicly-funded big ideas to privately-funded little ideas. All the big companies also got short-term focused and outsourced their labs to startups.

Now we have this big-government-is-bad guy, who probably looks at Reagan and his gang as Saints, lamenting the lack of progress.

This is what happens when you put all your best minds into either (a) building weapons or (b) advertising/marketing or (c) the legal profession.

Let me know when he says that we need to raise his taxes to do stuff that collectively benefits society. Until then, he's just like a drunk complaining about a hangover.

Actually, there's reason to believe the shift started much earlier -- in The Organization Man, William Whyte describes how in the '50s we shifted away from fundamental research and into applied research, away from individual grants and towards group work. This focus on both consensus (which encourages incrementalism) and application is likely what reduced research timelines, and had nothing to do with Reagan.

> away from individual grants and towards group work.

I see this in the startup world in the form of a strong bias against sole-founder companies and toward large teams with huge numbers of advisors and even "party rounds" with three dozen VC firms involved. It looks like a football pileup, but hey they can't all be wrong can they?

That strikes at the heart of it, perhaps. The techniques were adopted to reduce variance, but we honestly do not know how they effect the work. Maybe we have fewer failures and fewer out-of-the-park accomplishments, but I would be surprised if that was the only effect.

Notably, I see a world where we are less and less likely to acknowledge truths that violate e.g. tribal ideology, because of in-group pressures. The diversity of opinion and viewpoint that lets you harvest good ideas is typically the same mechanism that's used to put the breaks on them. You grab 100 random Americans and you'll avoid spending millions looking for Noah's Ark in the Black Sea, but you'll also avoid spending money to combat climate change. The problem isn't how difficult the technical challenge is, but how far it is outside the universally-shared worldview.

That's an insightful way of looking at it. Reagan was likely the crest of a wave rather than the start of a new one.

> In 1980, Reagan got elected and cut a ton of forward-thinking basic research.

I don't think that's a reasonable assessment of the Reagan Administration's policies toward basic research. A more even handed assessment can be found here: http://pubs.acs.org/cen/news/8224/8224earlygov.html

Yeah, I was overstating it when you look at the top line numbers.

The real action is where and how the money was spent and I'm having trouble finding a good source that splits it out that way.

You had a number of different things going on.

1. In the 80s, Federal funding got focused on big defense and big science projects that basically didn't payoff unless you give them credit for bankrupting the USSR. The biggest miss has to be investing in solar.

2. Deregulation shook up a lot of industries and took on a life of its own. Big companies became a lot more short-term focused as competition increased. A lot of them were funding be R&D labs and that started to disappear in the 80s.

3. What we wind up with today is a couple of the crazy profitable tech companies (Google, Microsoft, Apple) have internal R&D capable of taking big steps but only Google is really looking deep into the future. The rest of corporate America has outsource R&D to startups.

4. The problem with startups and V.C.s in the context is that they are great at taking a breakthrough to market but don't have the time/money/patience for the 10-20 years of basic research.


So Mister Peter "There has been no innovation since Disco" Thiel really wants big innovation then he should support a return to the 1970s -- you know, top tax rates of 70%, heavy regulation, and big companies/government looking out for the long term.

Personally, I'm glad to be in 2010s but I do have a little bit of concern about how we are heating up the planet.

Reagan did slash fusion funding in 1986. This included cancelling a $372 million reactor the day they finished building it.


Of course the Clinton administration cancelled the Integral Fast Reactor when it was a year or two away from finishing up a development project of thirty years, so there are complaints on both sides.

d) manipulating financial markets.

Reagan (really more Phil Graham) killed a lot of the depression era regulation that made financial markets safe and boring. But the talent drain into Finance didn't really pickup until much later.

Certainly a giant waste of smarts today.

You know what's really funny? When someone gets on the Internet and makes a big claim without providing any source evidence. Maybe you're telling the truth, maybe you're simply offering an opinion. The rest of us have no idea. The country was in a deep recession so it is possible there were cuts.

Just think about how much money was saved by ending the Cold War. That was actually driven by government spending. It was also driven by technology (and spending on technology).

1. Big Build up in defense spending 2. Very High Interest Rates (Volcker in 80-81). 3. Collapse in Oil Prices

Yes, ending the cold war was great. I even give Reagan some credit for it by pushing them over the edge. Seems like we could have gotten the same outcome at a 1/10 the cost.

To say that Reagan "ended" the Cold War is a charitable interpretation, to say the least.

#1 The dynamics of the cold war ended because of spending on technology--not because "technology spending" was cut.

#2 The cold war ended under reagan as a point of history.

Not sure how much is left to quarrel about?

I really respect Mr. Thiel for what he has done in the past, but I increasingly find that people who publish a new book (like Mr. Thiel) come up with categorical, often outrageous, statements just to drum up the support for the book.

And here we are talking about it, so mission accomplished, I guess.

> For example, you probably could not restart nuclear power in the U.S. without the role of government. But because our government does not believe in complex coordination and planning, it will not restart the nuclear industry. It’s quite possible it will just not get restarted.

Funny that you can call yourself an emphatic capitalist and advocate for central planning.

Capitalism is not synonymous with competition, in fact Thiel has made a point of expressing his monopolistic philosophy [0].

0 - http://online.wsj.com/articles/peter-thiel-competition-is-fo...

I do not agree with his opinions on the matter.

His great example of a monopoly is Google, however Google doesn't have the kind of monopoly that other companies have. It's easy for people to switch search engines and if Google lets people down, it leaves room for competition, therefore they have to continually innovate, otherwise a competitor can pop up that will do to them what they did to AltaVista or Yahoo. It's easy to switch emails, especially webmail, therefore they had to produce the best webmail experience on the market and had to keep adding value add-ons. It's easy to switch phones and it's easy for phone makers to pull the rug under Google's feet, therefore they had to produce a reasonable alternative to iOS to ensure their survival.

I don't really know what he refers to when he says "perfect competition", but I wouldn't describe air-lines as being in a perfect competitions. The planes I fly on are refurbished planes built 20 years ago, with no room for my feet, extremely shitty service, the airport experience is extremely shitty and to top it off the tickets are still way too expensive if you don't buy with months in advance. That's not competition, that's an oligopoly.

Google hasn't showed monopolistic behavior until they started to deeply integrate their products with each other, creating their lock-in effect. And I remember other companies that did so, most notably Microsoft and it wasn't good for anybody, not even Microsoft.

Central planning is the antithesis of capitalism, nothing to do with competition.

I think you are confusing capitalism with free and competitive markets. Capitalists probably prefer central planning and regulation as long as it benefits them.

And Thiel makes it abundantly clear that competition is not the end goal as most markets are not static.

So essentially Thiel isn't advocating "pure" capitalism, because using any methodology as a catch-all is bad practice.

I tend to agree. Cellular wireless is really the only fundamental advance in that time. The rest is engineering and refinement, and new applications for existing things. Which is important too, of course.

I would posit that part of the problem is the overall decline in our belief in institutions (covered elsewhere). You need big institutions to organize people to do big things, and when trust in them erodes, our ability to coordinate to do big things is reduced.

Portable civilian satellite location services would be another.

Consumer-feasible portable LCD displays might be another.

I'm actually curious, why LCD displays? Was it thought to be incredibly difficult to achieve before?

Yeah and human beings have stalled evolving ever since we started looking like a human. I mean, we look the same as thousands of years ago, right? What have we done? At this point we should all have evolved so much that our brain should be the size of a basketball and should be able to communicate via telepathy. What have we done? We've all failed.

I've thought about this on and off, and one day I arrived at this: The only technological progress that truly matters to me are medical ones. If people could live and not get sick, and not die until they're 90, then I would be fine living with 1970's era tech, or whatever year's era tech. Then all we'd need would be to have less violent, more egalitarian societies, à la Scandinavia. Flying cars, faster+cheaper computers, better internet be dammned. (or they could go on being improved, but I wouldn't care if not)

P.S. I never get the flying car thing, since we have helicopters.

I agree entirely, medical progress is really the only thing that really interests me, aside maybe material science and engineering breakthroughs (e.g wastewater treatment, etc).

I never got the flying car thing because we can have flying cars. The technology is there, the barriers are more.. social or political, if that makes sense. I sure as hell don't want people flying anywhere near my house in a 2 ton vehicle 20+ feet above the ground at even residential speeds. A nice yard, some trees and maybe a fence keep a runway car out of my living room, not so with a flying one.

Peter Thiel is a businessman, not a historian of technology.

I think the realization of what global connectivity can produce is still in its infancy.

IoT is huge. We are on the verge of controlling our entire homes with the wallet-sized computers in our pockets. I say on the verge because it hasn't reached mass adoption levels.

Information/knowledge/education sharing is growing by leaps and bounds. When the education bubble completely bursts, and you don't know have be rich, know someone, or have a 4.0 to get a high-quality education, that will be considered a huge development in hindsight. (EDIT: I realize this is also currently going on but for the next decade or two the ivory towers still have the influence.)

People are quick to dismiss technological advances once they get used to them. It's easy to say, 'we haven't cured X terrible disease' and 'humans aren't living past 100, we're underachieving.'

What if we are just in a consolidation of technology phase? It would make sense that after so many breakthroughs until the 70's you need some time to consolidate that technology and knowledge before moving forward.

I think that's it. There haven't been that many fundamental breakthroughs in science in the last few decades.

Another recent thread on this same topic: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8337460

Have to say I can't agree with him more on this specific point. Other than IT and a few other things, technology has stalled since 1970.

Every counterexample I've heard is actually an application of IT to enhance some other thing (e.g. self-driving cars). The car itself hasn't changed in any fundamental way since 1950 (unless it's electric).

> The car itself hasn't changed in any fundamental way since 1950

The form factor of cars haven't changed much since 1950. Everything else has. Seatbelts. Airbags. Hybrids. Automatic transmissions allow more people to drive, and are now faster/better than manual. We moved from carburetors to fuel injection to direct injection, dramatically increasing the ability to control combustion in each cylinder. We went from massive V8 and V12 engines (the entire 1950s Cadillac line produced about 300 horsepower from a 6 liter V8 -- a modern import sedan can produce almost the same on a 2 liter V4 e.g., the Hyundai 2.0 liter engine). Superchargers allowed greater performance, turbochargers unlocked greater efficiency. Radial tires were barely a thing in 1950, and advancements in tires have made cars dramatically safer. Catalytic converters and electronic emission controls returned LA's atmosphere to health. Etc.

If there was any doubt, check out this chart: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_otfwl2zc6Qc/TIp8lXB5h2I/AAAAAAAAOW...

Highway fatalities per mile traveled are about 80% lower than in 1950. The vast majority of that gain is from technology -- drivers sure haven't gotten any better over that period.

That's improvement, yes, but it's incremental. I'm talking about the internal combustion engine -- the core design.

This reminds me a lot of the micro/macro-evolution debate in biology. There are people who think macroevolution is just a lot of microevolution, and there are people who think macroevolution is sometimes something completely different -- that discontinuous leaps occur. I am of the latter camp there too. The Cambrian explosion was a sudden non-linear leap to give one example.

Going from horse to car is not the same as going from Model T to Honda Civic.

It's not incremental, you just don't understand the depth of the difference. You're effectively saying there is no difference between a telegraph and the internet. They both send data over an electrical wire, so it must be 'incremental progress'. If that's your definition of incremental, then you will probably never see something that you consider innovative in your lifetime.

Windows 3.1 to Windows 8 is incremental. This, however, was not:


It's hard to pin down, but I'd define a fundamental advance as one that either (a) multiplies the number of addressable problems, or (b) constitutes a sudden and sizable nonlinear jump in capability over a very short period of time.

It does often result from the combination of existing things, but it's always a discontinuity. A fundamental innovation is when 1 + 1 + 1 = 1000, not 3. It's a big monumental win that unlocks whole sections of the "technology tree" that were not reachable at all before.

An example of (a) would be the final integration of all the components necessary for a CPU onto a single die. An example of (b) would be what the development of the alternating current transformer did for energy transmission over long distances.

The most dramatic examples are both. Examples of these would be the first radio transmission or the first rotary electrical generator. These were utterly unprecedented innovations that changed human life radically. They weren't linear at all.

You're right. I haven't seen many of these in my lifetime. I can think of some low-magnitude borderline cases but nothing Earth-shattering that has touched me directly. But if I'd lived from, say, 1900 to 1970, I'd have seen many in rapid succession.

You seem to be arguing that such things do not exist-- that the fitness-weighted combinatorial state space for technology is completely smooth and incrementally traversable. I think you should study a bit of combinatorics as it applies to areas like evolutionary information theory. Discontinuities in slope, fitness valleys between significantly different local maxima, and isolated peaks unreachable by incremental hill-climbing are common features of real-world fitness landscapes.

> Windows 3.1 to Windows 8 is incremental.

Arguably Windows 3.1 to anything in the DOS-based line ending with Windows Me is incremental, and Windows NT 3.1 to anything ending in the line of which Windows 8.1 is the most recent (until Windows 9 is released) iteration is incremental, but the shift from the DOS-based line to the NT based line when XP extended the NT line into the consumer space was not incremental.

The thing is the internal combustion engine didn't come from nowhere to be slapped onto the front of a car. It was an incremental progression from steam engines to diesel machinery. Eventually it become incrementally small and reliable enough to be added to a carriage instead of a horse. A carriage that already had doors, windows, wheels, axles, etc. The leap is not as big as you seem to imagine it is.

So we will probably have self driving cars which incrementally change our transportation system until it's completely unrecognizable but no step will be particularly large.

Going from horse to car is not the same as going from Model T to Honda Civic but they are both dramatic technological improvements.

How about the heavy advancement of car safety, the improved capacity for producing materials that cars use, cars being faster, and cars being cheaper? With most technologies and processes, first you create something and then you improve it and optimize it, each further improvement of the same size has a higher marginal cost. Cars have come a very long way, you wouldn't expect a car to change more in one decade than it did in the previous decade. If you are looking for a really revolutionary fundamental change, then it probably wouldn't be a car anymore, maybe it would be a plane.

"Cars" are constrained massively by a couple things that in fact have not really progressed much since 1970. EG, they are constrained to roads and the interstate was a far more revolutionary change than the catalytic converter, direct injection, or DOHC or whatever. You're basically arguing that fuel efficiency is greater, but fuel scarcity is another topic altogether. It remains the case that petrol is still the fuel of choice--not electric or some other source--becuase of its inherent efficency in terms of energy per unit of mass. So, betweeen the fuel constraint ant the roadway constraint, cars are a fractional better than they were a generation ago...but not a categorical or even significant leap by any stretch. If you read some history of LA and compare the changes from 1920 to 1940 you would have seen a radical shift in the impact of the automobile. Heck, even the impact of the container ship alone is far more interesting at a macro/absolute level. Car safety and fuel efficiency are simply very minor improvements on a fundamentally unchanged basic engineering platform: the two ton, four-wheel ICM constrained to a limited right of way, and a very similar feasible safe-speed constraint.

Note, that one better argument here is these are as much legal/social as technological constrainst placed upon the automobile. Many people in the younger genreations would rather see the (at least the personal) automobile dis-associated with its role of primacy in western society.

This is more or less feasible depending of course on technology and other elements improving the constraints on urban planning. The lack of the removal of these constrainsts (both technological and economic) is again also a sign that technology has/had plateaued in the area of civil engineering. It may have been improved, but in terms of radical improvement...not so much.

Of course, shale gas and hydro-fracking may yet do more than keep the status quo in place...but fundamentally...not much has changed in Californial in the past 40-50 years in terms of day to day getting around.

I feel like Peter Thiel is taking the Foundation series a little too literally.

Peter Thiel invested in Urbit, it is important to note.



If Thiel had spoken about something more broadly defined such as "progress", then his arguments might have held water.

Isn't the kind of stuff he's talking about really hard?

We may have wanted flying cars, but 140 characters is way easier, and that's why we have it, not because we're focusing on the wrong things.

coming from a person who made a ton on money on the same things he says are not making our lives better.

that's because he isn't a developer

What's with the surge of Peter Thiel related soundbites lately?

I have no idea where he gets the idea that technology stopped in 1970. A simple example: look at how much more efficient internal combustion engines are now than they were in 1970. You can actually drive distances that are in the double digits of miles on a single gallon of gas today. That's a simple, quick example.

Saying "we were promised jetpacks and flying cars and that future wasn't delivered," is short sighted and so ridiculously uncreative. Instead we got a global communication system. The world is way smaller now than it would have been with flying cars. I can keep in touch with people across the globe for almost no cost. That is real innovation - few people could even imagine the internet - fewer predicted it and I don't think anyone foresaw the impact it's had on humanity. While Peter Thiel was watching movies with flying cars and jetpacks (which I might argue are uncreative continuations of existing technology) people were solving actual problems in new and incredible ways.

He has a book coming out I think. Publisher's PR likely.

Though not a technology that everyone uses everyday, the pace of progress in something like engine design (and in particular, motorcycles) is undeniable and at this point nigh-frightening. A machine that would have beaten $1M+ factory prototypes from 15 years ago can be purchased for $10k and ridden on the street. The amount of acceleration, top-end speed, braking power (!!!), weight reductions, advanced electronic rider aids, reliability, and composite materials in modern motorcycles is just staggering. And it shows no signs of slowing - in fact the recent advances in electronic aids are allowing the engines to be tuned to ridiculous levels that would be un-rideable (for non-champion racers).

Two good examples of amazing technology on the safety front: Bosch ABS [0] that allows you to grab the front brake in a banked turn (on every motorcycle to this point this results in an instant crash) and self-deploying airbags for motorcycles [1].

0 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2h9MVbkpLZQ 1 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dlLDtCD7y9c

I think this is exactly Thiel's point though. We're spending lots of time, effort, and money on incrementally improving things like Engines and Personal Computers and Social Media. Instead, we as a society would be better served focusing those resources on big-picture tasks like Nuclear Engineering, Bioengineering, or Material Sciences.

Frankly, I disagree with him because I think we are making these incremental improvements because people want them, they are big enough to be noticeable, and they're easy thanks to all those other incremental improvements. Already we've reached a tipping point with things like mobile computing and social media where there are no big breakthroughs waiting around the corner. Once people accept that they'll start looking to the next sectors that can have big bang-for-your-buck improvements. Whether that's space flight, Nuclear Engineering, Bioengineering or what have you will depend on the incremental advances we are already making.

> Already we've reached a tipping point with things like mobile computing and social media where there are no big breakthroughs waiting around the corner.

That's probably what thousands of people said about pots of water boiling over fires before the industrial revolution. How do you know what's around the corner?

> I can keep in touch with people across the globe for almost no cost. That is real innovation - few people could even imagine the internet - fewer predicted it and I don't think anyone foresaw the impact it's had on humanity.

While absolutely true, I still prefer if I could go to anywhere in the world with supersonic aircraft, or go ~1000km within 2~4 hours via highspeed rail network and meet someone in person.

Not to say the internet is bad, it is awesome that I can video call friends and family. I'm just not sure if 18B for WhatsApp is worth it.

Engine efficiency looks good until you put it next to a chart of oil prices. The amount of ingenuity and dollars being poured into technological research and development is immense and staggering -- and yet keeping in touch might be easier, but if you actually want to touch them -- sure, the flight it will be 25% cheaper than 20 years ago, but you'll be flying cattle class with a complimentary ass grab by the TSA.

Say what you will about the other elements, but surely we are not saying there is a technological reason for the TSA grabbing your ass?

Overreaction to blowback from American interference in Middle Eastern politics in order to secure oil supply due to lack of viable new energy sources due to ...

Ok -- not really though. The thing about efficiency though is it only goes up to 100%.

I actually think that progress in automation and robotics will be what provides an increase in the standard of living over the next 100 years but it is looking like it will be a slow slog compared to the last 100.

You can pay that 25% back to get increased leg room, snacks, and posher treatment.

He has a book out. http://www.amazon.com/Zero-One-Notes-Startups-Future/dp/0804... Standard book marketing.

His PR team must be pretty busy I've seen 5 or 6 articles in the past week alone. I didnt even know who he was before a couple weeks ago.

Last time I saw a PR campaign like this was before Yahoo picked up Marissa Mayer...

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