This is going to sound like a very strange story, because it is.
It is a story about some of the weirdest ideas you might have ever heard, and what happens when they’re backed by enormous amounts of investment capital. It involves the CIA, people who want to live forever and a humanity-hating artificial intelligence from the future. It all centers around a man who is on a mission to dismantle democracy itself, replacing it with a technocratic system friendlier to capitalism.
Thiel has been much in the news of late. In a surprise for Silicon Valley where progressive attitudes are en vogue, Thiel publicly embraced conservative Presidential candidate Donald Trump as a California delegate. And then, two weeks later, Thiel admitted that he was secretly funding Hulk Hogan’s $140-million lawsuit—and a series of others—against Gawker, in what he referred to as a “great act of philanthropy” but which many others see as a dangerous threat to free speech.
Thiel’s decision to spend a tiny fraction of his wealth, about $10 million so far, on bringing about Gawker’s demise is paying off; the independent media company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy this month and announced it was putting itself up for sale. Thiel’s ability to put Gawker on death watch, for whatever reason—whether out of revenge for being outed as a gay man by the publication, or in retaliation for its sharply critical coverage of Silicon Valley—is proof of how much power a person with $10 million to burn wields.
But Thiel has much more money than that. Thiel has through more than a decade of investment strategies accrued an enormous amount of wealth–$2.7 billion, according to Forbes. And with that money he has been able to pursue a very particular agenda in accordance with creating the world he wants us all to live in. It’s a world equal parts disturbing, contradictory, and very, very weird.
Thiel’s well-known radical Libertarian beliefs have been referred to as “eccentric.” But Thiel’s beliefs aren’t just eccentric, they are bizarre. His donation to “immigration reduction” nonprofit NumbersUSA flirts with outright racism. In an infamous 2009 Cato Unbound essay, The Education of a Libertarian, he suggested that democracy and giving women the right to vote were hurtful to the country, because they stand in the way of Libertarianism and the march of capitalism. But Thiel’s oddest belief may be his plan to live forever, something he has wanted since he was a child.
“I stand against… the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual,” he wrote in the Cato essay.
Thiel, you see, is a transhumanist, and the idea that death is only a mindset is central to the group’s dream of human immortality. Transhumanists plan to either eliminate aging; or freeze our bodies after death and have them reanimated by nanobots that will repair the cell damage; or build artificial intelligence that will be able to upload our brains so that we become digital simulacrums of ourselves, living as neural simulations on servers.
Attempting to cure death is a favorite pastime of the very rich of Silicon Valley and Peter Thiel has invested heavily in attempts to make it a reality. He gave $3.5 million to Aubrey de Grey to start the Methuselah Foundation which is dedicated to the quest to “cure” aging. Along with de Grey, Thiel is a client of Alcor Cryonics, the Arizona company offering to freeze your dead body for $200,000 a pop. Employees of Thiel’s early start up, Confinity, were furnished with cryonics as part of their benefits package, as George Packer reported in his book featuring Thiel, The Unwinding. Given there is no proof that cryonics does or will ever work, this is a bit of an empty employee perk.
At the center of transhumanist beliefs for this incredible (or horrifying) vision of the future is the technological Singularity, the point at which immense computing power will make artificial intelligence a reality. Not the kind of weak artificial intelligences we have today, but strong, superintelligent AI far superior to human beings. For transhumanists, bringing it about is the key to letting us live forever; we need computers powerful enough to solve all of our problems for us.
To make Silicon Valley’s long-held goals of transhumanism real, Thiel has used chunks of his fortune to support Humanity Plus (which used to be known as the World Transhumanist Association); the AI think tank, Singularity University; and the DeepMind artificial intelligence project, even though one of his fellow investors joked that he wanted to kill its founder to save humanity. (Google later acquired DeepMind for $400 million.) Thiel is also the poster child proponent of Seasteading, the transhumanist dream of a research facility beyond the reach of government in international waters to which Thiel contributed $1 million. (Realizing those dreams, however, might be harder than anticipated.)
Founders Fund, Thiel’s investment firm, bills itself as investing in “science and technology companies solving the world’s most difficult problems.” This has meant taking bets on experimental technologies in the fields of biotech, nanotechnology, robotics and of course, artificial intelligence.
Thiel’s investments in AI technologies have also oddly become an investment in the web’s conservative alt-right movement. This will be a somewhat discursive rabbit hole, but stay with us. (Messages left with Founders Fund and Thiel Capital went unreturned.)
Thiel has donated in excess of $350,000 to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, an artificial intelligence think tank founded in 2000 by the autodidact AI theorist, Eliezer Yudkowsky. MIRI spends its money on the study of theoretical future artificial intelligences, which, it fears, could harm human beings if they aren’t programmed to be “rational.” This research has produced a number of zany thought experiments you might have heard of, for example, that we are living in a computer simulation or that an AI could turn all matter in the universe into paperclips.
Yudkowsky is also the founder of a blog called LessWrong which is devoted to the study of human rationality. MIRI partially underwrites LessWrong’s administrative costs. The LessWrong forum is the source of the bizarre thought experiment, Roko’s Basilik, the belief in the inevitable existence of a future AI that will punish and torture eternally anyone from the past who didn’t help it come into existence.
If this sounds like the stuff of stoned freshman who’ve read too much Neal Stephenson, consider that MIRI’s influence in Silicon Valley is very real. Elon Musk established OpenAI to the tune of one billion dollars with the express goal of making AI “friendly” after being terrified by resident MIRI philosopher Nick Bostrom’s book, Superintelligence.
Thiel supporting MIRI which supports LessWrong is where things get somewhat problematic. Thanks to LessWrong’s discussions of eugenics and evolutionary psychology, it has attracted some readers and commenters affiliated with the alt-right and neoreaction, that broad cohort of neofascist, white nationalist and misogynist trolls. These neoreactionary readers have said they’d like to find “scientific” reasons to replace democracy altogether with quasi-monarchist opt-in city-states run by a CEO of America—preferably Elon Musk or Peter Thiel or perhaps Eric Schmidt of Google.
A frequent poster to LessWrong was Michael Anissimov, who was MIRI’s media director until 2013. Last year, he penned a white nationalist manifesto. Contacted for comment a media representative at MIRI said, “I’m disturbed to hear that he’s become a white nationalist — I don’t believe any of the staff who worked with him were aware of this.”
While Yudkowsky has publicly repudiated neoreaction, Overcoming Bias, his blog which preceded LessWrong, drew frequent commentary from the neoreactionary blogger Mencius Moldbug, the pen name of programmer Curtis Yarvin, whose defenses of slavery and other racist ideologies helped lay the foundations for the emergence of the Dark Enlightenment/alt-right/neoreactionaries as we know them now.
Pockets of neoreactionaries more recently have taken to aligning themselves with Donald Trump, who Thiel, of course, supports for president.
Thiel’s investments are at times contradictory of his own publicly held beliefs.
As a Libertarian, Thiel believes that government should stay out of people’s private lives and place no restrictions on their agency, personal decisions, or actions taken within the law. Privacy is a fundamental right which must be protected at all costs.
To these ends Thiel has put his money where his mouth is and invested in Leafly, the hugely popular “Yelp for weed.” Libertarians are traditionally in favor of drug legalization and harm reduction (as well as for vastly reduced state commitment to wars), so this investment makes sense in light of Thiel’s stated political beliefs.
And yet where Peter Thiel has earned the greatest amount of his multi-billion dollar valuation is through Palantir, the secretive data-harvesting and analysis corporation initially funded with seed money from In-Q-Tel, the investment firm of the CIA. Its clients have included the Department of Defense and other government agencies, as well as a raft of commercial clients interested in tracking consumers’ private data.
Despite his limited-government libertarian views, Thiel has created a tool that allows agencies to surveil huge sets of data, as TechCrunch reported last year, that includes happy customers like the LAPD. A LAPD sergeant said, “Detectives love the type of information [Palantir] provides. They can now do things that we could not do before. They can now exactly see great information and the links between events and people.”
Another of Thiel’s recent investments through Founder’s Fund sank $20 million in Qadium, a DARPA-funded data-scraping product focused on “internet sensing” of networked devices, which we can assume will also have government customers using it for intelligence-gathering.
Peter Thiel doesn’t appear to find any contradiction in these investments: one to aid a citizen’s right to make an informed choice when purchasing legal dope and another that amounts to a vast intelligence network that allows government agencies to potentially spy on those same purchases.
But Thiel has already proven himself hypocritical in his single-minded mission to bring down Gawker, having now famously and ironically once donated to the Committee To Protect Journalists, a gesture which now appears to be profoundly empty. (Facebook shareholders, who just reelected Thiel to Facebook’s board, don’t seem to mind.) Peter Thiel is above all interested in only one thing: getting what Peter Thiel wants. A coherent view of the world or a set of politics that add up to a set of principles, it would seem, doesn’t figure into it.
What does unite these investments is a vision of the world in which the super rich will always benefit. A future in which we live forever is not for the poor or non-white; it would only ever be for the uber-wealthy 1% of the 1% who’ve run out of mountains to conquer and so are looking to overcome death. It is a fool’s errand if ever there was one, but what is it they say about fools and their money?
No one elected Peter Thiel to this position of virtually limitless, unchecked power, yet he sits on a kind of throne, lined with the billions made from giving the world certain products that we wanted. Now we may well get the ones we don’t.