Sunday, October 9, 2011

Peter Thiel Swill: Clueless about Our Future, Part 1

Venture Capitalist Peter Thiel, one of the co-founders of Paypal, has recently written an article in the _National Review_  called _The End of the Future_.  I have waited in vain since October 3rd for someone of any stature to write an intelligent rebuttal to any of the the many flaws in the article.  Now granted, the fact that it appeared in the _National Review_  -- Peter Thiel is a Libertarian, after all -- might cause many serious thinkers to dismiss it out of hand.  Some may also dismiss Peter Thiel himself, since his last cause celebre was to promote the idea that college is a waste of time and that people should drop out of their Ivy League schools and go right into business, like him.  Well, actually, not quite like him because he didn't drop out.  In any event, I expected that at least one or two of the better known people on the opposite polar extreme from Thiel, like Ray Kurzweil, for example, might be moved to take up the mantle.  However, there has been no such luck.

Therefore, feeling I can wait no longer, it falls to me to point out at least a few serious deficiencies in Thiel's arguments.  BTW, some people may also be wondering why I would take this up in a blog about religion.  Well, as it turns out, Thiel started his article quoting Revelation 6:5.  That might give you yet another indication of the type of "science and technology article" that Thiel produced.  Search as one might, the reader will find little indication of how this quote is relevant to anything in the article, except perhaps in the sense that both Thiel and John of Patmos are both producing dire, dream-like visions of the future that have no bearing on reality and equally little chance of coming true.

In the interests of fairness, let me start by noting those areas where I can agree with Thiel.  I agree that technological progress is a vital element in our economy, although I would say this applies worldwide, and not just to Western nations as Thiel seems to suggest.  I also agree that, in some areas, progress has seemed maddeningly slow, and that we should do what we can, especially in the midst of the current recession, to jump-start progress on a number of fronts.  I suspect, however, that he would not be as enthusiastic about the government taking a significant role in this jump-starting, even though they have often been vital in starting many nascent industries from computing to aerospace and solar.  For what it's worth, Thiel does concede that programs like the Manhattan Project were examples of successful government operations, but this will likely be greeted as heresy by average National Review reader. However, I very much agree that we cannot be naively optimistic that technology will always save our bacon, especially if we stay our current course of doing less and less research and development.

Having said where I can agree with Thiel, however, the basic premise of his opinion piece is that progress is grinding to a halt because some of the fanciful expectations of previous decades have not come true.  For example, his first real piece of evidence, after lamenting the demise of the Concorde, is to cite a 1964 Popular Science article called "Who’ll Fly You at 2,000 m.p.h.?".  According to Thiel's technological Jeremiad, if this kind of thing hasn't come to pass then it means that progress has halted.

Well, in actual fact, planes like the SR-71 Blackbird have routinely flown faster than 2000 mph and the Blackbird was first produced in 1966.  Also, more recently, Virgin Galactic has been offering commercial rides aboard Spaceship One, which flew at Mach 3.09 (2373 mph) in a test run in 2004.  I could go on talking about Nasa's X-43 scramjet that flies at 7000 mph, but I think the point has been made that Thiel is being too casual with the facts.

Sure, only Spaceship One is designed for commercial passengers, and you have to pay $200 grand for a thirty minute ride into space.  Thiel acknowledges that a lot of this is driven by economics, like the price of fuel.  However, that leads him to his next lament, which he describes as "the much larger failure in energy innovation".  He notes that inflation adjusted gasoline prices are arguably around the same level or higher than under the Carter Administration, and also notes that Nixon called for Energy Independence back in 1974.  Of course he conveniently omits that it was not Carter, but Reagan and Bush, his ideological bedfellows, who slammed the brakes on moving toward solar and other renewables as significant energy sources in the US.

Besides, it needs to be acknowledged that it is more energy efficient to use technologies like video conferencing instead trying to fly people at 2000 mph to get to a meeting, in the first place.  That is energy innovation, contrary to what he or Dick Cheney might say about conservation not being a sound basis for energy policy. A key to any type of sound energy policy is doing the easiest and most economical thing, which is often finding ways to save energy, as opposed to building a $10 billion nuclear power plant.

Thiel, of course, doesn't see these more efficient uses of energy for the innovations that they are.  We don't all have to travel at 2000 mph, because we instead virtually travel at the speed of light to talk to people via video chat around the world.  He later goes on to acknowledge that the one area where he sees any progress at all is in computing, but the reader will notice that he is bundling telecommunications and electronics under the general category of computing.  I know that people tend to think of iPhones as pocket computers these days, and forget that phones did not always used to be miniature computers, or that many electronic devices do many things other than computations.  Gene sequencing machines and MRIs certainly use computers, but they are also sensors that collect increasingly fine levels of details to feed into computer databases. Progress in telecommunication and electronic sensing is not on Thiel's radar screen, apparently  -- or perhaps he would just prefer to cherry pick the data to see it in the most negative light possible.

Going on, Thiel assigns to environmentalists much of the blame for the stagnation of nuclear power, but fails to acknowledge that the technology itself is far more expensive and unreliable than the industry optimistically predicted when it foresaw "energy too cheap to meter".  The  fact that industry got their cost estimates wrong by a factor of 10 or 20 back in the 1950's does not mean that technology has slowed down.  It means that they over-estimated where technology actually was in the first place.

Just to recap more generally, the fact that someone made a bogus prediction in the past and this prediction fails to materialize does not show that technology has somehow failed to keep pace.  Thousands of products are hyped every year in the popular press and many of them turn out to be "vaporware", or products that were too-good-to-be-true and simply cannot be delivered as advertised.  This might be a failure of over-ambitious marketers, but it not really the fault of technology developers when others promise things that can't really be done yet.  Comic books promised us our Dick Tracy TV-phone wristwatches more than half a century before it actually became practical to build them.  It's easy to imagine things that are very hard to do technologically.

So sure, we desperately need new technologies, and, to return to the previous topic, there have been a number of innovative designs for reactors since commercial nuclear power reached its apex in the early 1970s, in the US.  However, there are still fundamental reasons that we do not have nuclear powered planes or rockets that have nothing to do with "hippies" or other assorted environmental protester bogeymen.  For example, even if we could miniaturize a nuclear power plant to be light enough to power a 747, fundamental properties of physics say that it would still emit a huge amount of radiation and it's not as simple as some might think to shield the passengers from this.  Even if you put a thick lead wall directly between the reactor and the passengers, the radiation would bounce out through the sides of the plane and hit atoms in the air which would deflect it back around the lead wall and into the passenger cabin, cooking your customers.  The phenomenon is know as "backscatter radiation" and it is the basis of some of our airport screening devices today.

The last thing I would like to note in Part 1 of this commentary on the Thiel article is the way that sloppy thinking and off-hand references pervade and detract from the general reliability of the article.  Right at the very beginning, he makes an almost obligatory sop to the "the soft totalitarianism of political correctness" , and yet, being that Thiel is a gay man,  one wonders if he would prefer the much harder totalitarianism of his right-wing fellow travellers who think that "God hates f*gs" and that people like him should be stoned to death. How would thinking like that be conducive to innovation?  In fact quite the opposite is true.  In his well known book, _The Rise of the Creative Class_, Richard Florida argues that those cities and states which are more tolerant and politically progressive are also the places where you see the most technological progress, such as Silicon Valley or the Bay Area.

As yet one more example of sloppy thinking,  Thiel inquires into what might be wrong with "The state of true science" that might be responsible for progress running a bit less quickly than he and others may prefer.  However, he gives up almost immediately, noting that no person can comprehend all the complexities of the numerous scientific disciplines today, and lamenting, in an almost Jobian fashion, "who can compare and contrast and properly weight the rate of progress in nanotechnology and cryptography and superstring theory and 610 other disciplines".

Who indeed?  I thought he was talking about science, but he has included cryptography, which is not generally regarded as an empirical science, and nanoTECHNOLOGY which, as the name implies, is a technology, as opposed to nano-science.  Furthermore, why should we assume that one person needs to have superhuman mastery of all of these fields in detail?  Instead, professionals in fields like Management of Technology try to use general principles, like diffusion of innovation, or product development cycles, rather than an encyclopedic knowledge of facts and figures to get a handle on the complexities of technology.

Thiel clearly didn't consult anyone in Management of Technology before writing the article, and one marvels that he calls himself a venture capitalist with this level of ignorance about how one might evaluate technological progress.  At the same time, it does nicely demonstrate why venture capitalists are responsible for so few of the innovations that come to market.  Perhaps Thiel could grasp the potential of Paypal and Facebook earlier than some, but there are many other areas of technological potential that are apparently quite opaque to him.

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