A Stanford University public debate between Peter Thiel and Reid Hoffman focused on technology and politics, with cyrptocurrency and artificial intelligence taking center stage.
Thiel was a strong supporter of President Trump during the 2016 election, while Hoffman conformed with a vast majority of his peers, acting as an advisor to Hillary Clinton, according to Recode, while using his fortune to bolster liberal candidates and causes.
Thiel suggested that he knew prior to Trump’s ascendancy that a candidate who was “both extremely pessimistic and motivational” would be a powerful combination.
Talking about two of the technologies that Silicon Valley is most excited about right now — cryptocurrency and artificial intelligence — the controversial billionaire and PayPal cofounder used this technique on Wednesday night. “Crypto is libertarian, AI is communist,” Thiel declared, during a public debate with LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute.
Like many of Thiel’s pronouncements, it was equal parts catchy and gnomic. In case you’re wondering, he was talking about decentralization and centralization.
Cryptocurrencies are typically open-source, meaning that anyone with technical ability can contribute. On top of that, anyone disgruntled with a given cryptocurrency’s trajectory can “fork” it, creating a new coin, as has happened to both bitcoin and ethereum. When tokens are purchased or earned, they can’t be confiscated unless the owner’s private keys (a sort of cryptographic password) are compromised.
Cryptocurrencies are also famously designed to be extralegal — beyond the reach of the government — although of course the SEC and the IRS hope to quash that notion.
Meanwhile, artificial intelligence relies on the trend that came before it, big data, and big data is gathered by big entities. For example, Google is able to do extraordinary things with machine learning because of the staggering amount of search data, image data, and general user behavior data that it’s amassed over the years.
Historically, communist regimes like the Soviet Union and Maoist China sought to create highly centralized command economies, noted Thiel. A sufficiently powerful AI could realize the bureaucrat’s dream of accurately predicting peasant farmers’ potato yields months in advance from thousands of miles away. No wonder, then, as he said, “the Chinese Communist Party hates crypto and loves AI.”
Hoffman heard Thiel out, then offered an alternative metaphor: Cryptocurrencies are “anarchy” and artificial intelligence is “the rule of law.” Throughout the night, Hoffman was more optimistic than Thiel about the ability of Silicon Valley to deploy its products for good. He pointed to marketplaces like Airbnb that turn regular people into “micro-entrepreneurs” as an example of the tech industry spreading opportunity.
However, Hoffman also expressed worries about tech’s impact on politics. “We need to commit to ‘Spiderman ethics,'” he said. “With power comes responsibility.” He described the Valley’s burgeoning doubts: “We’re not convinced that this future is going to be good for us, for our future.”
According to Thiel, America’s economy is practically only vibrant when it comes to technology. “We’ve had sort of narrow cone of progress around computers,” he explained. “There is not that much progress in the world of atoms, only in the world of bits,” he added, pointing out that non-software engineering would have been the absolute wrong thing to study in the 1980’s from a careerist standpoint.