Peter Thiel announces the 20 talented people he will pay to drop out of college to pursue innovative scientific and technical projects


A lot of Thiel's beliefs are in line with those of a significant portion of the LessWrong community, so I trust his judgment more than I trust that of most. 

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I think the signal he's trying to send is good. The obsession with credentialing is inefficient and basically zero-sum. Entrepreneurship is more socially beneficial, so to the extent that this project raises the social status of entrepreneurs compared to academic credential-accumulators, I approve.

Knowing what you're doing (which is really all that certification "signals") seems to be higher status than being one of the few people that were lucky enough to receive enough start-up funding to establish a business and are skilled enough to hire people...who know what they're doing.

Overall, very neat and I'm glad it's being done, and some of the projects look promising. All of the people selected seem exceptionally bright.

However, it seems that some of the projects are so unrealistic as to be counter-productive. As the most glaring example, one person wants to "develop space industry technologies to solve the problem of extraterrestrial resource extraction."

Really? With $100K? I am fairly confident that the probability of that is extremely low. I think it would be better, in this case, if the individual went through college and did some directed research, since there is a good chance he'd create something valuable. Directly attempting this goal right now seems like a waste of talent.

I wonder why the candidates with unrealistic projects were chosen. Any ideas?

My guess would be that the simplest answer is the most likely: a filter tight enough to weed out every completely unrealistic project, will necessarily also weed out at least some that are just within reach and have very high potential payoff. Most of our civilization's funding sources are attached to pretty tight filters; I think we could do with a few more on looser filters.

As for "unrealistic" projects, the thing is - many "unrealistic" projects have long time-horizons, so they need external funding in order to continue. But after some time, the payoffs can be huge. Agencies like DARPA are typically the agencies that fund projects that sound unrealistic, but we need more than just DARPA. And Thiel wants to demonstrate that maybe there are alternative ways of getting long time-horizon projects (like aging prevention) supported.

In the words of Thiel Fellow Laura Deming...

Too often, researchers design quick incremental projects to please grant-making bodies instead of taking on risky, long time horizon problems. With her fund IP Immortal, Laura plans on commercializing anti-aging research, bringing therapies out of the lab and into the market sooner.

I agree that unrealistic projects have long time horizons. They ALSO require lots of people and capital. Starting a NEW, long-term project is NOT a task cut out for a young person--you need connections and experience for it to have a good chance of succeeding.

The candidates who want to work towards these unrealistic goals SHOULD--but they should do so in a way that is more likely to succeed. In this case, a better use of the person and $100K would be giving him a job at SpaceX (which Thiel is an investor in), and using the $100K to hire another person there too :)

Also, it's funny that you mention that other quote. Am I the only one that reads that and sees a contradiction? You cant fight the problem of "oh no researchers aren't thinking long-term enough" by telling them to "bring technologies out of the lab and into the market sooner..." I understand what she's trying to do, it's just written strangely.

I understand your confusion re the seeming contradiction re Laura Deming's desire to promote a long-term research orientation vs getting technologies out of the lab and into the market sooner. I know Laura very well. Do not bet against her. Ever. Look up "implacable" or "relentless" in any dictionary and that's her.

She has developed a pragmatic strategy to change the entire way we fund scientific research. There's a reason for the seeming contradiction that can be easily explained to anyone who understands how markets work. I can't go into details but it is one of many sub-components of the main funding structure. It makes use of shorter-term opportunities that crop up to generate revenue that would be re-channeled back, as additional funding, into longer-term research. Note the "IP" in the title of her proposed fund.

Her strategy, which will surely change as she gains experience, is impressive because, for someone who just turned 17, she included so many powerfully aligned, pragmatic proprietary incentives that balance the shorter-term need for large amounts of funding with longer-term focus of research. Crazy yes, for a 17 yr old, to undertake... until you get to know Laura. When you do, it's not hard to see why The Thiel Foundation chose her. But know what's crazier? Death. Death is also banal, horrific and pathetic. Go Laura!

Reading the short bios is interesting. I see 3 classes of bios

1) Typical-ish startup: not usually related to what they did in college, based on some idea about education, the internet, and... education and the internet.
2) Vague marketing speak, or a highly implausible idea prefaced by "he/she believes": come of like the type Paul Graham describes (as successful) - not great ideas, but willing to keep trying ideas until they find a good one. Or at least I hope they keep trying.
3) Product-based startup: They have a plan for a product, usually related to what they did in college, that will do cool things. Seems like the best of the bunch, but hey, I guess we need better internet education too.

Is this too simplistic?

The best higher education equilibrium might be where most of the smartest high school graduates don't go to college, and really if you're bright and went to good primary and secondary schools shouldn't 13 years of formal education be enough to enter most professions?

I would rather skip the first four years of my education than the last four.

I'd rather skip a middle four. It's necessary for everyone to learn basic things like literacy and arithmetic, but remember that the idea of setting school leaving age at 18 was supposed to be that you would then have finished your education. If most people are going to be going to college, then school leaving age should be set at 14, so that you can spend those next four years learning something useful instead of just marking time while you memorize the dates of Napoleon's battles and the agricultural products of Denmark.

Haha yes. Also, the elementary school environment is somewhat conducive to social interaction. But once you reach the individual classes of middle school, everything changes. You have to spend time out of class to socialize with people (meanwhile, if you're in class, you're simply taking huge amounts of time to learn what you can self-study in a short period of time). And if you'd prefer to study, then you pretty much wouldn't talk with anyone. Which is why I pretty much find my middle school years to be the most painful parts of my primary education - although being a teacher's pet/monopolizing class discussions did help engage me a lot in a few classes.

That being said, my last few years would have also been painful if I didn't drop out for an early entrance program. And my early years would also have been painful if I discovered my drive to learn at an earlier age

You're from Ireland afaik thus you probably went through the Leaving Cert. I'm wondering did you experience the same sort motivation killing effects of mandatory but unnecessary and uninteresting subjects just so you could get into a third level course with no relation to the afore mentioned subjects?

Yes, though at least for the Leaving Cert there was some degree of choice, so a decent percentage of the time was spent on interesting subjects; it was a big improvement on the Inter Cert (Junior Cert nowadays) where most of the time was spent on uninteresting ones.

I ended up "skipping" third through seventh grade by spending it at a special education school in which I learned, well, basically nothing. Once I was reintegrated into mainstream schools, the other students had finally caught up to what I had learned by the age of eight.

A few of the projects seem potentially really important and untried (internet price comparison, improving recruiting, and the fund to commercialize anti-aging research.) Laura Deming, folks. Keep an eye on her.

Most of these kids seem extremely talented and likely to succeed, but not necessarily at their current projects/startups.

Not only has internet price comparison been tried but Google is predictably kicking everyone's ass at it with Google Shopping.

Oops. Yeah, looks like Google Shopping works perfectly well.

Is the education system really so bad that we can benefit from taking the best students out of it? That whatever skills you would learn in those last few years is not worth a few years head start on what you were going to do?

Honest question, an answer would be appreciated for my own future.

That whatever skills you would learn in those last few years is not worth a few years head start on what you were going to do?

I think in a lot of domains (engineering, business, management, marketing ...), you can get a skill level better to what's taught in higher education through work experience and self-study, in the same time.

However higher education may still be worth it for the credentials (an effective way of signaling skills to employers, though you can also find non-credential way of signaling skills), and networking and connections (again, there are ways to have those outside education).

Also, sometimes it can be harder to get a job that could teach you the skills without a degree.

It really depends on your field and the type of employer you want to work for. Some fields and types of employers can be difficult to work for without a degree. Also there is a question of how much you personally are getting out of school. Some people are much better workers than students.

When it comes to elementary school, the answer is a definite yes, if my experience was in any way typical of gifted youngsters.