What are "the really good ideas" that Peter Thiel says are too dangerous to mention?

by James_Miller1 min read12th Apr 201578 comments


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TYLER COWEN: Peter, tell me something that’s true that everyone agrees with you on.


PETER THIEL: Well there are lots of things that are true that everyone agrees with me on. I think for example even this idea that the university system is somewhat screwed up and somewhat broken at this point....You know, the ideas that are really controversial are the ones I don’t even want to tell you. I want to be more careful than that. I gave you these halfway, in-between ideas that are a little bit edgier.

But I will also go a little bit out on a limb: I think the monopoly idea, that the goal of every successful business is to have a monopoly, that’s on the border of what I want to say. But the really good ideas are way more dangerous than that.

Full interview.  HT Quora.


What are some good answers and your guess as to his answer?  Please exclude issues relating to race and gender.

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Ooh ooh I have one:

That Thiel's real reason for saying such things is pure self-promotion.

3eternal_neophyte6yShould we conclude that it is for any particular reason?
9CellBioGuy6yIts ever so convenient. "Im such a smart and unconventional guy I know all these important things that nobody will say. But i'll just tell you I know them without saying them." He gets to sound wise without needing to actually say anything at all, and everyone gets to project whatever non-popular ideas they have onto him and conclude he is One Of Us. Brilliant really.
4eternal_neophyte6yThat's uncharitable. Has Thiel done or said things (which I must be unaware of) the earn the reputation of a viper?
4Oligopsony6yThiel enjoys the spotlight, he's his own boss and could spend all day rolling around in giant piles of money if he wanted to, he's said plenty of things publicly that are way more NRx-y than the monopoly thing and he's obviously fine.
6James_Miller6yA billionaire who enjoys the spotlight does something like buying a professional sports team or media company or running for office. Thiel's behavior is not consistent with him craving publicity.

Theres a difference between Trump-style publicity cravings and the narrower tastes of the nerdier subsets, I think. Status games are played in the arenas one cares about.

1eternal_neophyte6ySeems that you're arguing that it would be consistent with the behaviour of someone of Thiel's stripe. I don't believe that's fair, it smacks to me of begging the question (i.e. he's a prima donna and therefore his current behaviour is that of a prima donna).
0pangel6yStraussian thinking seems like a deep well full of status moves ! * Level 0 - Laugh at the conspiracy-like idea. Shows you are in the pack. * Level 1 - As Strauss does, explain it / present instances of it. Shows you are the guru. * Level 2 - Like Thiel, hint at it while playing the Straussian game. Shows you are an initiate. * Level 3 - Criticize it for failing too often (bad thinking attractor, ideas that are hard to check and deploy usual rationality tools on). Shows you see through the phyg's distortion field.

The kinds of things which an upper-class American is prone to believe (which would not garner him favour with other members of society), I suppose. I mean, I'm not expecting him to be secretly yearning for a Communist workers' paradise. Also he is an entrepreneur with transhumanist sympathies, therefore a forward-thinking guy, so probably the internet crusaders from the opposite camp aren't bashing his ideas yet -- because they haven't yet conceived of them; you can count on people like him to think in an original way -- but probably will be in 20 years from now.

HOWEVER. I take issue with the thing you're attempting to do with this post. Obviously none of us are Thiel himself; obviously the attempt to guess what Thiel meant is a classic case of grasping at straws; whatever the community can come up with probably isn't even in the same ballpark as Thiel's secret heresies. Besides, if I were him, I'd personally be bothered by some random people's attempts to guess at beliefs I don't want to make public, for reasons relating to the telephone game that ensues and the risk of other people from other websites misinterpreting those positions as my own. Alas, that is but my own take on thi... (read more)

7NancyLebovitz6yI don't know about inflammatory, but it's pretty clearly a waste of time. We're more likely to find out what is true by looking for that rather than guessing about what Thiel is thinking.
0emr6yWell put. Furthermore, is there any great mystery about the possible scope of these hidden opinions? I suspect (though how can I verify?) that most of these "too controversial to mention" opinions can be enumerated by simple inversion of common beliefs. Blue is right -> Blue is wrong Green is good -> Green is bad If we're talking about things you can't say because of moral outrage, then there aren't that many beliefs that are common enough to provoke widespread outrage by publicly challenging them. Maybe you can't guess exactly why Blue is Actually Bad, but you know the general forms of how it could be so. Certainly there are other, more exotic things you shouldn't say in public ("How to build a super laser weapon from pocket change", etc), but I doubt this problem is the driving force here.
2eternal_neophyte6yWhat harm will come to participants, onlookers and Thiel himself about which you're so concerned?

We are invited here to attribute various "dangerous" ideas to Thiel. And he couldn't even deny them because, well, that's exactly what he would do if it was his dangerous idea, wouldn't he?

In other words, the rules of this game are: "Invent a controversial political idea and pretend that it is the idea Peter Thiel is trying to hide." No falsifiability; except for a possible group opinion that something is completely out of character. You get points for the idea being controversial; you don't lose points if it is not Thiel's idea. So why not simply post the most controversial idea you have?

We are invited to abuse the man's name as a pretext to publish our controversial ideas. Why not use our own names then? I suspect this is what people will do here anyway. They will just use Thiel's name to add status to their own ideas.

1eternal_neophyte6yWho's saying to pretend that Thiel actually holds whatever idea some particular person thinks he does? Why would anyone take such idle speculation seriously? Judging by the distribution of likes in over other comments here, the most controversial (by which I mean "NRx-y" for now) ideas don't seem to be great point-winners. So I think the community itself should be credited with posessing some common sense. Again I think you're selling short the capacity of others to avoid frivolously drawing spurious conclusions. Crediting others with basic powers of reason is, I think, a necessary starting point in order to have any kind of rationalist community whatsoever.
2Viliam6yInternet is a public place. So even if all LW readers would understand what this is all about (creating a place to post mostly NRx-y ideas, while pretending to talk about Peter Thiel), a random visitor would see Peter Thiel in the title and the ideas below. Most people are not driven by the power of reason, but by the power of associations, which is what we are creating in this thread. If the man did not present the ideas as his own, then his name should not be in the title. Also, Peter Thiel happens to be a sponsor of MIRI, which makes it seem more credible when people talk about "his" ideas on a website associated with MIRI.
0eternal_neophyte6yThat's a valid concern indeed. Random visitors who are prone to poor reasoning in all sorts of creative ways could stumble across almost anything and draw wildly inaccurate conclusions about what they read. I don't see any reasons that the opinions of such persons should be much of a threat to anyone but themselves.

Inaccurately polarized ideas about Thiel's politics, general divisiveness and hostilities between LessWrongers, a fantastic opportunity for politically motivated trolls to come out, and spillover nasty rumours with regards to Thiel himself.

And '"so" concerned' may be a bit pushing it.

I think you are greatly overestimating the power of a LW comment thread to harm Thiel. Also, I consider it a strong possibility that Thiel wants people to guess at what he was referring to. Finally, you shouldn't assume his dangerous ideas are political.

1ChristianKl6yThe monopoly idea is in some sense political. I think there good reason to believe that other ideas are similarly political.
1Dahlen6yBeyond considering it as a possibility out of common courtesy, I have no reason to be invested in what happens to Thiel as a result of this discussion. Just because he might want people to guess doesn't mean LessWrong is the place for it. I stand by what I said when I claimed that this thread will attract politically motivated trolls. Take a look at the rest of the thread. Go tell them not to assume his dangerous ideas are political.
-1James_Miller6yIt's inappropriate for you to bring up the possibility that my post might harm Thiel, and then when I respond say that you are not "invested" in whether Thiel will be harmed.
0Dahlen6yColor me unimpressed. Both of them can be perfectly true and valid at once. He's some random guy I don't know and he didn't ask for this, therefore I'm going to consider whether other people could put words in his mouth, just because it's common courtesy and I don't have a reason to wish him bad. At the same time I'm not his PR specialist. If the opposite of what he ostensibly expressed is true, and it's a publicity stunt, then it doesn't follow that I should be okay with someone using LW at large to gain support for him. So yes, I'm not invested in his success, no scare quotes. I don't get paid if more people agree with him. Precisely the position of a neutral observer, biased only by the fact that I do care about not giving the political trolls of LessWrong a venue for expressing themselves.
3James_Miller6yMore abstractly, saying X is true, and then when something claims it's not true, responding with "well I don't care about X" is very bad form in a debate because if you don't care about X you should not have brought it up.
0Dahlen6yMy point was that there are degrees of caring*, and that caring does depend** on how sincere a person is when claiming not to want to draw attention to one of their points. * = going from "I don't give a fuck" to "this is my best friend we're talking about / I'm paid to give a fuck", on which spectrum I took the middle position. ** = they don't want to draw attention to it, fine, let's respect their wishes. Oh, they were playing reverse psychology on me? Screw them then. There's no point in trying to get me to express a plainly pro- or anti-Thiel opinion.
0eternal_neophyte6yThat depends on how seriously people take the possibilities speculated upon, and there's no real reason to take idle speculation seriously. Perhaps we should credit other posters with the capacity for practicing basic epistemic hygiene? This could be caused by any contentious topic. You could draw a distinction between productive/necessary friction and useless friction. Though I don't share your dour view of the local capacity for political discussion and thus don't anticipate a ruckus - perhaps your mileage has varied. Thiel has been accused of self-promotion by another commenter in a somewhat glib fashion, so that seems to have happened, though any discussion of Thiel and his ideas could invite similar comments. Don't see how that could be avoided bar avoiding all discussion of Thiel (or anyone else who's disliked by some other people).
0Dahlen6y*shrugs* You asked, I answered.
1eternal_neophyte6yshimmies Well then I'll be on my waymoonwalks like an Egyptian

What are some good answers and your guess as to his answer? Please exclude issues relating to race and gender.


THRASYMACHUS: Give us an answer yourself, and tell us what you think justice is. And don't tell me that it's duty, or expediency, or advantage, or profit, or interest. I won't put up with nonsense of that sort.

SOCRATES: You ask someone for a definition of twelve, and add "And I don't want to be told that it's twice six, or three times four, or six times two, or four times three; that sort of nonsense won't do." You know perfectly well that no-one would answer you on those terms. He would reply "What do you mean, Thrasymachus; am I to give none of the answers you mention? If one of them happens to be true, do you want me to give a false one?"

From The Republic), by Plato.

2ChristianKl6yThe fact that those issues lead to an easy answer, doesn't invalidate not talking about them.

I would guess he's thinking of some anti democratic ideas.

0CurtisSerVaas6yPerhaps related to seasteading. EDIT: Sorry for stating what other people have already state elsewhere in the comments.
0pragmatist6yYeah, that was my assumption as well.

I think this thread needs a lot more context. In Zero to One, which they are discussing in this exchange, Thiel is not so much talking about political ideas, as business ideas. One of his ideas is that startups are based around "secrets" - that the way to start a business is to know something that few know, and profit from that. But the flipside is that these ideas are dangerous, not necessarily because they will cause opprobrium to be heaped on you, but because it's hard to get traction for ideas that most people think are wrong. They are risky, and if successful can change the world in unanticipated ways.

So (pace buybuyanddavis) I don't think Thiel is talking about antidemocratic ideas - or at least, not simpliciter. Indeed, it's a cliche that "Washington is broken," even more so than that it's a cliche that the university system is broken. There are a thousand organisations in the MOOC space, but there must be a million in the "change the government" space - even more crowded. I think the exchange on charter cities is instructive.

Naturally, if I had what I considered "secrets" in the Thielian sense, I would not be sharing them on this boar... (read more)

1ChristianKl6yI think he's talking about both. When he asks the question as an interview question he does allow for both answers. Having the question as a standard interview question also allows Thiel to get a lot of good answers from different people.
  1. Notice how Thiel mentions his idea about the importance of monopoly right before he alludes to something edgier. That's a bit odd, as talking about monopoly as a goal isn't very edgy at all.
  2. Thiel is a libertarian. Libertarians often complain that government is able to misbehave because it is monopolistic.
  3. Remember that Thiel is a known supporter of Seasteading--he initially funded Patri Friedman's Seasteading Institute.
  4. Thiel has also been known to criticize democracy.
  5. Thiel is a known Straussian.

My guess would be that Thiel's edgy idea has to do wit... (read more)

6CellBioGuy6yRegarding NASA and research suppression, I have an extremely difficult time understanding what could draw you to that conclusion. All manner of space based weaponry has been looked into by governments and found not terribly useful or practical. The energy you can bring along on a spacecraft is likewise very limited by mass constraints. The history of successes and failures in propulsion technology does not need a human cause; the universe itself may be to blame as may economic or practicality or political issues. EDIT: a few figures to give some idea of scale. The Saturn V rocket carried a total chemical energy of ~2.5 kilotons of TNT full on the launchpad. A small subset of that winds up in the kinetic energy of motion. The Dawn probe can manage ~10 km/s by leaving its ion engine on for years on end and using electricity to shove fuel out the back extremely rapidly, producing a total kinetic energy change equivalent to ~14 tons of TNT (and not carrying the necessary energy in its fuel, merely using the sun to accelerate an inert gas electrically, and imparting much more kinetic energy to its fuel than to the spacecraft itself). Imagining a nuclear reactor driving a VASIMR or somesuch, if you used it up accelerating something for months you would create a projectile with a kinetic energy of impact a small fraction of that which you could get by using the core to make a nuclear bomb instead.
0knb6yDon't misrepresent what I said. I did not state I had made a "conclusion." My reason for wondering about it is that NASA has devoted surprisingly few resources to advanced propulsion research. Something people have been complaining about for years. I think bureaucratic inertia and congressional meddling are more likely explanations, but there is no reason it has to be an either/or.
0ChristianKl6yAnother explanation would be that they consider advanced propulsion research military and therefore classified the research they do.
0CellBioGuy6yApologies for wording. Agreement on there being annoying issues that are cause for thought. On top of that I think it's clear they could even be doing more with the technologies they currently have.
-1Douglas_Knight6yAre you arguing from first principles that space-based weapons don't work? It's one thing to say that they fail testing, but another to say that you're better at physics than Edward Teller. Anyhow, you can read some of Thiel's thoughts in the interview.
1CellBioGuy6yMy point being that you can be much much more destructive by blowing up the energy source of a space-based weapon on Earth than using it to power a kinetic weapon, and that in any case there's no reason to think we will be building spacecraft that are a danger to anything on Earth as anything but a carrier of radiological/etc payloads or a destroyer of launch facilities during failures in the forseeable future. Upmass is very expensive. EDIT Relativistic kill vehicles, for example, are both so far beyond or ken and useful only over such long distances (seriously, an ICBM is more surprising over distances smaller than several times the size of the entire solar system and I don't even know how many orders of magnitude simpler than the infrastructure required to make one) that I fail to see the point of worrying about them. The only space-based weapon that could be a problem that I can think about is identifying some 100 meter wide rock that is set to just miss the earth a century hence and giving it a 1 m/s push to change that fact (which according to my calculations would require an ion engine using the equivalent amount of energy to a whole day's worth of the entire world's electricity consumption, nuclear bombardment, or messing with its interaction with sunlight drastically).
-1Douglas_Knight6yRather than interpreting "space-based weapon" as the first thing that comes in to mind and saying that's stupid, why don't you think about it for five minutes? Or look it up.
1CellBioGuy6yI was going off the link provided for 'relativistic kill vehicles' and assuming that not researching advanced propulsion systems having to do with space based weapons had to do with the ability to go fast. Kinetic weapons also the only type of weapon I can think of that is terribly enhanced by being in space. As for bombs, we can already deliver a bomb of whatever type we want anywhere on Earth in 45 minutes if we feel like it. And we got fusion bombs. As for lasers or energy weapons or something, again you run into some energy density and range issues, especially going through atmosphere. Not as severe, but its still much easier to connect it to some ground-based infrastructure if you're gonna use it. Also fail to see what it has to do with propulsion. 'Rods from the gods' style orbital bunker-buster munitions can probably be just as well provided by flying atmospheric platforms from what I've seen, just put explosives and engines on them rather than using launch to 'charge' them with orbital energy. Satellites that kill other satellites remotely or up close are quite possible. Not exactly classically destructive, just disruptive. Bizarre-physics of some sort? I'd think that'd be more likely to come of large expensive massive ground installations. Drawing a blank, even with the help of google, especially for ideas that have something to do with propulsion technologies. What did you have in mind?
2[anonymous]6yAs someone who has worked at NASA, I can tell you that is simply impossible. NASA and keeping secrets don't mix.
1ChristianKl6yTalking about monopoly can motivate a government to come and break up a business. That makes it risky for someone in a position like Thiels.
2CellBioGuy6yIsnt it obvious that all companies wish they were monopolies? Since when is that edgy?
1Salemicus6yWell, you can read his views on monopoly here [http://blakemasters.com/post/20955341708/peter-thiels-cs183-startup-class-3-notes-essay] . I would say some of the following is edgy, in that he's saying that (at least temporary) monopolies can be socially efficient (not just that the companies "want" to be monopolies): But what's "edgy" and what's "mainstream" is a matter of perspective. Thiel is influenced by Austrian economics, and this sounds like something out of Schumpeter, or maybe Hayek. To someone familiar with those ideas and concepts, this is hardly startling insight, but many people really do have the prejudice that all markets should be perfectly competitive at all times.
0ChristianKl6yIf you think what Thiel saying is simply obvious then you likely haven't understood the main point. Companies frequently do make moves to compete with another company. According to Thiel that happens too often. People try to be the best at the latest trend instead of focusing their efforts into an area where nobody else spends their efforts.
0knb6yYes, I agree that it can be risky. But he used the word "edgy" which has a different connotation, implying it would be perceived as extreme or socially unacceptable.
0ChristianKl6yWhat do you mean with "suppressing"? Keep them as a secret and only manufacture the weapons for the US military?
0knb6yNo, more something like, "Maybe some NASA researchers hit upon a promising advanced propulsion designs years ago, but quietly got worried about weaponization potential, and quietly shifted focus away from advanced propulsion."

I haven't really looked into it, but there was an odd message that he left in his IAMA in regards to Girardian philosophy: http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/2g4g95/peter_thiel_technology_entrepreneur_and_investor/ckfn9rj?context=3 . Would love for anyone who knows more to jump in.

The question was for something that’s true that everyone agrees with you on, but everyone here ignored that. The point of the monopoly example is that everyone agrees that they want their businesses to be monopolies, but they aren't allowed to say it. And this is quite explicit in business school, although they usually use the phrase "barriers to entry." They talk about building barriers to entry to reduce competition and defend profit margins. Pretty clear. The difference between a normal class and Thiel's class is that he used the word "mo... (read more)

I think the monopoly idea, that the goal of every successful business is to have a monopoly, that’s on the border of what I want to say.

What's better than having a monopoly? Having control of the state. My guess would be that he means something silicon-reichy not unlike some other Silicon Valley figures.

There are likely answers that related to what Palantir is doing that he doesn't want to give publically.

[-][anonymous]6y 2

I don't remember if it was Thiel or another libertarian longevity-oriented fellow like Thiel, but someone of his type said basically that longevity can be an incredibly incisive social issue, because initially it will be expensive, and if rich people can live to 200 and poor people die at 70 this can easily lead to the pitchforks. Of all privileges, the privilege to be alive could get those who don't have it the most enraged.

3Vaniver6yThe most recent place I heard this was Death is Optional [http://edge.org/conversation/yuval_noah_harari-daniel_kahneman-death-is-optional] , and it was said by Yuval Noah Harari: But it was also in the context of pointing out that we're used to mass power and successful revolts--but it could very well be the case that an anti-longevity revolt gets put down by robot police.

Maybe he's secretly a creationist, its unlikely but it would be more interesting/controversial than he standard internet contrarian ideas.

The Enlightenment's social project has started to collapse because it conflicts with human nature?

1Douglas_Knight6yThiel wrote a book about this 20 years ago, so it's not exactly a secret. But he has since said that he thinks it is a minor problem compared to the dying of entrepreneurship. Indeed, he said that his writing that book was an example of just following the herd, rather than producing new value.

This old thread is possibly relevant.

I have no idea what Thiel is thinking of, but I'll volunteer to get a brainstorm started:

Male to female love is 70% physical attraction. Yes, love.

Edit: I guess this related to race and gender, but I don't want to hold back one of my edgiest beliefs.

3dxu6yAre you specifying that direction of love, or are you simply referring to heterosexual love in general? If the former, why not the other way around (female-to-male)? If the latter, why not include other orientations?
4Liron6yThe former; I was being precise. I don't think the reverse direction is true. My beliefs in both directions come from a combination of my understanding of evolutionary psychology plus anecdotal observations of myself and others. I can elaborate but I'll also ask why others don't believe this. Also I should add this obviously isn't true for all males. I'm just trying to model the average case.
0DanielLC6yDo you have a guess as to how much love in the reverse direction is physical attraction?
0CurtisSerVaas6yI think you meant to type many.
0Liron6yThx, edited.
1pragmatist6yWhat exactly is that 70% supposed to quantify? Is the claim that, if I wake up tomorrow and no longer find my girlfriend physically attractive, I'll only be 30% as in love with her as I am now? Or is the claim that in 70% of heterosexual romantic relationships, if the male no longer finds the female attractive, he will no longer be in love with her? Also, why do you consider this a "really good idea"?
2Liron6yThe former, except for the average male instead of you personally. The type of this idea is "belief about the world", and it's good because it pays high rent in anticipated experience [http://lesswrong.com/lw/i3/making_beliefs_pay_rent_in_anticipated_experiences/] , like answering "yes" to your first question.
1falenas1086yIs this idea for current Western society, or for love overall?
1Liron6yLove overall.
0[anonymous]6yRomantic love? (Not, for example, love such as you'd have for a friend?) Does your belief lead you to think that the average old married men don't love their wives? Does it lead you to pitying ugly women who want to be loved more than ugly men who want to be loved?
-3pwno6yI agree