Technology stalled in the 1970s

    I offer readers a translation of an interview with the famous venture capital investor Peter Till, which he gave to the head of the MIT Technology Review in San Francisco, Tom Simonite. I must say that the article is available by subscription, if you are interested in the original, you can find it here .

    Peter Thiel
    Peter Thiel was at the forefront of some of the well-known technologies: co-founder of PayPal and one of the first investors in companies such as Facebook and LinkedIn. He is convinced that technological progress has been stagnant for decades. According to Til, changes in computer technology and the Internet could not significantly improve the quality of our lives. In a new book , he warns entrepreneurs that the traditional business system prevents them, and society as a whole, from making important achievements in areas such as energy or healthcare, where technology can make this world a better place. Nevertheless, he does not offer detailed answers to questions about how we could make such technological breakthroughs.

    “One of the most striking statements in your book is that since about the 1970s we have not had any significant technological advances. But what about computing? ”


    Progress in the computer industry and the global network has facilitated interactions, which has made some things much more effective. On the other hand, a large layer of other technologies has not changed at all since the 1970s: nuclear technology, aeronautics and astronautics, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, and even electrical engineering. We live in the material world, so we miss a lot from this, and I don’t think that today we live in an incredibly fast technological age.

    The Founders Fund’s tagline hints at Twitter: “We wanted flying cars, but instead we got 140 characters.”Having things like the iPhone and social networks, has our quality of life improved? Little. Truly not enough. This expression does not mean that we criticize twitter as a business. I think this company will ultimately be very profitable; and 2,000 people who work there will be provided with income for decades to come. But unfortunately, the specific success of Twitter can be a symptom of a general failure. Despite the fact that in a certain way it improves our life, this is completely not enough to bring our civilization to the next level of development.

    “What technologies will allow this to be done?”


    There are many industries where incredible innovation is possible. We could find a cure for cancer or Alzheimer's. I am very interested in extending people's lives. With the help of information technologies, we can optimize the food consumed by people and get instant feedback using modern mobile technologies. I suspect that there are whole new classes of drugs or techniques that rejuvenate our organs. I also think that there are ten-fold improvements in nuclear power. Miniaturization technologies will create much smaller restraining structures, and little-studied technologies for fuel utilization and processing.

    “What are you doing to create such technologies?”


    Well, we invested in SpaceX in 2008 after the explosion of the first rockets. Although the following successfully earned. We invested in several biotechnology companies, and considered medical devices as an investment. Although today, multi-year commitment sectors are not wildly popular with investors. At the same time, I think that in the coming decades the previous growth of innovations in the field of information technologies will continue. About two-thirds of our work today is this.

    “Which companies that solve important problems you could name?”


    Tesla is really a very interesting example of such a company. Most of their constituent products are not associated with major achievements, but the ability to combine them in itself is an achievement. I think that we usually pay too much attention to solving stepwise point solutions and, thus, we are very afraid of complex operational problems.

    A paradigmatic example of such a large company as Google. In large companies, they often face internal bureaucracy and the need to execute quarterly reports. But Google has significantly reduced this practice compared to other large companies. And it seems that they have achieved significant success in the revolutionary field of unmanned vehicles .

    Instead of trying to achieve major achievements, Silicon Valley devotes itself to the philosophy of a lean startup , which implies a low amount of primary financing and leads along the path of minimizing the cost of existing products.

    Great companies were built on the foundation of inspiring, far-reaching plans. Most startups in Silicon Valley today take a different path and think only of themselves. Apple didn't give a damn about the lean startup concept when they released their first PC samples. If you cannot take any decisive steps, then you will only take phased steps. That's why Elon Musk (founder and CEO of Tesla and SpaceX) is so inspiring. Both projects, Tesla and SpaceX, are quite large "quantum" technological leaps.

    “Can technology companies along the path of bold transformation remain so after they have received universally recognized status?”


    Many large technology companies are very conservative. Examples include Microsoft, Oracle or Hewlett-Packard, which basically do not want to change anything. Microsoft was a technology company in the 80s and 90s; in this decade, you invest in it because you rely on stability. Pharmaceutical companies are principled opponents of innovation, busy figuring out ways to extend the life of patents and pressure on small companies. All these companies, which started as technological ones, have become anti- technological . Whether the world can change or not, in fact, investment in these anti-technology companies is a good investment and it is very bad for our society as a whole.

    The program Apollo , highway system, andThe Manhattan project are examples of significant technological leaps, and we need more of these. Moreover, all these examples were state projects.

    “Can the US government return to financing such programs?”


    There are opinions that state financing should be carried out in low-profit sectors, in the interests of the whole society. But today, the US government is dominated by lawyers, not scientists or engineers, which suggests a poor assessment of such projects. For example, you probably won’t be able to restart nuclear projects without government involvement. But due to the fact that the government does not believe in comprehensive coordination and planning, it will not be possible to restart the nuclear industry. It is possible that this restart will never happen.

    “Can one of the new economies, such as China, maintain confidence in significant goals?”


    I think that in the medium term, the future of China will be to simply copy things developed in the developed countries of the world - this is what I call globalization. This is a perfectly rational choice. The question we are not asking is, how do we contribute to the growth of the developing world? It is through technological shocks.

    “Some of your arguments echo the economist Robert Gordon, who believes that economic growth and technological progress have stalled. Do you share this point of view? ”


    On the one hand, I agree with the conclusions of Robert Gordon, on the other, I’m closer to the words of the futurist Ray Kurzweil .

    I am not as pessimistic as Gordon, because I see great progress in the field of information technology, but also not as optimistic as Kurzweil. Some pessimists say that all the "low hanging fruits" are already harvested. I would say that there has never been a “low hanging fruit” . There is always only the average height and the problem of having people ready to reach this height. I am disappointed that the technology is progressing very slowly, but I am optimistic because I think it can be fixed.

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