Peter Thiel supports a lot of big and crazy ideas -- like building new micro-nations in the ocean and creating artificial intelligence.
But for now, he'd be happy if American tech companies could just get more qualified workers from overseas.
On Wednesday night, the Thiel Foundation held its annual holiday party at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Thiel was using the party to show off some of the projects he supports, including the Seasteading Institute and the 20 Under 20 program (which encourages kids to drop out of college to form startups).
Thiel is pushing some things that he believes are important today: he wants recruiters to take a hard look at hiring students without college degrees -- he believes that degrees are overrated and saddle a lot of brilliant graduates with unnecessary debt, which makes them reluctant to take risks. He also would like the tech community to write recommendation letters for overseas workers to get O1-A visas for extraordinary technical talent (those visas are most often used for professional athletes and actors, rather than engineers).
But overall, the night had an almost wild-eyed science-fiction feel to it. Some moments that stuck out:
- I spoke to Seasteading president Michael Keenan for a few minutes about his group's dream of building a floating island off the cost of San Francisco and filing it with startups manned by workers who can't get full-time U.S. work visas. The group is working to buy a decommissioned ocean liner to park 12 miles off the coast of San Francisco, and has thought about issues like currency (U.S. dollars at first, but perhaps something like Bitcoin eventually) and a possible global economic downturn (it would reduce the pool of potential investors, but ocean liners would be really cheap!) But he admitted that they're still a long way from actually launching something that a reporter could actually tour and see. Maybe in 2013.
- A young man from the Singularity Institute pitched a small crowd on the promise of artificial intelligence, and how to make sure that humans can train it to do our bidding, rather than the other way around.
- Another person -- he described himself as a "plus one," not an invited guest -- worked in the clean tech sector. We spoke for a few minutes about the difficulty of funding companies in an industry that's so distorted by government. But he wanted me to know he was a true believer: "Put on your shades. The future is bright!"
There's nothing wrong with big dreams, and Thiel is right that a lot of the tech industry is focusing on small ideas instead of changing the world.
But the panhandler stationed outside the front door of the party was a stark reminder of how tough a lot of people have it in the here and now. Fixing the future is great, but the present needs help too.
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