Peter Thiel claims AI is "Leninist" and "literally communist" in a sprawling speech for a think tank

On November 13, noted vampire capitalist Peter Thiel gave a speech to donors at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research conservative think-tank on "The End of the Computer Age." Over the course of 40 minutes, he covered a lot of topics—some of which were at least provocative, some of them which sounded like they were ripped straight out of a Gavin Belson speech on Silicon Valley.

There was a, um, interesting reflection on the shortcomings of Margaret Thatcher's regime:

I sort of think of Margaret Thatcher's biggest mistake was she thought that in the late '70s that embracing the EU would be a way to crush the unions in the UK.

An interesting (accidental?) critique of the Electoral College system:

In a democracy if you have sort of majority vote, that's good. If you have a supermajority, that's even better. So if you got 51%, you're probably right. If you get 70%, you're even more right. On the other hand, if you get 99.99% of the voters, you're sort of in North Korea. [laughter]

The "greatest lie" Obama ever told (which is, he notes, not about Iraq or healthcare):

"Just because it's not some name-brand, famous, fancy school, doesn't mean that you're not going to get a great education there." So let's parse that two lies. First off, if it isn't a name-brand, famous, fancy school, you're not going to get a great education. You're just going to get a diploma that's a dunce hat in disguise. If it is a name-brand, famous, fancy school, you probably also won't get an education.

And by the end, he comes to…at least some sort of eyebrow-raising insight into the problems with "scaling" America, and the flaws in that marketing pitch of American Exceptionalism.

What really caught my eye was early in the speech, however, when he presented an argument in favor cryptocurrency by comparing it against the "Sauron"-esque nature of AI:

If we were to tell the two technological stories about scale at this point, one of them is still the sort of crypto revolution which is still going on with Bitcoin and has this sort of this libertarian potential. But I think there is sort of an alternate tech story which is about AI, big data, centralized databases, surveillance, which does not seem libertarian at all. You're sort of going to have the big eye of Sauron watching you at all times, in all places. And I often think that we live in a world where the ideology always has a certain veil on it. So if we say that crypto is libertarian, why can't we say that AI is communist, and at least have the sort of alternate account of scale?

Thiel drops this "AI is communist and crypto is libertarian" in there right after his Thatcher comments and then just kind of moves on, perhaps assuming that his audience would simply accept this claim as fact, or at least a foregone conclusion.

But the speech was followed by a brief Q+A, in which an audience member asked him to expand on this idea. Which is when Thiel explains:

The main AI applications that people seem to talk about are using large data to sort of monitor people, know more about people than they know about themselves […] where you can know enough about people that you know more about them than they know about themselves, and you can sort of enable communism to work, maybe not so much as an economic theory, but at least as a political theory. So it is definitely a Leninist thing. And then, it is literally communist because China loves AI; it hates crypto. And so that, I think, tells you something. And then I think there's a commonsense level on which people are creeped out about it and this is why. And we should label it accurately.

Thiel's big critique here does seem to be about the authoritarian use of data and surveillance. Which, okay, cool, I agree, that's a valid concern. I don't know what that has to do a revolutionary vanguard party forming a transitional state in order to establish a classless and leaderless society, but, um, sure. China does technically call itself a government. So I think I get what he's putting down here.

But just so we're clear: this is the guy who helped found Palantir. Like, the big data analytics company that literally ICE to organize its authoritarian tactics. Which is the same Peter Thiel who also founded the Anduril surveillance company, and used his billions to destroy a successful news organization for criticizing him. And he's afraid of AI because of … communism?

At least he's got his Lord of the Rings naming conventions lined up right, I guess.

2019 Wriston Lecture: The End Of The Computer Age [Peter Thiel / Manhattan Institute for Policy Research]

Image via Heisenberg Media/Flickr (altered)