People don’t want to believe that technology is broken. . . . Pharmaceuticals, robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology—all these areas where the progress has been a lot more limited than people think. And the question is why
The future we once portrayed for ourselves in “The Jetsons.” We don’t have flying cars. Space exploration is stalled. There are no undersea cities. Household robots do not cater to our needs. Nuclear power “we should be building like crazy,” he says, but we’re sitting on our hands. Or look at today’s science fiction compared to the optimistic vision of the original “Star Trek”: Contemporary science fiction has become uniformly “dystopian,” he says. “It’s about technology that doesn’t work or that is bad.”
The great exception is information technology, whose rapid advance is no fluke: “So far computers and the Internet have been the one sector immune from excessive regulation.”
You don’t have to agree with every jot to recognize that his view is essentially undisputable: With faster innovation, it would be easier to dig out of our hole. With enough robots, even Social Security and Medicare become affordable.
Mr. Thiel has not found any straight line, however, between his macro insight and macro-investing success. “It’s hard to know how to play the macro trend,” he acknowledges. “I don’t think it necessarily means you should be short everything. But it does mean we’re stuck in a period of long-term stagnation.”
Some companies and countries will do better than others. “In China and India,” he says, “there’s no need for any innovation. Their business model for the next 20 years is copy the West.” The West, he says, needs to do “new things.” Innovation, he says, comes from a “frontier” culture, a culture of “exceptionalism,” where “people expect to do exceptional things”—in our world, still an almost uniquely American characteristic, and one we’re losing.