Interview with Peter Thiel by Wired UK at Oxford in 2014, posted on YouTube. Edited for clarity and length.
1/Do you think there is a correlation between Asperger’s and successful founders ?
In its mildest forms, yes. And I think it is an indictment of our society that the people who are most socially adept end up having so little conviction about their ideas.
Since they are so good at picking up on social cues, they quickly internalize any rejection they get and move on to the next thing.
If you go to a place like Harvard Business School, where arguably the people are bright and socially savvy, there is so much groupthink.
In 1989 they all wanted to work for Michael Milken. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s it was dot com companies. And most other times it is either banking or consulting.
2/What are some big misses you regret in your investing career?
Everyone has lots of misses, but the true misses are the companies you spent a lot of time talking to, then passed on. For example, Zynga. I spent a lot of time talking to Mark Pincus who I’ve known for a long time but then passed. And I regret missing YouTube’s series A.
I also regret not investing in Facebook’s Series B. Mark came to me and said, I kind of like you and want you to invest, but I passed.
You see, when you are so close to a company it doesn’t seem like anything has changed internally. You walk into the office after a few months, and there is still the ugly graffiti on the wall and the same eight or nine people even though externally a lot has changed and all the metrics are pointing to the Northeast. I really thought we had maxed out the valuation at that time at $85 million.
I did invest in the Series C at $525 million and don’t regret that. The lesson I learned is, whenever a company has this huge momentum and seems overvalued, usually the opposite is the case. People are underestimating just how great the momentum is.
The thing that still surprises me is why no one in Boston invested in Facebook between February and August 2004. I believe it may be a generational rivalry thing. The investors in Boston didn’t want Mark to be more successful than they were. When I invested, I told him: I want you to be far wealthier and more successful than I ever was.
3/How do we produce more Elon Musks?
There are several people who were at PayPal who’ve gone on to found successful companies. As of today,  at least seven companies valued at $1 billion.
While it is a sample size of one and we cannot be too scientific about it, I believe a big part of it is the lesson we all learned there: It is possible to build a very successful company, but it is hard.
We had a great exit to Ebay but there were lots of challenges along the way.
If you work for a failed startup, like most people do, the lesson you internalize is that it is impossible.
And if you worked for a Google or a Microsoft where everything worked right from day one, the lesson you learn is that it is easy. This is just as toxic as learning that it is impossible.
4/You famously said “We wanted flying cars but instead got 140 characters”. What do you have against Twitter?
Twitter has a fantastic business model and monopoly position in their short message market. That statement wasn’t an attack on Twitter but on our society in general.
I think these devices (mobile phones) we are glued to distract us from the fact that we live in very old cities and use infrastructure that is 100 years old. We need to start inventing more around atoms not just bits.
5/How do we create another Silicon Valley?
I am not sure we actually know what makes Silicon Valley work and so it would be hard to copy it. Is it the climate or the people? Or the fact that non-compete agreements are not enforceable in California?
And even if we could, it is a bit of a fool’s errand.
By defining yourself in a derivative way, you constrain your ambition and guarantee that you can never really be the best at anything.
Like right now we are at Oxford. What would you think of creating the Oxford of Iceland? The something of somewhere is really the nothing of nowhere.
Instead, you should ask, what are we uniquely positioned to be the best at? London is a great finance center in a way that New York is not. There is a lot self-hating in finance in New York. London should use that to create something truly remarkable.
6/If you occupied the White House what would you change?
It will never happen. And even if it did, all of the government would have to change as well for me to have any impact.
We are at a stage where the government can no longer drive technological progress. There are 535 members of congress but, if we are generous, maybe only 35 have a science background and actually understand that solar panels do not work at night!
In the past, the government built an atom bomb in 3.5 years and put a man on the moon in under 10. Today, Einstein’s letter to the president would get lost in the White House mailroom. They would ask, who is this crazy scientist and why should we listen to him. The best we can hope for is for the government to get out of the way.
The things that tend to get funded are consensus ideas that never produce breakthroughs. And the people who get funding are those who excel at grant writing rather than the eccentric scientists.
We need to fund more of the impossible sounding ideas that are tough to sell politically, to advance society.
7/ What is your view on AI and its impact on jobs
First, I think we are very far from a strong [general] AI. Being able to create an AI that is as smart and capable as humans would be a momentous event, similar to extra terrestrial aliens arriving on earth.
To frame the discussion around jobs is to understate the impact of such a milestone. If aliens arrived on earth today the first question would be political—are they friendly or evil—not economic.
That said, I think the interaction between computers and humans will always be complimentary. Humans and computers are different. There are things that computers are really good at and things that humans excel at.
On the question of jobs, I think we should be more worried about globalization and the people in India and China. They are no different from us and can do our jobs for a lot less money.