The Foresight Institute was one of eight future-oriented organizations chosen to present at a “Breakthrough Philanthropy” event attended by a couple hundred wealthy individuals. Wade Roush reports in Xconomy “Peter Thiel Challenges Silicon Valley’s Wealthy to Back ‘Breakthrough’ Philanthropic Causes“:
Last night Silicon Valley icon Peter Thiel, of PayPal fame, gathered eight of his favorite future-oriented organizations and a couple hundred of his wealthiest friends in an auditorium at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts and made a magnanimous offer. For every dollar attendees contribute to the organizations before New Year’s Day, Thiel’s foundation announced, the billionaire investor-philanthropist will contribute another dollar, up to a limit of $1,000 per organization per attendee.
If everyone who attended Thiel’s so-called “Breakthrough Philanthropy” event gives a full $8,000, Thiel could be on the hook for a lot of money. My own rough estimate is that 200 people were on hand—and 200 times $8,000 comes to $1.6 million.
It was a bold, assertive way to promote the fortunes of these unusual groups, which included the Foresight Institute, Humanity Plus, the Santa Fe Institute, the Seasteading Institute, the SENS Foundation, the Singularity Institute, Singularity University, and the X Prize Foundation. But Thiel is known an iconoclast who’s attracted to long bets and radical solutions; he possesses the sort of optimism that often seems to be engendered by (or perhaps engenders) extreme self-made wealth.
In “lightning presentations” of about five minutes each, representatives of Thiel’s chosen groups described their goals. These range from the merely ambitious—harnessing nanotechnology, in the case of the Foresight Institute, or sequencing the human genome more cheaply, in the case of the X Prize Foundation—to the barely conceivable and arguably loony, such as transhumanism (Humanity Plus), reversing aging (the SENS Foundation), and establishing ocean cities that function as independent countries (the Seasteading Institute).
In remarks at the event, Thiel drew a distinction between “extensive” technologies, which “take things that are working and replicate them,” and “intensive” technologies, which try to “take the things that are best in the world and make them qualitatively and dramatically better.” All eight of the groups included in the donor challenge have agendas that, to lay people, may sound “really weird and really strange,” Thiel acknowledged. But he argued that “it may be in the nature of things that are ‘intensive’ that any time you are doing something singular that’s never been done before…it will be seen as weird.”
“The future is not an abstraction,” Thiel summarized at last night’s event. “It is not something that just happens or that other people do. It is something we all participate in helping to create and forge and shape, and if we do that and set our minds to it, we can do a lot more.”
In the San Francisco Chronicle coverage “Peter Thiel seeks funding for the future” Casey Newton quotes Foresight President Christine Peterson:
Philanthropists should take bigger risks with their giving in hopes of making an investment that changes the world, says Facebook investor and venture capitalist Peter Thiel.
Thiel is bringing entrepreneurs and philanthropists together in San Francisco tonight (Tuesday) to showcase the work of eight science-driven organizations working on issues with big social consequences.
His nonprofit group, the Thiel Foundation, is encouraging philanthropists to donate more money to scientific pursuits that could lead to big breakthroughs in medicine, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, among other fields.
While some of the research may seem arcane, Thiel said he has found an eager audience in Silicon Valley.
“Within the tech industry, there are a large number of people who are very interested in these sorts of futuristic technologies,” Thiel said in a phone interview Monday. “It’s something that people are quite receptive to. They’ve made money in tech, and on the nonprofit side, it makes sense to re-invest at least part of that into nonprofits and foundations that have a technological orientation.”
The organizations include the Seasteading Institute, which promotes the construction of permanent dwellings at sea; the X Prize Foundation, which has funded innovations in space travel and automobile design; and the Foresight Institute, which promotes nanotechnology research. While much of philanthropy focuses on giving that helps its beneficiaries in the near term, Thiel hopes to persuade donors that they can better serve their legacy by making a few higher-risk, higher-reward investments.
“Some folks who have an unusually long time horizon, like Peter, are able to say look, I’m going to put aside the emotional satisfaction of a near-term payoff to go into this more abstract area and go for a really huge win,” said Christine Peterson, president of the Foresight Institute.
Peterson’s group, which Thiel has donated to, promotes efforts that could ultimately lead to technology that allows tiny devices to repair bodies at the cellular level.
“We are very excited about the potential environmental benefits and the medical benefits,” she said. “We’ll be trying to get those across to the crowd (on Tuesday) and get them excited about taking action.”
More broadly, Thiel said, he hopes the research he’s promoting can inspire the general public.
“I think one of the reasons there’s so much more pessimism in the United States today than there would have been 40 years ago is that not only are we in a recession and financial crisis, but there’s also a sense that things aren’t going to get dramatically better or dramatically different,” he said. “Returning to the technological story and the technological vision of the future is in my view the only way we can really tell a powerful and positive story about creating a better society.”
Update: for an amateur video of Christine’s talk, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQCWtb2YRkU