Thursday, April 18, 2024

Peter Thiel on the Western canon and on A.I.

Tyler Cowen interviews Peter Thiel on various topics. Here’s the introduction:

In this conversation recorded live in Miami, Tyler and Peter Thiel dive deep into the complexities of political theology, including why it’s a concept we still need today, why Peter’s against Calvinism (and rationalism), whether the Old Testament should lead us to be woke, why Carl Schmitt is enjoying a resurgence, whether we’re entering a new age of millenarian thought, the one existential risk Peter thinks we’re overlooking, why everyone just muddling through leads to disaster, the role of the katechon, the political vision in Shakespeare, how AI will affect the influence of wordcels, Straussian messages in the Bible, what worries Peter about Miami, and more.

On the Western canon

COWEN: Are there other holy books besides the Bible that you draw ideas and inspiration from? And what would those be?

THIEL: I think in some sense, it’s all the great books. They’re not quite at the scale of these holy books, but there was a way that we treated Shakespeare or Cervantes or Goethe as these almost semi-divine writers, and I think that’s the attitude one has to have to read any of these books appropriately and seriously.

COWEN: So, the Western canon would be your answer, so to speak?

THIEL: Something like the Western canon. I don’t think the great books are quite as holy as the Bible, and as a result, I probably don’t read enough of them, but yes, that’s the closest approximation. COWEN: And it includes science fiction — yes or no?

THIEL: I read a lot as a kid. I read so little of that nowadays. It’s all too depressing.

That’s certainly how Harold Bloom thought about the canonical authors, as being “almost semi-divine.” We need to rethink that. Though it goes beyond rethinking. We have to rework the mechanisms of culture. How do we use these books most effectively? That’s tricky, since we don’t know what those mechanisms are or how they work. There’s no engineering solution.

Silicon Valley’s not asking the right questions about A.I.

COWEN: For our last segment, let’s turn to artificial intelligence. As you know, large language models are already quite powerful. They’re only going to get better. In this world to come, will the wordcels just lose their influence? People who write, people who play around with ideas, pundits — are they just toast? What’s this going to look like? Are they going to give up power peacefully? Are they going to go down with the ship? Are they going to set off nuclear bombs?

THIEL: I’ll say the AI thing broadly, the LLMs — it’s a big breakthrough. It’s very important, and it’s striking to me how bad Silicon Valley is at talking about these sorts of things. The questions are either way too narrow, where it’s something like, is the next transformer model going to improve by 20 percent on the last one or something like this? Or they’re maybe too cosmic, where it’s like from there we go straight to the simulation theory of the universe. Surely there are a lot of in-between questions one could ask. Let me try to answer yours.

My intuition would be it’s going to be quite the opposite, where it seems much worse for the math people than the word people. What people have told me is that they think within three to five years, the AI models will be able to solve all the US Math Olympiad problems. That would shift things quite a bit.

There’s a longer history I always have on the math versus verbal riff. If you ask, “When did our society bias to testing people more for math ability?” I believe it was during the French Revolution because it was believed that verbal ability ran in families. Math ability was distributed in this idiot savant way throughout the population.

If we prioritized math ability, it had this meritocratic but also egalitarian effect on society. Then, I think, by the time you get to the Soviet Union, Soviet Communism in the 20th century, where you give a number theorist or chess grandmaster a medal — which was always a part I was somewhat sympathetic to in the Soviet Union — maybe it’s actually just a control mechanism, where the math people are singularly clueless. They don’t understand anything, but if we put them on a pedestal, and we tell everyone else you need to be like the math person, then it’s actually a way to control. Or the chess grandmaster doesn’t understand anything about the world. That’s a way to really control things.

If I fast-forwarded to, let’s say, Silicon Valley in the early 21st century, it’s way too biased toward the math people. I don’t know if it’s a French Revolution thing or a Russian-Straussian, secret-cabal, control thing where you have to prioritize it. That’s the thing that seems deeply unstable, and that’s what I would bet on getting reversed, where it’s like the place where math ability — it’s the thing that’s the test for everything.

It’s like if you want to go to medical school, okay, we weed people out through physics and calculus, and I’m not sure that’s really correlated with your dexterity as a neurosurgeon. I don’t really want someone operating on my brain to be doing prime number factorizations in their head while they’re operating on my brain, or something like that.

In the late ’80s, early ’90s, I had a chess bias because I was a pretty good chess player. And so my chess bias was, you should just test everyone on chess ability, and that should be the gating factor. Why even do math? Why not just chess? That got undermined by the computers in 1997. Isn’t that what’s going to happen to math? And isn’t that a long-overdue rebalancing of our society?

Thiel’s right about Silicon Valley’s questions about A.I. As Thiel says, their questions are too narrowly technical or too “cosmic.” But it’s not at all clear to me how we’re going to get the rebalancing Thiel mentions.

There’s much more in the interview.

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