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Peter Thiel, Cofounder of PayPal and Palantir, prominent libertarian
Palmer Luckey, Founder of Oculus and Anduril
Peter Thiel sometimes seems bored by mainstream tech. “You have as much computing power in your iPhone as was available at the time of the Apollo missions,” he said during a debate in 2013. “But what is it being used for? It’s being used to throw angry birds at pigs.”
It was perhaps this sense of unfulfilled potential that drew him to Palmer Luckey, the never boring inventor who made the first prototypes of the Oculus Rift as a home-schooled 17-year-old. Luckey has since created Anduril, a military tech company also funded by one of Thiel’s VC firms. He talked with WIRED about his visions of the future.
I was looking at one of the photos from WIRED’s recent story about Anduril, and I noticed a red rotary phone on your desk. What’s that? I ask because my grandfather, who served in the Defense Department, also had one of those phones.
Ah, the red phone! I’ve been experimenting a lot with vestibular implants for virtual reality—being able to stimulate the inner ear in a way that allows you to feel a sense of motion. You can use the same hardware to pipe sounds right into your skull. As we were playing around with this stuff, we threw together a quick project. We called it the Palmer Phone. The idea was we’d set up the red phone in our office and link it to my vestibular implants. You wouldn’t need to call me; I wouldn’t need to answer; there wouldn’t be any ring. You’d just pick up that phone and start talking, straight into my head.
And is it working?
Uh, parts of it are working. My journey with implants is far from done.
When did you meet Peter Thiel?
I was 19 years old, maybe 20. Founders Fund was one of the first investors in Oculus. VR was kind of a dead technology then, so it was reasonable for them to ask, “Why are you guys different?”
What was your answer?
Times had changed. We had better computers, better displays, better sensors. In the old days of VR hype, many of the people who were most excited about VR hadn’t actually tried it. You told them about the content and, because they hadn’t seen the reality of what the technology was in the 1980s and ’90s, they assumed it was incredible—that it was like The Matrix or The Lawnmower Man. Today, the people who are most excited about VR are the ones who have tried it.
What will it take for VR to reach mass adoption?
A lot of people insist on price, but if the VR available today were as good as The Matrix, price wouldn’t be the issue. It’s going to be a combination of better software and better hardware. Right now free isn’t cheap enough for most people.
Do you regret selling Oculus to Facebook?
It was the best thing that’s ever happened to the VR industry. It drove billions of dollars in investment into other startups.
But do you wish Palmer Luckey still ran it?
I want what’s best for virtual reality.
After Oculus, you started Anduril. Why get into defense tech?
The US is really good at spending money on aircraft carriers and manned fighter planes, but those probably aren’t going to win the next major conflict. I was concerned that we were falling behind in technology.
You’re a libertarian. Do you have any unease about working with a huge government bureaucracy?
I’m generally a fan of smaller government and of intervention only when it’s strictly needed. At the same time, I think the US is still generally a force for good in the world. In other words, I’m not going to say that because I disagree with the US government on one point or another, even important points, that we should have worse tech than, let’s say, Russia or China.
You’ve been pretty vocal about how other tech companies should work with the Defense Department. Isn’t that kind of against your economic interests?
You know, it feels a little bit like the old days at Oculus when people would say the same thing: “Why are you helping other VR companies? Why are you promoting their stuff? Why are you giving them advice?” And the answer is the same: A rising tide lifts all boats. Right now, the people who are best equipped to solve a lot of these defense problems are refusing to work on them. I’d much rather be part of a big, healthy ecosystem of innovation in which we’re spending less as a country while still making ourselves safer. And I can’t do it alone.
If China came to you and said, “We’d like to license everything you’ve built at Anduril,” what would you say?
I’m 100 percent focused on the US and our allies.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever tried to build?
A bypass for my peripheral nervous system. Rather than waiting a few hundred milliseconds for a signal to travel from my brain to my extremities, I tried to capture it closer to the source and relay it electronically. If you could do this with all of your limbs, not just one finger or one arm, you could potentially have superhuman reflexes without doing a bunch of crazy work on, let’s say, exoskeletons or predictive analytics.
What would you want to do with that?
Click a mouse faster. I think that will be a good proof of concept.
What’s something that you think has a 50-50 chance of being built in the next 25 years?
Autonomous air taxis that can take off and land vertically. It’s really interesting technology. Of course, if VR does everything I believe it’ll do, then it’ll largely replace the need for many face-to-face interactions. And if that happens, well, what’s an air taxi for?
What about you? What’s your prediction?
Gene-edited babies. When my 4-year-old has a kid, will he really be able to select for a bunch of traits?
Aw, man. I’m a little bit on the other side of the equation. I’m really excited about how we’re going to augment people with machinery in the next 25 years. But part of that is because I’ve already been born. It’s great that my grandkid’s kid is going to be genetically edited and be able to do all this stuff. But I’m a little bit selfish; I want to optimize myself in the near term. Machinery seems like the best way to do that.
The funny thing about editing babies is that, once you accept that we’re going to do that, you accept the proposition that you become ever more obsolete. In fact, every child becomes obsolete at birth.
The first generation of really good elective gene editing is going to get all the low-hanging fruit. Our kids and grandkids will look at us and say, “Oh, Grandpa. You can’t do anything.”
“You can’t jump 16 vertical feet.”
“We’ve got to walk slow for Grandpa. He can only move at a few miles an hour.” We’ll see! I’m hoping that within my lifetime I get to be a superhuman cyborg.
Speaking of which, I hurt my foot recently in a bicycle accident. I tore some tendons and the nerve cord around my big toe, which is pretty important for balance and walking. The good news is they were able to reattach the cord, but there was a period of a few days when I was sketching out how I might compensate. I considered making a shoe with a pressure sensor where my big toe is, then feeding that data into a nervous pathway somewhere else in my body.
The human brain is very plastic; it can learn to pipe one sense into another sense. There’s a company called BrainPort that makes an electro-haptic pad that goes on top of your tongue. If you’re blind, you can use it to see. The device converts camera images into electrical signals that prickle your tongue, and over time your brain learns to wire its visual cortex directly to those nerves—mind-blowing. I thought I might need to do something like that so I could run well again, but it looks like I’m going to heal up and I don’t need to be a cyborg.
First part of Palmer Luckey that will go cyborg? “My big toe. I injured it recently in a bike accident and briefly considered augmenting it with a pressure pad.”
Can you set it up so your tongue is responsible for both your sight and your toe?
The tongue has an enormous amount of sensory bandwidth. It’s also very low latency, because it’s close to your brain. You probably could feed it sight and also your toe, just because the information you’re getting from your toe is low bandwidth and high latency. Like, your toes are some of the slowest things on your body, actually.
Because they’re so far away from your brain?
Yeah. The chemical process that allows a signal to travel from your brain all the way to your toe—it takes a long time to get there and a long time to get back. Your brain is continuously tricking you into believing that there’s no delay: You tell your foot to move, and it appears to move quickly. But you have an enormous lag in your system. That’s what I was talking about earlier with the bypass.
The toe injury makes for a perfect experiment, Palmer. This is the moment!
That’s exactly what I was thinking: I’ve already damaged it, so I’m not hot-wiring a system that already works. But, for better or for worse, my toe is healing. I’m going to have to focus on the other stuff.
This article appears in the October issue. Subscribe now.
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