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The Thiel Foundation

About a week ago, my house-mate invited me to has to have been one of the most interesting social events I’ve ever lucked into attending. The founder of Paypal, subsequent multimillion(billion?)aire, and venture capitalist Peter Thiel created a foundation that offers fellowships that amount to anti-college scholarships. Under the program name “20 under 20”, he provides brilliant, successful, creative teens with 100,000 dollars over the course of two years to NOT go to Ivy League schools and, instead, become entrepreneurs and and develop their ideas. They must have had some great applications because in their first year, the foundation couldn’t settle on 20 and so there’s something like 23 or 24 in actuality.

Incredible premise, you might say. And incredible it is.

My aforementioned house-mate (I haven’t decided if I am going to use real names in this blog yet) has somehow fallen in a few of the fellows, and let me tag along to a social get-together of the foundation. It took place right on the Bay in the Berkeley marina, surrounded by towering sailboats docked on shore.

We got there fairly late, but during the time that we were there we sure met some interesting characters. My housemate introduced me to a leader in the “seasteading” movement- which is an effort to develop offshore sovereign communities outside of any existing federal jurisdiction in an effort to establish and test alternative, highly libertarian societal structures. Or something like that. In addition, I was brought up to speed on the status of the first “charter cities” being created in Honduras. There is a fantastic TED talk concerning these charter cities that I highly recommend.

That conversation led us into a discussion with a gentleman about the possibilities such a city would present for medical tourism. Eventually it was discovered that he works for a cryogenics biotech company, and actually used to be the president of Alcor Life Extension Foundation. I’ve been interested in Alcor for a while because its such a controversial and fascinating idea- they will chemically and cryogenically preserve your body (or just your head- if you are on a budget) after death so that if and when we develop technologies to reinstate neural activity, you’ll still be there to do so. This of course raises a whole host of interesting philosophical issues, like what kind of role continuity of neural activity plays in the issue of consciousness or identity, if any. Maybe another blog post on that some day soon.

Later I met someone working on developing models of brain function in the human neocortex. One of their key premises is that we can create these models in any way we want as long as we successfully mimic the output of the brain, but I happen to disagree on this point. Modeling true intelligence is more than just mimicking output, the way in which computation is performed is nontrivial. Apparently, another company in the Bay area is taking exactly this approach. Numenta was founded by Jeff Hawkins, the guy who invented Palm Pilot, and is developing cortical learning algorithms that are based on actual biology- much more meaningful in my opinion. I’m in the process of reading everything about Numenta’s work at the moment, and I highly recommend Jeff Hawkins’ TED talk as well if you are at all interested in AI, the brain, or intelligence. There will definitely be another blog post in the near future concerning this.

Oh, and we almost got abducted by a taco truck. We were both starving and heard the food truck was about to leave, so we ran out to it, but it looked closed up. Several people were climbing in the side door however, so we followed them in hunger-fueled desperation, only to find the door closed behind us. Apparently these other people just needed a ride back to San Fran and were hitchhiking on the truck, but fortunately we managed to bail out before we wound up as unwitting taco-making indentured servants.