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Is there a Thiel versus Musk debate?

November 10, 2014

Two competing views from two technology visionaries may shape not only the state of innovation, but where public policy is headed. You’ve got Peter Thiel on one side and Elon Musk on the other.

Thiel, billionaire investor extraordinaire, never holds back on his thoughts as he travels the speaking circuit spreading his own version of the technology and innovation gospel. Musk, another billionaire magnate and investor, may not be near as loquacious as Thiel, but he nevertheless offers occasional sound bites on the intersection of business and technology.

However, what could be emerging are two very contrasting world views that could dictate the philosophy behind social and economic outcomes. One major point: Embrace technology or contain it?

Thiel recently urged at a Gartner ITxpo Symposium that we should embrace technology. “You see ‘Gravity’ and you'll never want to go into space," Thiel joked as he talked about what he perceives is the built-in society-wide aversion to technology baked into popular culture. Overall, Thiel sees an anti-science bias holding the future back. "There has been innovation in bits, but not in the world of atoms." For Thiel, science should be the sky without any limit.

That’s more than likely Musk’s take, too, considering his background as Tesla founder and now SpaceX entrepreneur battling for a piece of the NASA budget. But Musk, in recent statements before the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department's 2014 Centennial Symposium, talked about “summoning the demon” when dealing with artificial intelligence. "You know all those stories where there's the guy with the pentagram and the holy water and he's like ... yeah, he's sure he can control the demon, [but] it doesn't work out.”

There is an interesting contrast in future policy approaches that’s playing out in these remarks from two of the most consequential technologists in the modern world. Thiel is also unapologetically libertarian and less cautious in his view that innovation is what will move the world forward. Musk, while ambitious and pro-innovation himself, is offering a much more cautious view. This debate is also becoming much more apparent in the open question on the role of government in that equation, with an emerging libertarian view of less government intrusion and a presumably fledgling liberal worldview that argues for more government oversight and intervention.  The former argument suggests less government intrusion and reliance on the innovation sector is the right approach; the latter argument may be saying ‘Hold on a minute—let’s think this through.’

Perhaps one promising note in this discussion is that customers are increasingly involved in organizational or company decisions on the types of products and services they receive. In some respects, that can serve as a sort of failsafe against the type of doomsday scenario Musk describes. “For several years, we have noted a shift in power from companies to customers,” writes Forrester’s Jost Hopperman. “Customers call the shots; they can and do transfer their loyalty when they aren't catered to with engaging customer experiences” (Hopperman, 2014). That makes the companies developing technology not just responsive to customer needs, but also customer concerns. The downside, as Thiel would probably argue, is that too much customer input can lead to customer interference or a drag on innovation.

Even if unintentional, the Thiel and Musk perspectives somehow crystallize this debate in a number of ways. It is an ongoing clash between collective socioeconomic hopes and fears. There is an uncertainty there as the public assumes it’s feeling its way around in a murky darkness. Gartner’s Martin Kihn says we should fear not when offering reflections on the recent Advertising Week 2014 in New York City:  “Fear is a simple reaction to change. We should love it and it passes away.” The innovation sector will have to grapple with that discussion as it continues to evolve and shape itself. As that happens, service providers can actually play a central role as gatekeepers of that change.

Charles Ellison is a senior analyst relations strategist for TEKsystems. He keeps close tabs on changes and public policy shaping the innovation space. He is also a former congressional staffer, senior aide to state and local elected officials and an expert advocacy strategist. You can reach him with questions and comments @twoARguys via Twitter.

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