The New York Times published an anti-Google screed by billionaire Peter Thiel last night but failed to mention a fun fact that readers might find relevant: Thiel sits on the board of Facebook, one of Google’s largest competitors.
Thiel first blasted Google as “treasonous” last month, saying that the FBI and CIA should investigate the company for working with the Chinese government. The tech investor even asked if Google had been infiltrated by Chinese spies, a highly inflammatory charge that he didn’t substantiate. Thiel has now followed up his anti-Google remarks in a new piece for the Times praising President Donald Trump and railing against “globalization.”
(Disclosure: Thiel secretly bankrolled a lawsuit brought by Hulk Hogan, which bankrupted Gizmodo’s former parent company, Gawker Media.)
Thiel’s central argument is that anyone helping China to develop artificial intelligence technologies is assisting China’s military because, he says, all AI should be seen first and foremost as having military applications:
A.I. is a military technology. Forget the sci-fi fantasy; what is powerful about actually existing A.I. is its application to relatively mundane tasks like computer vision and data analysis. Though less uncanny than Frankenstein’s monster, these tools are nevertheless valuable to any army — to gain an intelligence advantage, for example, or to penetrate defenses in the relatively new theater of cyberwarfare, where we are already living amid the equivalent of a multinational shooting war.
Thiel, who in 2017 sold the majority of his Facebook shares but remains on its board of directors, goes on to characterize Google as “naive” for opening an AI lab in China while deciding to not renew a contract for its work on Project Maven, a U.S. military initiative for which the company was developing an AI system to analyze drone footage, following employee backlash.
Google did not yet respond to our request for comment on Thiel’s op-ed, but it has previously denied that it works with China’s military and the company’s vice president of public policy, Karan Bhatia, told members of Congress in a hearing last month that the company sees “no evidence” that Chinese spies have infiltrated Google.
Thiel, a former advisor to President Trump, originally made his money by co-founding PayPal in the 1990s. But in the years since, Thiel has placed his money into a lot of different endeavors, including border security and life extension technologies. Thiel was also an early investor in Facebook and currently sits on the company’s board, which is why it’s so weird that none of that was mentioned in Thiel’s latest article blasting Google. In fact, the battle between Facebook and Google is one of the most important rivalries in tech, as together they control roughly 60 percent of the online ad market in the U.S.
Thiel also founded Palantir, which has a lucrative contract with the U.S. Department of Defense, yet another fact that isn’t mentioned in the article. Palantir’s data analytics software has been used in operations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to separate families at the U.S.–Mexico border, Homeland Security documents show, and ICE has regularly used it to conduct workplace raids, according to emails obtained by WNYC.
Palantir has previously attempted to distance itself from ICE’s immigration enforcement activities.
In his piece for the Times, Thiel acknowledges that AI can be used for civilian purposes, but he claims that it doesn’t matter. He calls Google’s actions “shocking”:
No doubt machine learning tools have civilian uses, too; A.I. is a good example of a “dual use” technology. But that common-sense understanding of A.I.’s ambiguity has been strangely missing from the narrative that pits a monolithic “A.I.” against all of humanity.
A.I.’s military power is the simple reason that the recent behavior of America’s leading software company, Google — starting an A.I. lab in China while ending an A.I. contract with the Pentagon — is shocking. As President Barack Obama’s defense secretary Ash Carter pointed out last month, “If you’re working in China, you don’t know whether you’re working on a project for the military or not.”
Thiel goes on to invoke the word “cosmopolitanism” in a dig at Silicon Valley. While Thiel says the tech hub’s isolation “from the problems of other places” is “better understood as an extreme strain of parochialism,” cosmopolitan has been historically used as a code word for “Jewish,” though some Trump supporters would no doubt clutch their pearls and reject that characterization:
How can Google use the rhetoric of “borderless” benefits to justify working with the country whose “Great Firewall” has imposed a border on the internet itself? This way of thinking works only inside Google’s cosseted Northern California campus, quite distinct from the world outside. The Silicon Valley attitude sometimes called “cosmopolitanism” is probably better understood as an extreme strain of parochialism, that of fortunate enclaves isolated from the problems of other places — and incurious about them.
The end of the op-ed, which is typically where conflicts of interest might be noted if they’re not in the body of the text, simply reads, “Peter Thiel is an entrepreneur and investor.”
The New York Times did not yet respond to our request for comment. Gizmodo has also reached out to a representative for Peter Thiel. We will update this article if we hear back.
In fairness to Thiel, he’s not altogether wrong that doing business with China could be problematic or even straight-up evil. The Chinese government currently has anywhere from 800,000 to 3 million Muslims imprisoned in Chinese concentration camps and is carrying out a campaign of cultural genocide, and it’s reportedly using AI and other technologies to do it. But given the shocking human rights violations that are currently being perpetrated every single day on U.S. soil (another person died in Customs and Border Protection custody yesterday), it’s laughable to believe that Thiel has any moral high ground here.
Again, this is the guy who founded Palantir. The CIA-backed, Minority Report-style pre-crime company Palantir. Thiel doesn’t get to lecture anyone on support for brutal governments while the company continues to make money hand over fist from the Trump regime.
Update 6:43 pm: The New York Times has since updated its bio at the end of Thiel’s piece to disclose his involvement with Facebook and Palantir. It now reads: “Peter Thiel, an entrepreneur and investor, is on the board of Facebook and is a founder and chairman of Palantir.”