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Steve Mollman

How Elon Musk, Sam Altman, and Peter Thiel each tick differently but are all 'live players,' according to Bismarck's Samo Burja

(Credit: Tolga Akmen/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Getting a proper read on technology billionaires can sometimes be challenging, but Samo Burja recently sketched out a "few basics” about three of the more prominent ones: Tesla CEO Elon Musk, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, and technology investor Peter Thiel.

Burja, president of political risk consultancy Bismarck Analysis, shared his thoughts in a Wednesday episode of the Live Players podcast. He describes "live players" as people who step away from norms, improvise, and think from first principles and says such individuals are instrumental in preventing societal stagnation.

Burja said that upon hearing the common wisdom, Altman's response might be “yes, and,” while Thiel’s would be “no, but.” As for Musk, Burja said, “I don’t think Elon’s even listening.” 

Altman, he said, will “see where the enthusiasm and energy lies, and it's like, ‘Okay can we harness this and even further develop it, even grow this and push it somewhere real.' He sees cryptocurrencies, and he’s like, what about…a coin for the world that changes the world economic system to prepare for the post-scarcity future.”

He cited Worldcoin, which Altman cofounded a few years ago. The idea behind the startup is that people will be able to prove their personhood in an online world that could be soon be overrun by AI bots. They’ll do this by scanning their irises using a shiny metallic orb. When you’re scanned, verified, and onboarded, you’re given some proprietary crypto tokens, also called Worldcoins. Later the system could become a way to implement universal basic income, an idea that might gain traction if AI leads to large-scale unemployment. Worldcoin, perhaps not surprisingly, has sparked widespread privacy concerns.

Musk and making Tesla work

As for Musk, Burja continued, “Elon's perspective is so first-principles-driven that while he does recognize what is popular and not and can work with it, his decisions as to what to do next are not tied at all to the mainstream but are following, I don't know, like a technology tree chart derived from basic physics or his favorite science fiction story.” 

Musk, he said, will go straight into an industry that’s widely considered hopeless, too crowded, or too mature—such as electric vehicles or space—“but have it work this time.” 

To make something like Tesla succeed as Musk did, he said, “you would have to think of it not terms of car companies, but the raw energy potential of batteries…the batteries keep getting better, so logically eventually a car company would work.”

Musk provided insights into how he thinks about physics and engineering in a recent episode of the Lex Fridman Podcast, saying: “Physics is just deepening one’s insight into how reality works. Then there’s engineering, which is inventing things that have never existed…Once you figure out the rules of the universe…you can then build technologies that are really almost limitless.” 

As for Thiel, Burja continued, “Thiel’s question is ‘How is the mainstream wrong and what can we do about it to make it correct?’ Which makes him a great technology investor—a great technologist, but also a great investor.” 

Thiel, he said, “is extremely good at noticing when the common consensus is correct or wrong for basically bad reasons—and I do include correct here—where whenever you think that even if people are directionally making the right bet for the wrong reasons, there's some, you know, financial alpha there, there’s some possibility of finding that distinction.” 

Thiel, a conservative libertarian who’s donated heavily to right-wing politicians, is known for making bold swings on unusual ideas. He was convinced well before most people that payments would go digital and Bitcoin would take off, and he wrote a $500,000 check to a Harvard student on something called “Thefacebook.” 

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