Vinod Khosla — who co-founded Sun Microsystems, the company behind Java, in 1982 and remains one of Silicon Valley’s most influential investors — wasn’t shy about sharing his opinion at Hack the North. In a wide ranging fireside interview with Encircle CTO Mike Kirkup for the 1,000 assembled hackers, Khosla elaborated his unique worldview through numerous and detailed replies; replies that hopscotched from one idea to the next, sometimes barely skimming Kirkup’s questions but driving home powerful messages for the students.

Khosla spoke about the future impact of artificial intelligence (more significant than mobile and in the next seven to 10 years), the (lack of) importance of listening to your customer, what he would build at Hack the North, how entrepreneurs should think, the (lack of) importance of liberal arts, creative destruction of jobs in the next 30 years, whether Artificial Superintelligence will take over the world and destroy humanity, and a lot more.

Partly because I can’t stop thinking about it, I’ve tried to put together a brief sketch of Khosla’s fascinating techno-optimistic worldview as it emerged in this conversation:

Expertise

Khosla is deeply skeptical of experts in general.

He returned to this theme again and again, saying “I am convinced that in 15 years, and hopefully five — I think it can be done in three to five — I will get better medical diagnosis in a village in India than I will get at Stanford five miles from my house.”

He believes this because he believes that — in the not so distant future — expertise will become something of a handicap: “Stanford will still have experts and gurus and specialist doctors, and my cellphone in my village in India will have knowledge: know all 5,000 articles on oncology that were published this year that are relevant to me if I’m a cancer patient.” As for human doctors, “who wants the human bias?”

With Peter Thiel-like enthusiasm he declares that university is “a waste of time today.” He believes that, for the same reasons the AI will outperform the oncologist, universities won’t change much as time passes, and will probably educate the same number of people in the future that they do today. But he believes “education outside the universities will start growing exponentially and in new ways.”

It all comes from a fundamental belief that “things start on the edges.”

Sharing a story about visiting executives from three major auto companies, Khosla said he learned that “three years ago, none of them believed electric cars would be important; because of Tesla, now they all believe the only kind of new car that is important is an electric car.” The electric revolution had to start on the margins “because there was no way for the industry to convince itself.”

Meritocracy

The existence of exceptional people is a tentpole of Khosla’s philosophy.

For instance, when he shared the purpose of his talk, he told them that convincing just one of them to do things differently would satisfy him. The glow in the audience was short lived, when he immediately clarified saying “the sad part is, even in this audience, 80 to 90 per cent will do what’s expected. But the other five to 10 percent will change the world with unreasonable views.”

His sense of meritocracy came through in his every encouragement to the students. He told them to be visionary, build the future that they wanted to see and hope that others agreed with them and to never listen to anyone: not experts, customers, or forecasts.

He was clear that this was good advice only for a tiny fraction of the audience listening; that this path is wise only for people with truly exceptional vision.

He was also clear that those were the only people he was interested in speaking to.

Technology

Technology is Khosla’s religion.

Answering Kirkup’s first question, Khosla stunned the audience with a tangent from his early life: “by the time I was 16 I was religiously wed to technology; and in fact said it was going to be my only religion, which didn’t make many people happy. But I was very happy, and have stuck with that since as my only religion.”

He described the victory of Alpha GO, where an AI beat the world’s top GO player in a head-to-head match, as “almost a religious experience,” and seemed to reserve a sense of the sacred for the potential of artificial intelligence.

He’s an unequivocal optimist about the future of technology, unconcerned about a robotic takeover of humanity. When asked about the threat of artificial superintelligence, Khosla said “I won’t say it’s not possible, but most of the detailed speculation I’ve seen about it is naive.”

He dismisses Nick Bostrom’s “Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies” as “crappy.”

As for creative destruction and the loss of work, he calls predictions of a brutal have and have-not future as “a failure of imagination.” Pointing to the X-Games and “America’s Got Talent,” he shrugs: “who knows what people will do.”

Risk

Khosla believes an appetite for risk is essential to an interesting life.

He lays it out in a near-philosophical syllogism: “I always complain that most people reduce risk to the point that they increase the probability of success, but reduce the consequences of success to inconsequential.” As a result, he says that “by definition, if you don’t like risk, you’re going to be precluded from doing interesting things with your life.”

He believes that only radical thinking can bring about disruptive change, expressed in part by his belief that the customer is not always right: “I’d almost say listening to customers is only a good idea for doing incremental things… It is not the job of a customer of technology to be visionary, It is the job of the visionary to invent the future.”

Banks

Of all the legacy institutions Khosla hates, he reserves a special disdain for banks.

“Much of the financial industry that exists today shouldn’t exist; I mean, they just add very little value,” he told the hackers. “If I can appeal to all of you to never go into banking that’d be great.” He thinks Wall Street “does way more damage than the value it adds,” and agrees that only “about 2-5 per cent of what happens on Wall Street is actually very important social services, the other 95 per cent encourages behaviour and attacks on society that are completely unjustified and it’s a system that perpetuates itself.”

He joked that his ideas often get him into trouble before sharing a quote that elucidated his worldview perhaps more than any other:

“Sometimes it’s nice to be hated by the wrong people.”

About The Author

Phil Froklage
Digital Journalist/Multimedia Producer

Phil Froklage is a writer, filmmaker and journalist in Waterloo Region obsessed with the future. Passionate about science and technology — and how it shapes our world — Phil likes nothing more than being surprised by the amazing things human beings can do.