Some of today's smartest minds have made it clear that artificial intelligence scares the pants off them. 

"The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race," astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has told the BBC

As usual, venture capitalist Peter Thiel has his own ideas. Speaking Tuesday at Launch Festival 2015 in San Francisco, the Founders Fund principal related a story meant to show how deep the paranoia runs among his colleagues.

After a meeting with DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis in 2012, he said, some left the conversation a little shaken. "I remember one of our investors told me afterwards he felt it was his last chance to get to shoot [Deepmind's CEO] and kill him," Thiel said jokingly.  (Deepmind was later acquired by Google in 2014.)

Asked how much of a threat AI really poses to human safety, Thiel's nonchalant tone indicated that he's not bracing for an apocalypse anytime soon. 

Full AI, which refers to the intelligence of a hypothetical machine that simulates the full range of human cognitive abilities, is a long way off Thiel said -- though he wouldn't speculate as to how far off.

The slightly alarmist experts are right, however, in framing the conversation around AI the way they have, he believes.

"If we had full, strong AI, it would be like aliens landing on this planet," Thiel said. And if aliens landed on this planet, we wouldn't ask them if they could help us with the economy. We'd ask them if they planned to do us harm, he pointed out. 

Thiel also commented on other technology trends, mostly by saying that he dislikes talking about trends. 

"At this point I think all trends are overrated," Thiel said. "If you hear the words Big Data, cloud computing, you need to run away as fast as you possibly can. Just think fraud. And run away." 

Thiel advised startups to stop resorting to using buzzwords to define themselves. Instead, companies should get comfortable with the fact that what they're doing is going to be hard to explain if it is truly novel. There might not be an existing word to describe it. 

"I think things that are underrated are the one where there are no buzzwords. It doesn't match any preexisting categories," he said.

Published on: Mar 4, 2015