9 Candid Insights on the Future of Technology from Palantir CEO Alex Karp

Alex Karp

On a recent March afternoon, in front of a snowy Zoom backdrop, Palantir CEO Alex Karp treated the Executive’s Club of Chicago to a whistle-stop briefing on the geopolitics of software. 

“Since you’re stuck with me for the complete hour, I’ll just give you the full exegesis,” he told the audience, and at a breathtaking pace went on to offer as many thoughts on technology and national security as time and the moderator would allow. 

At the helm of the leading producer of software for the U.S. government, Karp has unparalleled access to highly-classified information about the ways the state has been collecting and deploying data to thwart threats at home and abroad.

Noting more than once that his candor was in direct defiance of his lawyers’ orders, and weaving in concepts from his PhD in German social thought, he spoke in a way that suggested the stakes could not be higher.

This conversation did not dwell on Palantir’s controversial contracts with immigration and law enforcement which have put the company in the spotlight in recent years. The firm has come under fire — from both the public and its own employees — for designing predictive policing methods that experts say tend to reinforce racial profiling, as well as deploying data in a way that violates the civil liberties of undocumented immigrants. Though not addressed head-on, the critique that Palantir “sees too much” was certainly in the background as Karp laid out his case.

Here are 9 key takeaways from all that he shared.

1. “I think we will look back at this time as a converging point.”

Karp explained that while for decades, including during the Cold War, hardware was the dominant technology, this era is defined by the rising salience of software. This trend applies both to business and to geopolitics, he thinks—on the international stage, whoever has the upper hand when it comes to software will have the upper hand, period. 

“That revolution is at the beginning,” he thinks, and while right now, America can still claim to be in the lead, this can’t be taken for granted. He says this concern about the stakes of the Western world falling behind on software is what drives him and his team at Palantir.

2. “Silicon Valley is a complete monoculture.”

Unprompted, Karp was eager to criticize the culture of Silicon Valley and celebrate Palantir’s recent decision to relocate to Denver. The Valley is quick to “confuse IQ with being sensible,” he believes, and often misses the forest for the trees when it comes to basic concerns about civic duty and social responsibility. He stressed: “If you’re sitting on your perch in Silicon Valley and you’re only creating value for yourself, monetizing the natural resources of your fellow Americans and others in the form of monetizing their data and providing no value to them except for disrupting the businesses that people work at, you’re going to find that your level of trust goes really far down really quickly. And I don’t think this is something you can IQ your way out of.” 

He refused to single out particular actors, and blamed the culture of the Valley as a whole. He thinks there will be a change, but that it won’t happen fast enough or for the right reasons.

In contrast, he said Denver offers a “convergence of intellectual veracity, pragmatism, and midwestern ability to do teamwork…software is a team sport.” 

3. “If in fact you are profit maximizing in your country, and that country is protecting you, you have a duty to protect the country.”

While he took issue with the Valley’s lack of social responsibility in general, he was particularly critical of its lack of civic duty with respect to the U.S. national interest. He sees an egregious moral failure in the way that tech companies take for granted the ways their success is indebted to the American cultural and political status quo, which they benefit from but then undermine.

4. “Strong tech is always a sharp instrument.”

In keeping with the talk’s title, “Technology as Sword and Shield,” Karp emphasized that all powerful tools — software included — can be used for good, but just as easily for nefarious purposes. That’s where lawmakers come in.

“I very much believe these things should be regulated,” he said. “There is always a need for governments to be involved and for citizen advocacy to be heard.”

5. “Technology should be built in a way that can be transparent.”

But it’s not all up to the lawmakers — software engineers can choose whether to build products as black boxes or in ways that can be understood and thus regulated by non-technical citizens and legislators, and they have a responsibility to choose the latter. That’s a priority at Palantir, he asserted. 

6. When it comes to AI and specifically its military use, he warned: “The capabilities are not going to be even… And I believe that if one country has a nuclear bomb and one has a set of dull knives, the country with the nuclear bomb is going to define how the world works.”

Returning to the theme of protecting the Western world order, Karp described the progression of software as uniquely “nonlinear,” meaning that capabilities evolve in radical leaps that can very quickly leave competitors hopelessly far behind. In the coming decades, Karp seems to envision a Cold War-esque race for technological superiority in AI and big data, and he wants America to do its best to keep its lead.

“At Palantir,” he said, “we believe that to have the kind of norms that we want to live in in the world, there has to be parity, if not superiority, in the context of delivering software to America and its allies.”

7. Of China and Russia, he said: “We should not ever underestimate how sophisticated these countries and cultures are.” 

To the moderator’s follow-up question about who might be on our tail, Karp argued that we can’t be complacent about the technological capabilities of China and Russia.

“These are highly developed, highly worthy — in the sense that they can produce things we can produce or better if we’re not careful — adversaries,” he said. “And in both cases we would be remiss not to put our best foot forward.”

8. When the moderator turned the conversation to the commercial side of Palantir’s business, asking if Karp thinks that smaller companies that can’t afford high-end technology will get left behind in the software era, Karp’s answer was straight to the point.

“Smaller companies just have to be very adaptive and hungry,” he said. Palantir costs between 10 and 100 million dollars per year. 

9. In closing, Karp hammered home the concern that he believes is the core of Palantir’s mission: protecting the Western world.

“The necessity that America be in the lead in software-enhanced systems and AI is something people understand but they don’t understand it enough,” he stressed. “And whoever has the nuclear equivalent to software will define the world order, and I don’t think anyone in America or in the West will be particularly happy if that’s not us.”

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Eve Driver is a freelance writer based in Boston. A recent graduate of Harvard College, she writes on climate, technology, and travel and is also working on her first book. COFFEE