"Palmer Luckey Goes to War"

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When I entered the field of virtual reality - this  is back more than thirty years ago - almost all   of the companies involved in the work had some  sort of relationship with the defence sector. This was just at the very end of the Cold War.   The Soviet Union had ceased to exist. The  famed ‘End of History’ had yet to be announced.

No one quite knew what might happen next. At that moment it looked as though  America and its allies had won the long,   slow war against Communism. And that all would proceed into an undimmed  future of liberalism, democracy, and freedom. 9/11 changed that. So did the rise of Putin.

And Xi Jinping. And Donald Trump. And social media. And the Supreme Court. And the war in Ukraine.

And I could go on and on. Interestingly, although the world has  grown fairly obviously more dangerous   over the last billion seconds - which no one  predicted at the time - although that happened   our culture, and, most specifically, our  material culture hasn’t acknowledged that fact. The USA got a ‘Cold War dividend’ as defense  spending was wound back and turned into tax cuts. Continental Europe didn’t need as  many soldiers stationed on its soil   to defend against a Soviet  threat that had ceased to exist. So everything got a bit cheaper - and a bit slack. It was a long, lazy summer afternoon.

But winter was coming. And so here we are. What do we do? G’day, I’m Mark Pesce.

The coming next billion seconds will  be the most important in history,   as technology transforms the  way we live, work - and fight. We’re going to spend this episode in conversation   with the one individual most closely  identified with this shift in our   thinking - and ask whether that shift portends  a greater shift in the focus of our culture. That’s ahead on this episode  of THE NEXT BILLION SECONDS. To come back to the world of thirty years  ago - at that point, defense spending drove   technology development.

And had - since the start of the Second World War. There’s a bigger argument that war has always  driven technology development. I’m not discounting   that. But it really took off during the Second  World War, and continued through the Cold War. After the Cold War ended, the  engine of technology development   switched - very quickly -  to consumer entertainment. Video games and the like.

Sony’s Playstation was the first  of a new class of devices - toys,   really - that pushed the  boundaries of the possible. And then along came the smartphone, and that  really made it a completely universal experience.   Half of humanity uses a mobile,  most of them use smartphones,   all of us experience this advance  in technology marketed to consumers. The smartphone cut the cost of the core components  for a virtual reality by a thousand-fold.

The kinds of virtual reality that cost millions a  billion seconds ago cost thousands ten years ago. And the first person to work that  out was Palmer Luckey, back in 2012. When Palmer Luckey was just nineteen years old,   he founded Oculus - the most successful  virtual reality company in history. The company that made virtual reality real. There’s no way to overstate  what a big deal that was.

Virtual reality was dead, buried and  forgotten, until Palmer Lucky came along. In the beginning, he was just trying to  make a better gaming system for himself. I mean, I actually did start by playing around  in my garage. I mean, the thing about Oculus is,   for years before I founded the company, I  had been doing it as a hobby and what what I,   the way that I started was actually as a PC  gamer, building fancier and fancier PC gaming   rigs with more and more monitors. And eventually,  I realized, geez, the next the next step is just  

more monitors or better graphics. That's actually  not very interesting. What 32 monitors is,   it might be the next step. But it's not the  final step. What's the final step? Where is   this all going? In the end, it certainly can't  just be 100 monitors. And I realized, of course,   where this is all going is virtual reality.  And so I decided then as a teenager, that I   was going to as a hobby work on the final step  of gaming, rather than things along the way. And  

after years of work, I, we can get  into technical details if we want.   But I figured out a couple of key key ways  to make virtual reality headsets, cheaper,   lighter, and better than most of the ones that  had come previously all all at the same time. I said, Oh, man, I like I've actually got  something here. And you know, I'm 19 years old,  

I'm not doing too well in school. I'll never  get a better chance to to pursue this than now. And so when you took that very first, the Oculus,  I guess the DK one was the very first one that   went up on Kickstarter, and it just exploded. That's right. So I mean, yeah, you asked us to I   expected it to blow up. No, I thought it was going  to take much more time. I mean, remember, I've   been living in this world where people weren't  really talking about virtual reality is something   that they were a huge fan of, or, you know, they  weren't in the virtuality scene or community   because one didn't really exist. It was just this  thing that was in science fiction that everyone   liked as an idea independently. And so I had no  idea that it was going to take off so quickly,   but really, the time was, right. I mean, you  gotta you gotta put yourself back in time into  

summer of 2012. We were at the end of a game  console generation. But the next generation   hadn't even been invented yet. This was also the  longest generation there had ever been you had,   you know, the, the Wii U had the Xbox 360,  the PlayStation three. So you had these very   old consoles that had been around for eight  years, but the next generation hadn't even been   announced yet. And so people wanted something  new, they were excited for something interesting. And interesting it was. Oculus became the  leading edge of a rebirth of virtual reality,   launched in 2012, then purchased by Facebook  just two years later for three billion dollars.

A huge sum which made giants like Sony  and Samsung and Apple - take notice. Oculus ate Facebook - which Mark  Zuckerberg acknowledged when changed   the name of his company to ‘Meta’ - from  ‘metaverse’, the universal virtual world. Long before that had happened,  Palmer Luckey left Facebook.

That’s a whole story in itself, and if  you’re interested in that, go back and   listen to our interview with Blake Harris,  and read his book The History of the Future. So what comes next when you’re a  twenty-four year old wunderkind? How do you top Oculus? Do you even try? So there's a few things you know, not not a lot  of people know this but before I started Oculus,   I worked in the Mixed Reality Lab at the Institute  for Creative Technologies in the University of   Southern California, which is an army affiliated  Research Center, working on programs like the   Army's brave mind project, treating veterans  with PTSD. And it's not that people don't know,   because it's a secret. It's not a secret  actually talked about it all the time. It's just   the media doesn't talk about it all of that  much. I think that military applications of  

any technology just aren't what most mainstream  outlets spend their time writing about. So I was   actually familiar with virtual reality technology  being used in the military before I thought about   doing anything else. And that had always stuck  with me. So Oculus did some work with the DOD, I   was really proud of it. But what got me interested  in starting Adderall, which is my new company,  

is three things that I noticed at the same time.  The first was that even as our adversaries like   Russia and China invested in cutting edge  technologies, like artificial intelligence,   and robotics in their military, I saw the United  States falling behind our major defense primes   were not equipped with the incentives, or the,  or the talent that they needed to build these   technologies. So that's one issue. The people who  really build this stuff for our militaries were,   were not able to pull it off. Second, the  companies that couldn't pull it off the   ones that had a near monopoly on talent in  areas like artificial intelligence, sensor,   fusion, networking, you name it, the big tech  corporations, were almost entirely opting out   of working with the Department of Defense. And  there's a lot of reasons for that some of its   ideological, some of it is driven by a desire  to not upset China, where their manufacturing   and investment is largely based. And then  the third and the third issue was normally   in a market like this, where the people who are  doing it can't and the people who could won't,   you would see startups joining to kind of disrupt  things. But for you, there's only been two defense  

unicorns in 30 years, it's almost impossible  to raise money for a defense startup because   of that. So it's hard to raise money, it's hard to  hire good people, it's hard to make a difference.   And at least in the United States, we haven't  had a major success story in the defense industry   in decades. And so nobody wants to  get into it. And nobody will invest in   those three things together made me realize  that someone needed to start a company   that had a different business model that would  use his own money to decide what to build,   how to build it when it's done. bypass all of the  government morass, all the government red tape   bypass the years or decades of slowdown that that  can introduce. And unabashedly put the best people  

in the world to work on the most important  problems in the world, which I think are largely   defense problems. And that that was that was how  I decided to start Android I started it right   after Facebook fired me because I knew there  was nothing more important I could be doing. Let's come back to this point you talk about and I  think it's a salient point, which is why I want to   sort of draw it out a little bit that the Defense  Department With the primes, as you call it, and I   think maybe if you want to enumerate them, because  you probably know them off the top of your head,   it would be useful are using second rate, AI  technologies, because I think there is a broad   perception that the defense sector has the  best of everything. When it comes to tech.   I think that's partially because there's  conflation between the next national security   sector and the defense sector around this. But  could you can you unravel that, please? Because   I feel like this is a major point here. Sure. I mean, most western militaries are   using old computers, old technology, old weapons,  and the stuff that they're getting that is their   next generation is less cutting edge than stuff  consumers have been using for years. I mean, the  

DoD used to be way ahead of civilian technology,  and that lead has entirely eroded. The best   artificial intelligence in the world isn't in  military systems, at least not in the West,   it's in Snapchat, it's in Facebook. It's in John  Deere tractors. I mean, these are the companies   that have certainly in self driving cars. I mean,  those are the places where good engineers go to   work, because those are the places where they're  allowed to work quickly and allowed to make an   impact quickly, which is what engineers really  want to do. I think you're right, people do have   this misconception that the DoD is way ahead. But  it very rarely is true. There are certain areas   where they're very, very far ahead. But those do  not include the ones we've been talking about.

Now, you say that, yeah, we need to get  the best and brightest engineers working   in defense. And the thing is, this was pretty  much the case reliably until sort of the end of   the 1980s. Right as the Cold War started and of  the cold war that was laying down. So how does   that become the case once again,  and what happens if it doesn't work? So I think that traditionally the idea of since  the end of the Cold War, the idea has been to get   people by saying, Oh, aren't you patriotic? Don't  you want to help your country? Don't you want to   work on these cool problems. But that only goes  so far right? Like everyone who is working in the   defense industry, it as it currently exists,  is doing so because they think it's important   because they want access to these really cool,  important problems. But most of these jobs are   not jobs that engineers want to have. They're  not they don't pay as much as they would make   in the private sector elsewhere. They're  usually stuffy workplaces. They're working on  

very long timelines where it will take  years for their work to get fielded, Because why would they do that when they can start  their own company and move quickly and have a huge   impact, or they could go to a big tech company,  and they could work on all kinds of cool projects,   and you're not be held back artificially what  we've done it Andrew is not, you know, we don't   have a magic way of getting people to believe in  our mission 100 times more than any other company,   for the most part, we say, Listen, you come here,  you'll be allowed to work fast, you won't be held   back by the government contracting process, you  won't have to wait five years in between grants to   try something out. And you're not allowed to work  on it unless the government's paying for every   penny of the test. And that's where people want  to work. That's what the defense industry needs.   You ask, What can we do to get people into the  industry, we need to make defense industry jobs,   the type of jobs that people want to have? What happens if we don't do that? Then we're screwed, because other  countries do not have this problem.   I mean, sure, they have it to some  extent, but like, in Russia, and China,   working in the defense industry has prestige,  and it is a good job to work. And like relative   to all of the other options. In particular,  it's a really good place to work. And so   if we can't shift it around, I think one  you're going to see all of our best talent,   continue to build whimsical, play things up until  the moment that our entire world crumbles.  

Does he take an existential threat,  like Russia's invasion of Ukraine,   to focus minds, and more importantly, to  focus budgets on the importance of defense? I think to a certain extent, it does  like one thing I've said for many years,   when I was starting, and or a lot of people really  rejected the entire premise of building a modern   defense company. They're like, Oh, this is a huge  waste of time. There's no reason there's never   going to be these major conflicts. Russia invading  Ukraine has at least ended that ridiculous line of   thinking like, I'm not a river. I'm not a fortune  teller here. I've had people say, Wow, Palmer,   it's incredible that you saw this all coming.  You know, you're a real visionary. I'm like,   you know, anyone with a brain saw it coming  unless you are purposely doing pretzels to   contort your way around the way that humanity  has been for 1000s of years. Like, I did not  

predict the future. I just looked at the past and  assumed that that things weren't going to change.   I feel like it's probably not enough to change  people's thinking in the long run that you know,   people I think that the Ukraine conflict  has definitely changed their thinking.   But it's really easy for people to forget about  it. I think you're already seeing this, you know,   as you get less news coverage, less people talking  about it on social media. I wouldn't surprise me  

if a year or two from now if this conflict drags  on, that a lot of the people who were so shocked   by the conflict will kind of go back saying well,  that was just a one off of And you know that that   was a black swan event that happens once  in a century, it's never going to happen   again. And that's that's the mistake they're  making the mistake they're making is thinking   that this is a Putin problem rather than a  human nature and human incentives problem. [ In a moment, we take a look at the  future of the defense - of Australia ] We know well here in Australia that  we sit at the boundary between two   great powers - America and China. We know  that we’ve made a decision, as a nation,  

to align with America, even as we do most  of our trading as a nation with China. Which puts us in an difficult spot -  both politically, and strategically. Does technology offer any sort of answer to that? Or is that more a strategic question that has  to be answered with statecraft and diplomacy? For Palmer Luckey, diplomacy and  statecraft both rest on a strong   defense, and a strong defense means a strong  development of new technologies of defense. I asked him what Anduril does - what it makes... And we're building a huge suite of products. So we  don't have the luxury of many companies where we   can focus on just one thing and really dialing it  to the absolute utmost of Polish, we have to build   a bunch of different systems because the only way  we're going to be the next major defense prime,   the next major defense contractor is if we're able  to tackle a whole bunch of different projects,   there's just simply not enough money in any  one vertical for a company to achieve scale   only tackling one. So we build unmanned aerial  vehicles, from surveillance drones to aerial  

interceptors that knock other drones out of the  sky, we build ground based systems that tell you   where all the vehicles are all the animals where  all the boats are all the drones are at all times   communicating with each other and making sure  that all the humans and all the machines have   the right information at the right time. We build  underwater vehicles, where they're able to dive   up to 6000 meters deep all the way to the bottom  of any part of the ocean that doesn't end in   trench or crevasse. And those are those are  really powerful tools for understanding what's   happening in the sea, following things that  are happening to see scanning what's going on.   We're also are building a lot of tools  that allow us to control what's going on   in the electromagnetic domain. So jamming things,  sniffing things, hacking things going going after   things under this broad umbrella of the term  electronic warfare, where you think you're gonna   end up having entire conflicts in the future. And  I don't mean whole wars. But there's certainly   going to be battles of the future that take  place solely in the electromagnetic domain,   which is good, which is pretty fascinating. It's  a it's a sci fi idea for sure. And we're also  

I can't talk about the details, but getting  into getting into areas like space vehicles,   and also some really interesting, very fast,  very capable air vehicles. And we've got some   got some stuff coming in the near future that  people will want to keep an eye on. But I guess   the broad strokes of what we're doing is, we're  making machines that allow people to understand   everything that's happening, so that they can  make really good decisions, and then respond   with the best possible tools. And we're making  technology that is a part of every step of that. Alright, talk for a minute about the project that   you're going to be working on with the  Australian Defence Force, the XL-AUV. So this is the XLH view that extra  large autonomous underwater vehicle,   it's essentially a very large autonomous robotic  submarine that's able to do things that in the   past could only have been done by a man submarine,  there's been a lot of lot of unmanned subs in the   past, like, the idea is not new. But what we're  bringing to the table is very, very large size,   very, very smart, artificial intelligence that's  able to process sensor data in a very capable way.  

And we're designing them in a way where  we can actually deploy these at scale,   you know, this is the goal is not to build  just one or two of these vehicles, it's to   build very large numbers of these vehicles, so  that you can send them out there without adding   more manpower without taking on more risk. And  you're, like I said before, you really want to   understand what's going on. Like, if I am a  military, it is helpful for me to understand   everything that's on the surface of the water, and  where everything under the water might be hiding.   And the vehicle that we're building is the  tool that will allow Australia to do that. So Australia has a massive naval boundary, It practically doesn't get bigger.

And so how would something like this work in the  context of Australia given that we have a limited   number of submarines and yep, won't be getting new  submarines for a while for a variety of reasons.   What does this mean for how  it would affect Australia's   ability to be able to monitor each border? Well, it gives you the ability to do a few  things. One, it gives you a much better ability   to understand what is hiding beneath the waves  right now. Most anti submarine warfare is very   targeted. You can find submarines in small areas  you can protect a carrier group from a submarine  

within short range What we're trying to do  is give Australia the ability to know if   any submarines are anywhere close to Australia  anywhere around that massive maritime border.   And then it's not just submarines that are in the  area, it's also to scan the seabed and introduce   on a regular basis. So right now, people think of  scanning the seafloor, as this kind of thing you   got, you do an expedition to do it, right, like,  we're gonna go to this area, we're going to scan   it, it's a big event. And we're gonna do it one  time. And now we have all this data we can use,  

and they'll use it for years and years. But what  if you had a vehicle that could scan the seafloor   and high resolution over and over and over again,  maybe even every single day, now all of a sudden,   it becomes much harder for your adversaries to  hide things on the sea floor becomes harder for   them to tamper with your cables, your internet  cables, it becomes harder for them to either break   them or to, or to sabotage them or even just to  listen in on them. And it makes it harder for them   to pre place things on the seafloor that might  become relevant in a conflict, potentially years   from now. And so that those are those are two of  the capabilities. There's a whole bunch that I   can't get into because the specifics of them get  that inappropriate to discuss in public pretty   quickly. But there's a lot of things you can do  when you take the capabilities of what used to be   limited to a manned submarine. And then you  deploy them by the hundreds or the 1000s. And you   distribute them much deeper than any man submarine  can go much further than any man submarine can go.

This is where the future rises up to meet  our present. Because we know we need more   submarines to patrol our borders. We know that.  And we know we’re along way away from that   because of a series of policy missteps by previous  governments. Which has put us in a terrible place. Could we have hundreds - maybe  even thousands of these drone   submarines doing the job for  us by the end of the decade? Would that at least take some of the pressure  off the delivery of a whole new class of   nuclear-powered submarines that Australia will  at some point get as part of the AUKUS alliance? If drone submarines can be proven to be a workable  solution, Australia can be more relaxed about   its defense posture - simply because it will  have a better ability to monitor its borders.

But drones have limits. And I  asked Palmer about those limits. What is something that a man  submarine would be tasked with doing   that an unmanned submarine would not? Oh, well, I mean, there's, there's quite a few  things that are still going to be left to man   submarines. So I think for example, one of them  is going to be pretty much all strike capability.   So whether you're carrying really large, really  powerful weapons, and you want those to be in   the hands of a of a human crew that is able  to think for themselves and also follow the   chain of command and the rules of engagement very  closely. That's kind of gonna be that realm. Also,   another one is things like diver insertions.  So this is something that a lot of submarines   do is they can go places and drop a drop, drop a  team of people out of the submarine to go and do   to go do clandestine missions. You know, those  are things that an unmanned submarine definitely   is not going to be doing. And then I think there's  also just carrying a lot of tonnage, like as cool  

as the submarines were building are, they are  still a small fraction of the size of these very,   very large, manned submarines. And so when you're  carrying very, very large payloads, those are the   ones that you're going to want to be doing the  job. And I think what you're going to see is going   to be pretty interesting is, I think you're going  to see manned submarines, working in tandem with   robotic submarines very closely together so that  the man submarines are able to keep themselves in   a greater standoff away from danger and keeping  their crew safe, while putting forward a bunch of   robotic submarines to feed them back information  about where the enemy is, where they should be   targeting, where they should be hiding from.  And that that's really going to be the magic   mix is all of these systems are working together  and talking to each other man, Dan down, man.   We've experienced this 30 year periods  92 to two times and a two, which is   the same number of years you've been alive.  Technology was consumer led by my math, really,   the PlayStation, the original PlayStation  is kind of the crossover point in that.  

What do you think it looks like 30 years from  now is, is the defense sector, once again,   the primary engine of technological  development in the early 2050s? Yes, I would say it's not even just  defense, I think that the government,   by the way, this is hard for me to admit, I gotta  admit, this is I'm I'm I'm a libertarian at heart.   And so for me to say this, it's truly painful. But  it's true, the government is going to end up being   kind of the the Dynamo of, of innovation in the  West again, and I think it's going to be defense,   it's also going to be space travel and space  exploration, in the same way that the space   race generated. So many innovative technologies  that have changed the way we live, I think we're   actually going to see that in, in space. And  I think we're going to see that from defense,  

we're we're finally getting back into the  point where there's a lot of technologies   that currently don't make sense for  consumers, but do make sense for defense,   I can't talk about all of them today. But there's  a lot of things that I'm building right now, like   a lot of the drone technology that we're working  on, it would never make sense in a consumer drone,   because you can buy a consumer drone that's  80% as good, or, you know, a 10th of the cost.   But those technologies that we're  building are going to become   like they're going to trickle down to the consumer  space over the coming years. And so I totally  

agree. And in the next 30 years, I do think you're  going to see government led innovation initiatives   become if not dominant, at least a very  important and significant force again, alright, you, you lead perfectly into  my next question, which is really about   the leakage of these very advanced tools and  techniques and androl. And now a whole range   of new defense startups are making, how do we  prevent those technologies from falling into the   wrong hands? And that, that doesn't even have to  be a state actor anymore? Right? That can be just   any sort of threat actor? How can we do that?  And how do we ring fence them against misuse? Sure. Well, I mean, there's kind of two  parts of this question first is like,   literally our stuff falling into the wrong  hands, like the actual physical stuff, like,   what if they got one of the US Marine Corps  drones that we sold them, and that I'm pretty   actually comfortable with, I think it's not hard  you and you encrypt everything, you have access   tokens to everything, you make it really, really  hard for them to get access to any of the stuff   that really matters. You program the systems in  a way where it's very easy to disable them. If   if you have if you have an unauthorized user,  I mean, these technologies are luckily not as,   not as, as fungible as let's say ak 47 is in a box  that the Soviet Union handed out, I mean, those   things, you know, they they handed them out 50  years ago, and they're still killing people today,   the technologies that we have, that you it's  pretty easy to make them where they kind of fall   apart once they're outside of the US war machine.  Now, the second part of this, though, is when you  

like technologies, in the broader sense, like how  do we keep artificial intelligence in general,   like, you know, are academic AI innovations? How  do we keep those from falling in the wrong hands?   I don't think we have a good answer at all. I  think there's actually been a little bit of denial   of the problem for a very long time, you have a  lot of private companies that come up with very   powerful innovation that has massive strategic  implications. And then they open source it and   they give it away because that's their ideology.  Now, I understand that I'm an open source guy and   I have been since I was a teenager, but it once  you start working with the military, you realize,   oh, my God, these guys are giving away technology  and in the past, this would have been instantly   classified and hidden away and never allowed  into the hands of our strategic adversaries.  

Now our adversary adversaries are basically taking  the results of Western innovation in our academic   systems and in our in our in our corporate  systems, and then just taking those innovations   and applying them to their war machine. I  don't know how we're going to stop that. One of the perils of living in an  information-rich world is that it   is very hard to keep any key technology  completely hidden from an adversary. That means everything Anduril does  will be copied - for good and for ill.

That’s why they call it an arms race. And it’s beginning to look like - we’re  back to that, after a bit of a break. A race that may well last  the next billion seconds.

If you’re listening to this  episode on its release,   you may be interested to know that Palmer  Luckey will be giving a talk in Sydney   on Thursday the 18th of August, 2022,  at the ArtHouse Hotel in the CBD. You should come along. I might even be there... Details can be found on our  website at nextbillionseconds.com This episode of The Next Billion  Seconds was written by Mark Pesce.

Produced by Stuart Buckland for Ampel. Audio production by Justin McArthur. Big thanks to Palmer Luckey for joining us on   this episode - and a shoutout to his  support crew who made it all seamless. For more background Anduril, Palmer  Luckey - and his speaking event in Sydney,   please visit our website at nextbillionseconds.com The Next Billion Seconds is  now powered by Ampel Audio.   Follow the show on Spotify, Apple Podcasts,   Google Podcasts, Outcast - and  many other podcast platforms.

If you like this show, please, share  it with a friend - and if you can,   leave us a great review. That helps  bring new listeners to our show. This is Mark Pesce - thank you for listening.

2022-08-10 11:20

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