SAN FRANCISCO — In the movie The Social Network, the character of Peter Thiel is played as a slick Master of the Universe, a tech industry king and kingmaker with the savvy to see that a $500,000 investment in Facebook could mint millions later.
Reality is a little more rumpled.
On a recent December night, Thiel walked, slightly stooped, across a San Francisco stage to make a pitch to an invitation-only audience of Silicon Valley luminaries – investors and innovators who had scored sometimes huge fortunes through a mix of skill, vision and risk-taking.
The billionaire PayPal co-founder didn't tell them about the next big startup. He wanted them to buy into a bigger idea: the future.
A future when computers will communicate directly with the human brain. Seafaring pioneers will found new floating nations in the middle of the ocean. Science will conquer aging, and death will become a curable disease.
If anything can transform these wild dreams into plausible realities, he believes it is the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley – the minds and money that have conjured the technological marvels that have already altered everyday life.
"Do we try to pursue ideas that are weird and have optimism about the future, or do we give up on all new things and compromise?"
Sitting before him in the audience, among others: Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, Yelp co-founder and CEO Jeremy Stoppelman and technology publishing guru Tim O'Reilly.
As venture capital in Silicon Valley chases the next big mobile app or group discount service, Thiel was asking for them to fund technological breakthroughs that some believe in fervently and others see as sheer fantasy.
He even has a name for it: Breakthrough philanthropy.
Instead of just giving to help the less fortunate here and now, Thiel encouraged his fellow moguls to put their money toward seemingly far-fetched ventures that he believes could improve the lives of everyone for good.
Gathered on the stage were eight groups that Thiel thinks are on the right path.
One was the Singularity Institute, whose members believe in the near-inevitability of the arrival within the next century of computers smarter than the humans who created them.
The institute works to ensure that self-programming machines will create a world that looks more like Star Trek, less like the Terminator.
Another was the SENS Foundation, a group of biomedical researchers seeking a path to radical life extension based on the controversial aging theories of computer scientist-turned-gerontologist Aubrey de Grey.
And the Seasteading Institute, led by Patri Friedman, the grandson of famed economist Milton Friedman. It looks to establish distant ocean colonies to serve as laboratories for experimenting with new forms of government or "startup countries."
"As innovators, you are the best at finding and nurturing the right big ideas that can change the world," Friedman told the audience.
The history of Silicon Valley is filled with such ideas. The smartphone, the Web, the search engine, the personal computer itself – these all seemed far-fetched until they became commonplace.
To raise money from the wealthy, it's a time-honored strategy to flatter. Witness the names emblazoned across hospital wings and university buildings. But building important buildings has never seemed to especially interest Silicon Valley's elite.
They have "the right kind of cultural DNA to at the very least pay attention," said Greg Biggers, a longtime software executive who recently founded a startup, Genomera, that lets members conduct health studies using their own genetic data.
Biggers said Silicon Valley entrepreneurs would likely be receptive to Thiel's unconventional message because they succeeded by not conforming to others' expectations of what was possible.
"This is a roomful of people who bucked the system," he said as he mingled, glass of wine in hand.
Charles Rubin, a Duquesne University political science professor and blogger who has written critically about some of the movements endorsed by Thiel, said these visions of the future align closely with the Silicon Valley outlook.
All share the view that "scientific knowledge and technical capacity will continue to increase at an accelerating rate," Rubin said. "This is a core idea that practically defines what Silicon Valley is all about: ceaseless innovation."
Thiel himself seems to thrive on flouting convention, sometimes in ways that have led to harsh criticism.
In September, he announced a program designed to discover the next Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder, by paying $100,000 each to 20 young people under 20 years old to skip college for two years to learn about entrepreneurship.
Jacob Weisberg, editor of the online magazine Slate, excoriated Thiel for the program and what he sees as its underlying impetus.
"Thiel's philosophy demands attention not because it is original or interesting in any way – it's puerile libertarianism, infused with futurist fantasy – but because it epitomizes an ugly side of Silicon Valley's politics," Weisberg wrote.
Thiel is not a traditional conservative – he has donated to Republican candidates but also to California's marijuana legalization ballot measure. But he does seem to believe in a trickle-down theory of technology.
Unlike the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has poured billions into providing basic health care for some of the world's most impoverished people, Thiel said he wants to prioritize major scientific advances he thinks will spread to benefit humanity as a whole.
His faith appears grounded in a pervasive Silicon Valley belief that motivates gifted individuals to achieve on a grand scale, no matter the apparent hurdles – death included.
But even Thiel admitted he has no idea how long that last obstacle will take to overcome.
"I would like to say that I would still be doing this even if I thought there was no chance I would benefit from this in any way," he said in an interview. "I think we have to work on these things even if they take centuries."