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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Palmer Luckey Says Working With Weapons Isn't as Fun as VR

Who needs the metaverse when your life can be as weird as Palmer Luckey’s? In 2016, the founder of the virtual reality startup Oculus was unceremoniously pushed out of the company that acquired it—Facebook. Zuckerberg and his minions had soured on Luckey’s Trump-embracing politics. At the time, few would have guessed that the fanciful technologist, gamer, and cosplayer who once posed on a virtual beach on the cover of Time Magazine would become a major figure in defense technology. But Luckey quickly founded Anduril, a Founders Fund-backed startup devoted to cutting-edge military tech.

Luckey is now winning billion-dollar Pentagon contracts. One of them is for a counter-drone system based on its “battlefield operating system,” called Lattice. Anduril’s demo video shows one of the company’s sentry surveillance towers detecting a hostile drone and dispatching a small high-speed drone of its own to literally knock the intruder out of the sky. Recently, Anduril acquired a company that makes robot submarines. Luckey’s video games are now real—and deadly.

Anduril has a valuation of nearly $5 billion, making Luckey a rare founder of two unicorns. He is unusual for a military contractor. Perpetually garbed in a Hawaiian shirt, and occasionally still in cosplay threads, his vibe is much more cheerful hacker. His conservative politics also make him an awkward figure in Silicon Valley. (One of his sisters is married to the right-wing provocateur and congress member Matt Gaetz.) Unapologetic and upbeat, Luckey spoke of his talks with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, the ethics of defense technology, and Mark Zuckerberg’s dive into the metasphere. 

The interview is edited for length and clarity.

Steven Levy: How does the Ukraine invasion affect the way you think about your strategies?

Palmer Luckey: I met with President Zelensky shortly after we started, and I last saw him about two years ago. He was one of the few leaders on the European continent who understood that you can’t deter expansionist dictatorships using mean words or moving money around, that it could only be deterred through credible threat of force. That was not a popular opinion among his allies at the time. But that’s the thesis of our company: You want to have really strong technology that deters conflict by raising the cost high enough so that it's not thinkable.

What were you talking about with Zelensky and his deputies?

I can't get into specifics. But I will say Zelensky reached out to us way ahead of most world leaders, at a time when people didn't believe in applying autonomy to warfare. He and a handful of others were seeing the future and realizing that autonomy was going to be an important part of deterring conflict. I'm really devastated that he wasn't able to stop it, that the whole world wasn't able to stop it.

If Anduril technology had been deployed, would that conflict be playing out differently?

There's a few assumptions in that question, like we aren't involved.

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You are involved?

I can't say one way or the other. I will say we've designed our technology to be specifically relevant to exactly these challenges. We've seen for years that this shift away from counterinsurgency and back to superpower conflict was going to be what we needed to focus on. We've been putting all of our effort into things that are relevant to conflict or to preventing conflict with great powers like Russia and China. The stuff that we are building is directly relevant to the types of engagements that are happening on the ground and in the air in Ukraine.

When I first wrote about Anduril, it wasn’t proven that you would get huge government contracts. But you won some substantial ones, including a recent billion-dollar contract to produce drones that defend against attack drones, correct?

Yes, that was with SOCOM [US Special Operations Command]. We also have an almost $1 billion contract with the US Air Force on the advanced battle management system. We’ve done shootouts against our competition, some of whom are really big defense companies.

Not real shootouts, I hope.

Not with each other. Competing with each other. For example, we were all competing to try to shoot drones out of the sky. We did the best, and that's why we won the contract. I made a mean tweet about this—some of our competitors were complaining that it was unfair that we showed up with tech that we had developed using our own money, whereas they were only using technology the government had paid them for, and that they wished the government had given them more money to develop it. That’s one of those complaints that you hear in the defense industry but sounds really foreign when you come from the consumer electronics space or the enterprise space. Like, wait, it's not fair that I spent my own money to make something without taxpayers being involved?!

Yet recently one of your executives complained that the playing field is tilted against Silicon Valley defense startups when it comes to defense contracting.

When I complain about how it's impossible for startups to succeed, I'm talking about the smaller companies, the ones that don't have our resources. We're nearly 1,000 people, we acquired three companies in the last six months, we've signed multiple billion-dollar contracts. Five years in, we’re a known entity, and that puts us in a different situation. There have been only three unicorns in 35 years in the defense space: Palantir, SpaceX, and Anduril. All three of those companies were founded by people who had just sold their previous company for billions of dollars. We still had a really tough time. Behind all the success that you see, there was a lot of pain and things that we feel like we should have won that we didn't.

Where are you now on smart border technology?

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It’s still continuing. We have towers deployed all along the southern border and the northern border. It’s part of Congress's annual budget. But the vast majority of our work has been on the military side. There's no billion-dollar contracts coming down the line to massively expand the border work.

When I visited the border with you in early 2018, it was just before we learned about families being separated and other miseries. How do you feel about that?

I'm still really proud of our work that we do with border security. The reality is, no matter what you want immigration policy to be, you should know what's crossing the border. You've seen this with the Biden administration. They’ve changed policy on how to handle people coming across the border, but they still want to know if people are smuggling drugs into the US, weapons out of the US, cash back and forth. No matter what your immigration policy is, very few people want there to be no awareness of it. So I think that's one of the reasons we've continued to do well, even on the border security work with the new administration.

It would seem that the shift from building a wall to monitoring the border helps you.

Yeah. The first deployment that Customs and Border Protection actually paid us for was in an area where there was already a 19-foot steel barrier, but it still wasn't stopping the traffic.

Your main focus is what you call Lattice, a way to connect many different sensors and technologies for soldiers to see what's happening on the battlefield in real time. How is it going?

We're working with every major branch of the US military. We're doing a lot of work with the UK Ministry of Defense and the Australian military. The nice thing is they all agree that they want their stuff to be interoperable. The goal of Lattice is to fuse all of the sensors and all of the effectors that DOD has, not just the things that we make. I had a recent ABMS [Advanced Battle Management System] exercise, where we fused several dozen different existing systems. We've used the system in a naval destroyer and its weapon systems, and we've used it in some manned fighter jets. Lattice builds a picture that marks relevant things and then pushes that data to the people that need to know about it in real time.

Autonomous weapons are a controversial subject. Should we be OK with AI-based systems pulling the trigger?

We have that today. I've talked to people who say, “We should ban development of autonomous weapon systems before it's too late,” but they already exist, like the close-in weapon systems that protect our aircraft carriers from incoming missiles. We have cruise missiles that can hit surface-to-air missile sites—those basically fly toward a general area, look for electronic emissions, and then strike it without sending out any comms back home. There's no other way to solve the problem. You can’t have a person literally be responsible for pulling the trigger in every instance. The issue is to make sure that responsibility for them always lands with a person. You need to design ways of thinking about the deployment of autonomous weapons that ensures that that thinking is happening before the trigger is pulled.

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What's your responsibility as a manufacturer?

I think it's mostly designing systems that have the ability to be used in an accountable way. All of our systems have historical logs—who had access to them, what they did with them, what they told them to do, and how they handed over responsibility to somebody else. What I don't want to do is make it impossible for these systems to ever be used in certain ways—for instance, firing on a target if they don't have an active communication link back to a person. That would be telling the enemy that the way to beat us is just to disrupt our comms link, and then all our weapons will disable themselves, and it’s all over. You want to design a weapon system where the military is free to use it according to their doctrine, but also have a way to keep people accountable to that doctrine.

We’re talking theoretically about nightmare scenarios where masses of people might suffer and die. This is quite a transformation for someone who grew up as a gamer, when all that was cool make-believe. What goes on in your head as you've made that transition?

There are two sides to this. One, I still love VR. I had a lot of fun working on video games. I used to think about what will delight the user, what will be awesome. I guess my mind is less sunny than it used to be. Now I get to think about things like, how is my system going to work during all-out thermonuclear war as our enemies try to bombard and jam and destroy us? And that is a heavier headspace to be in. Personally, I’m probably less happy working on defense than I was on VR. The positive side of this is it's nice to work on something that really matters. If I was working on AR emojis, I don't think I would be able to feel that to the same degree.

Speaking of VR, maybe you heard that Facebook changed its name to Meta.

I heard, yeah.

Basically, the company they bought from you is at the center of their future. What do you make of that?

For about 10 years now I’ve used an email signature, “See you in the metaverse.” I don't know how many VR headsets I’ve signed with that phrase. I even said it in the open letter that we wrote when we were acquired by Facebook in 2014. That was what I always wanted to build. To see Meta focusing on that is very gratifying for me. I think they might be making some short-term tactical errors in how they go about it. But the strategic vision of building the metaverse is correct. When we were acquired, people told me Oculus would be taken over and turned into Facebook. I think it's been the other way around: Facebook got taken over by Oculus, and it turned into Oculus.

Is Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse the same one that you envision?

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The metaverse that Mark Zuckerberg has in his brain is almost perfectly aligned with what I have in my brain because it doesn't come from either of our brains. The origin point is Neal Stephenson and Snow Crash and decades of science fiction stacked on top of that. Mark is building what everyone wants. You can point to things like Horizon World and say, “That sure doesn't seem to be the metaverse,” but everyone would agree with that, even Mark. The reason I was attracted to Facebook and Mark was because they had a strong strategic incentive to bring about the metaverse as quickly as possible. I think the phrase that I used in an internal email is that maybe Mark is just playing us. But if he was, he's Van Halen, because the vision he pitched was perfectly aligned with ours. He is the number one VR fan in the world, measured by investment and dedication. I mean, he's putting more money and more time into VR than anyone on the planet.

The three Silicon Valley companies you mentioned that have been successful in defense were all funded by Peter Thiel. Are you still close to him?

Yeah, me and Peter get along. He's one of the few people who's had this thesis that it was possible to build a successful defense business in the modern day.

Like you, he’s aligned with the right politically and is funding like-minded candidates. Do you plan to be active in the midterms and the presidential election?

I have been supporting candidates for the midterms. But I've put a lot less time into it than Peter. His priority of late has been to really focus on that stuff. He’s in a different place than me—he's not running a company full time. I spend maybe 1 percent of my time on the politics side. I've got a lot going on here.

Are you friendly with your brother-in-law, Matt Gaetz?

I try to be friendly with just about everybody. I'm not one of these guys who's partisan to the point of not being willing to talk to people. Here's the reality: I run a company with 1,000 people in it. Some of us are way on the left, some are way on the right. We all have a united belief in the importance of national security, and in the US and its allies having the best technology. I can't afford to live a life where I'm cutting people off because they believe something on their own time. What’s important to me is what we said on the first page of the first Anduril pitch deck—we're going to save taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars a year by making tens of billions of dollars a year. We're not there yet, but it's pretty incredible that we've gone from that idea less than five years ago to winning billion-dollar contracts. I don't think it'll take too long for us to actually get to that goal.


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