#12: Paul Buchheit

Creating Gmail, Fixing Google, Narrative Understanding
Transcript

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Paul Buchheit is a programmer and entrepreneur who joined Google as its 23rd employee. He created Gmail, developed the first prototype of Google AdSense, and suggested the company’s motto, “don’t be evil”. He later co-founded FriendFeed and served as a managing partner at Y Combinator.

0:00 - Intro

1:15 - Issues with Google

3:47 - AI risk

5:21 - AI centralization and decentralization

8:01 - Open-sourcing frontier AI

9:59 - Paul’s Predictions

14:28 - Centralization, free speech, and censorship

24:16 - Trends in ideology

32:00 - Freeing people of narratives

35:49 - Alignment

39:06 - Startups and YC in 2024

50:30 - Email and communication interfaces

Links

Paul’s Twitter: https://x.com/paultoo

Paul’s Blog: https://paulbuchheit.blogspot.com/

YouTube:

Spotify:

Apple Podcasts:

My Twitter: https://twitter.com/theojaffee

Subscribe to my Substack:

Transcript

Theo Jaffee (00:02)

Alright, we're recording. Hi, welcome back to episode 12 of the Theo Jaffee Podcast. We're here today with Paul Buchheit.

Paul Buchheit (00:09)

Alright, great to be here.

Theo Jaffee (00:12)

All right, so let's get into some questions. So as we all know, you created Gmail and worked at Google very early on. And now you've become a bit more critical of it, especially after the recent Gemini debacle and a general mission creep from Google in recent years. So when did the current problems with Google start to become apparent?

Paul Buchheit (00:37)

Oh, you know, I don't know. I don't want to define myself as a Google critic. But, you know, clearly...

things have, you know, it's not the same company, it's a much larger company, but I think if you kind of look back at the history of it, sort of the alphabet era, which started in 2015, I think, there haven't really been a lot of great new products that have launched. My sense is that the company kind of pivoted from innovation more to just defending the search monopoly.

So.

Theo Jaffee (01:20)

So the market seems to still think that Google is incredibly valuable. It's pretty much consistently beaten the market over almost every time horizon, except maybe the last month or few months. So are you still on Google?

Paul Buchheit (01:35)

Oh yeah, I mean, obviously they have a lot of great assets. It's not going to disappear tomorrow or anything like that. I mean, they're still the leading internet company. But these things take time. It's kind of more a question of where are things headed five years, 10 years. And also just like, you know,

what kind of products are being created. And in particular with AI, it's important that, you know, it's such a powerful and influential technology, it's important that it's accurate and honest in not distorting the truth or distorting history.

Theo Jaffee (02:19)

So that said, a few years down the line, what do you think the bear case and the bull case are for Google? Like in the bear case, do they go out of business or is Google too strong for that? And then what about the bull case?

Paul Buchheit (02:30)

No, companies don't really, of that scale, don't really go out of business, right? The bigger question is actually just around the direction of AI. AI is larger than really any technology we've ever witnessed before. And so I don't know, like I said, I'm not like a stock market speculator or anything. I don't.

be giving anyone financial advice or investing advice. I'm more interested in just kind of where technology is headed and how that impacts humanity and how we do our best to make sure that these technologies really empower individuals and help people to retain their freedom and their rights because AI has the potential to be the most horribly...

oppressive and dystopian thing we've ever done, or it could be the best thing we've ever done. So I think we need to do our best to push it towards something that's good for humanity and not something that eliminates or enslaves us.

Theo Jaffee (03:37)

So thank you.

Hmm. And when you say eliminates or enslaves us, are you concerned more with the AI itself becoming rogue, or are you concerned more with humans using it for bad purposes, or both?

Paul Buchheit (03:53)

You know, I think the latter. I mean, AI is a tremendous superpower. But if you think in terms of, you know, like Orwell's 1984, that was kind of fictional, but with AI, we could actually do something much worse, right? You can monitor everything anyone ever says or does.

you can distort reality in real time. So if you imagine, you know, you're in lockdown or whatever, right, for the new pandemic, and you're having a video chat, you're on FaceTime with a family member, or maybe you're doing a podcast, you know, the AI could literally be altering things in real time. So you think that you're talking to your, you know, to your mother, and she says, hey, everything's great, but in actuality,

Theo Jaffee (04:35)

you

. . . .

Paul Buchheit (04:49)

the AI is just faking the whole thing or altering what people say. And so the potential for just horrible dystopian possibilities is essentially unlimited. But at the same time, the explosion of intelligence also means that we can do really wonderful things. We can solve the hardest problems, things that seem intractable. If you're worried about climate or you're worried about...

future of education, medical care, we can make things such that the world in 40 years is better for everyone than it is for anyone now, in terms of giving people access to things that make them healthy and happy.

Theo Jaffee (05:21)

So you're worried more about AI advantaging the incumbent, like a government, in order to...

Paul Buchheit (05:44)

Absolutely, right. So I think the real threat is essentially centralization of power. And certainly, if you look at history, all the worst things people have ever done, whether it's the Soviets or the Nazis or whoever, that happens when someone is able to completely centralize power. And AI has that potential because especially...

Theo Jaffee (05:56)

. . .

Paul Buchheit (06:07)

when it's the channel through which all information is filtered, it becomes impossible to resist. And we see this kind of thing going on, obviously, in China, where people are not able to speak the truth, and people can get disappeared, and there's really nothing you can do about it.

Theo Jaffee (06:23)

Well, what about the idea that AI could remarkably decentralize?

Paul Buchheit (06:35)

Well, that would be good. That's what I'm hoping for.

Theo Jaffee (06:36)

the internet decent information.

Like how the internet decentralized information.

Paul Buchheit (06:45)

Yeah, I mean, hopefully. Unfortunately, because of the computational requirements of AI, it does have, I think, some tendency towards centralization. Building one of these models requires billions of dollars in compute. And so it does have some tendency towards centralization. But I think this is part of why we need to continue supporting, first of all, multiple...

AIs, you know, it's much better if we have AIs being built by Google and OpenAI and Facebook and Anthropic, anyone else who shows up. I think that the more competitors we have, the better our chances are of freedom. And also open source AI, I think is really important and powerful. And so a lot of the, I think, concerns that people have around safety,

Theo Jaffee (07:34)

Yeah, I'm inclined to agree that locking down AI might actually make things worse, especially if you're worried about some kind of monomaniacal paperclip maximizer if there's nothing to counter it.

Paul Buchheit (07:41)

A lot of times their answer is we need to lock this down and we need to centralize it. And I think that's actually probably the most dangerous thing we can do.

Theo Jaffee (08:01)

Do you think that frontier AIs should be made fully open source? Or are there safety risks inherent to that?

Paul Buchheit (08:09)

You know, I don't know that there's a clear black and white answer to that. I definitely favor open source and I think that we should do our best to support that. And I'm really glad that Facebook has taken that advantage. They've kind of turned out to be the unexpected hero in terms of actually advocating for open source AI. But at the same time, I understand people's concerns. I think it's like there are...

legitimate risks. So it needs to be an open process where people are continuing to debate this. And the big thing that I think we need to watch out for is just efforts that try to shut that down, legislation that would prohibit open models, things of that sort.

Theo Jaffee (08:59)

just generally the -

optimistic with you know.

with these risks must be avoided and may not be.

Paul Buchheit (09:13)

It's both. It's either the best thing we've ever done or the worst. And it's up to us to decide which future that's going to be.

Theo Jaffee (09:24)

you know, generally which one it will be in advance. Too hard to predict.

Paul Buchheit (09:29)

future is not decided. We have to, it'll be one of those things, but there's no guarantee, right? The future is inherently uncertain. If one of those things were guaranteed, then there'd be no point in worrying about it, right? The reason we care is because I think there's an opportunity to steer things in the direction of something that preserves and expands freedom and liberty.

Theo Jaffee (09:59)

Well, you do seem to be pretty good at predicting the future. I think Jessica Livingston said that you have like one of the best track records for investing of anyone at YC. And then while I was doing some background research, you have an article on your blog called 10 Predictions for the World of January 1st, 2020. And five of those 10 were remarkably spot on. Those five, by the way, were you predict that all data lives in the cloud and will be accessed.

Paul Buchheit (10:06)

Thanks for watching.

Theo Jaffee (10:27)

with computers as basically stateless caches, which is true for a lot of people. You predicted Android and iPhone will kill off all the other mobile phone platforms. Android will be bigger, but iPhone will be cooler and work more seamlessly with Apple's tablet computer. That was totally spot on. Three, Facebook will be a big success, possibly as big as Google. Yeah, Facebook will turn out to be huge. Five, you were a little bit early on this one, but you predicted that, you know...

Google will release an amazing question answering service that can answer complex questions and is in many ways smarter than any human. It turned out to be open AI first, but Google still has. And then number 10, politics will evolve much faster than in the past due to the internet and social networks. And all this talk about mimetic warfare and whatnot, that's definitely turned out to be true. So.

Paul Buchheit (11:14)

Yeah, I picked the wrong right -wing television personality there.

I thought it would be Stephen Colbert, but it turns out it was Donald Trump who won the 2016 election.

Theo Jaffee (11:26)

Well, still, just in that niche, picking a television personality to win an election was not a trivial prediction. So do you have any similar predictions for the next five, ten years?

Paul Buchheit (11:38)

You know, I think that it's getting much harder to predict the future. So I play this game with the startups. Sometimes I like to do kind of a time travel exercise because startups generally operate kind of on a 10 year time scale. So from the time that we would like seed fund a company at Y Combinator until IPO is, you know, roughly 10 years. So for example,

Theo Jaffee (11:52)

Thank

Paul Buchheit (12:07)

And sometimes longer, you know, Reddit is only going to IPO, I think like this month and we funded that in 2005. So in that case, it was close to 20 years. Um, but, uh, maybe a more recent one is like DoorDash we funded in 2013 and then they IPO'd in 2021. So I like to try to think about things on a 10 year time scale with, with startups. And so the exercise I take them through, um, is to, is to kind of say, like, let's say I get inside of my, um, DeLorean time machine.

because I'm a back to the future fan. And I punch in 10 years in the future. So here I am in March 2034. And I get out of my DeLorean and I clear away the time fog and kind of take a look around. I talk to some people and I say, hey, what's been like the big change? In my basic theory with startups is that if you have a massive success,

It didn't just happen on its own. It's always riding on top of some fundamental underlying technological shift. So like the reason that Google became massive wasn't just that Google was that special.

that the internet itself was exploding. And so in order to create these hundred billion dollar or trillion dollar companies, you need to be riding on top of some underlying technological shift. So like DoorDash and Uber, for example, really exist because of the smartphone. So like those kinds of services are a product of the smartphone and everything that that enabled. And so I try to get...

Startups understand like what is the underlying technological shift that's enabling you to become this hundred billion or trillion dollar company in 10 years? And part of the problem I started running into was that I was having a harder time looking 10 years into the future and so I kind of like maybe back around 2017 Started noticing that I couldn't see it started to be very hard to look, you know 10 years into the future. We're sort of approaching

sort of the event horizon. And so it's actually, I don't know what happens in 10 years anymore. We are, I think, currently at the point where a lot of things are being sorted out. So, you know, 2024 is a very important year.

Theo Jaffee (14:26)

you

new lab.

Paul Buchheit (14:43)

Well, you know, the character of the AI that is being built, I think in large part derives from the society that creates it. And so if the AI is constructed in a totalitarian environment, I think we end up with like a totalitarian AI. And, you know, to the extent that we have a society that values freedom and individual dignity,

and we embed those values in the AI, I think that's our best chance for actually having an AI that empowers humans to live better.

And so, you know, right now, what that comes down to, to me, you know, one of the fundamental issues in our society is freedom of speech. And it's, it's, you know, it's the first amendment for a reason. It's the most fundamental thing because once you lease freedom of speech, nothing else particularly matters because it can all be lied about, you know. And we just had an incident of this with the COVID pandemic.

where it was, I think almost certainly, I would say, 95 % probability produced through gain of function research in a lab. In Wuhan, quite possibly funded by American government and scientists. And that...

escaped from the lab accidentally, I believe, and caused a worldwide pandemic. We had lockdowns, we had all of that. But four years ago, you weren't allowed to discuss this fact. So we were four years ago, the world was locking down and people who started asking questions about where the virus came from were censored and slandered. And so if we can't even talk about the most important thing in the world at that time.

you know, what freedom do we have?

Theo Jaffee (16:54)

So now it seems like people are much more allowed to talk about the lab leak hypothesis. So do you think what turned that around was just kind of the natural error correction mechanisms of our civilization? Like, you know, the truth can't be hidden for too long? Or was it like specifically something like Elon Musk buying Twitter?

Paul Buchheit (17:11)

Yeah, that was it. That was a big part of it, obviously. He kind of smashed the Overton window. Before you would get shut down, and part of it, which I think people don't even totally recognize yet, is the mechanism to which Twitter was used to control the narrative. And so, you know,

our understanding of reality is through storytelling. Which facts are reliable? Which people can be trusted? What do these things mean? And so a lot of the old Twitter was about being able to enforce that institutional narrative because not only would you potentially get banned from Twitter for discussing the lab leak,

But the most prominent voices were the Blue Checks, right? Who were a group of people who were, the original Blue Checks were for the most part aligned with that institutional narrative. And so those voices were the loudest. And so they could always shut down dissident voices. And so one of the things that was obviously most controversial, but I think also,

maybe more impactful than is realized was his eliminating those that are that original class of blue checks who worked to enforce the institutional narrative.

Theo Jaffee (18:46)

you

What would you characterize the institutional narrative as? Is it wokeness or degrowth or statism or a combination of all the above or something more complicated?

Paul Buchheit (19:03)

Yeah, you know, it's a combination of things, obviously. It's a little bit hard to, I think, pin down any one factor, but the core element of it is, again, centralization of power. And so, you know, whether that's through, you know, intelligence agencies or...

ideologies that seek to impose a single worldview. And all of those things fold in. Degrowth is something that has been in the works for a long time. It depends how deeply you want to dig on these things. And it can be a little bit hard to really go into it because a lot of it, the roots go back pretty far. But if you sort of understand how...

communist revolution works or something like that, it all comes down to being able to centralize power. There's a good book actually that a lot of people haven't read. Orwell wrote this book, Homage to Catalonia, about his experiences. He was an English guy who was a socialist anarchist and he went to Spain to fight in the

Theo Jaffee (20:13)

to what end.

Paul Buchheit (20:33)

Spanish Civil War. He wanted to go kill the fascists, so he went there to go fight against the fascists. When he first shows up in Barcelona, he kind of marveling at this wonderful classless society, kind of the anarchists have taken over, it's really awesome. And he goes off to the front to fight and ends up getting pretty badly wounded, he almost died. But when he makes it back to Barcelona, things have completely changed while he was away.

the communists have been consolidating power in Spain. And what's actually happened is the particular group faction that he was a member of, it was like this United Marxist Workers or something like that, had been reclassified as fascists. So essentially, the communists would always just reclassify whatever group threatened their power.

Theo Jaffee (21:11)

you

Paul Buchheit (21:28)

as being part of the fascists and his friends and comrades were being disappeared into secret prisons and he actually has to sneak out of the country, he and his wife, to escape a similar fate. And that actual experience informed his telling of 1984, which is this incredibly powerful and predictive...

story of how things go. And so understanding how the language is used to manipulate our ability to even have intelligent conversations about things, so that if you want to talk about the lab leak, that's a racist conspiracy theory, right? And so now you get branded as like a racist. And of course, Disney doesn't want their advertising to show up next to racist or whatever, right? And so it becomes very easy.

for people to justify censorship because no one wants racist content or whatever. And so you just start applying these labels in order to control what it is we're even allowed to discuss.

Theo Jaffee (22:38)

So to what end do you think this power is being centralized? Just power for power's sake? Or are the people doing this, like, do they have a more specific goal in mind?

Paul Buchheit (22:50)

I mean, a lot of it is power for power's sake, right? Power tends to accumulate. So I don't want to suggest that everyone who's participating is part of some sort of grand conspiracy. That's not how things work. Actually, I like to think of like, how does capitalism work, right? Someone who's cutting down trees doesn't know that they're making pencils.

or whatever, right? Everyone just kind of does their little part of the job and they don't necessarily understand kind of how it all fits together. And so for the most part, you know, everyone is just responding to incentives in their environment. And so a lot of times, you know, the incentives are quite naturally, you know, a politician likes to accumulate power. So for example, if you're a Senator or someone in the House of Representatives,

The way that you gain power is just by bringing in more and more money. So if you want to get like a committee appointment or something like that, it's essentially like a pay to play system. You have to bring in millions of dollars of donations. And how do you do that? Well, you kind of sell influence, right? And so they're a part of the system, but it isn't like they're consciously saying, hey, I want to destroy America. It's just what they do kind of as a byproduct.

Theo Jaffee (24:16)

So when did you start to think about things this way? Did you always kind of think this way or was it more of like a journey, kind of like how Marc Andreessen now thinks a lot like you on this, but back in 2008 you looked at his blog and he was like, you know, an enthusiastic Obama supporter.

Paul Buchheit (24:31)

Yeah, I mean, certainly.

Obama presented, I think, a pretty attractive image of unity. You kind of hope for better. In terms of the larger pictures of how power accumulates, I think it's just something I've always been aware of. My mother would talk about this stuff in the 1980s. I was kind of aware of a lot of these trends 40 years ago.

Theo Jaffee (25:07)

Like what?

Paul Buchheit (25:09)

I mean, this overall movement towards, essentially, communism. Communism is a confusing term because, again, the marketing is really great. Who doesn't want fairness and equality for everyone? But then when you understand how that's actually achieved, it's, again, through total centralization of power and elimination of individual liberty in a communist society.

Theo Jaffee (25:18)

Thank you.

Paul Buchheit (25:40)

And again, when I say communist, I mean like state communism, not some sort of theoretical communism, but the kind that actually always exists, right? When you start talking about, we're doing something for the common good, you can rationalize anything, right? And actually, again, if you read the Orwell homage to Catalonia, some of the characters in there are actually saying, well, yeah, even if we kill innocent people, it's still fine, it's for the revolution.

And it's very easy to rationalize any sort of horrible atrocity when you start talking about this is for the greater good. And a lot of it also ties into the degrowth things, the population reduction. It's kind of out in the open. If you look at it, there's a lot of people who advocate for reducing the global population to about half a billion people, which means, you know,

eliminating over 90 % of us. And so if you start to understand, okay, if you're trying to eliminate 90 % of the humans, how do you do that? And then you see that they're starting to try to lock down the food supply. In Europe, they're shutting down farms. You start to see how people are being pushed in a particular direction.

Theo Jaffee (27:06)

pushed by who just by ideals.

Paul Buchheit (27:10)

Again, these things kind of come down to just people responding to incentives.

If you understand like goals, right? So a lot of the environmental movement, you say, well, if you're in favor of reducing carbon emissions, why aren't you in favor of nuclear power? Right? Because nuclear power would actually solve the problem. People don't want to solve the problem. The problem is a justification to...

impose more controls. And some of it is just power seeking and some of it is part of, you know, whatever the larger vision is of having a society that's more centrally managed. And some of it I actually think is like a personality trait. Some people just like centralization and I'm kind of like a person who likes decentralization. And it's...

Theo Jaffee (28:00)

Thank you.

Paul Buchheit (28:18)

There is definitely, and this kind of goes back to AI, right? Where some of the people say, well, in order to make AI safe, we need to have it all done in like one centralized effort, like the Manhattan Project or something where it'll be controlled by experts and people who will act in the common good. And my belief, which I think is kind of backed by history, is that when you get a bunch of experts acting for the common good, you end up.

something more like the Soviet Union, because what really happens when you centralize power is the power ends up in the hands of kind of the most effective psychopaths, right? Because the way that you rise up in a centralized system is through political means. In a more decentralized system, in like a more market -based system, in order to be successful, you actually have to create value and actually have to deliver value, right? Like you can't make a really successful startup unless you actually...

make something people want. But in a political system, you can just capture power.

Theo Jaffee (29:23)

you

Well then there's the issue of the people who are actually doing the power capturing. Like your average environmentalist, climate change protester is probably not thinking like, oh, I need to give the government control over the world so we can reduce the population and exert power over everyone. They're thinking, you know, we need to save the planet. We need to save the environment. And they might even be thinking that they don't like control. You know, they'd say they don't like power. So is just, is, you know, the will to power kind of just like an emergent property of a lot.

Paul Buchheit (29:46)

Absolutely.

Theo Jaffee (29:53)

of people who are moving towards non -wanting power.

Paul Buchheit (29:59)

I mean, the example of activists is an interesting one because I actually think in general most people are good, whether they're communists or fascists or whatever. People get sold on these things with good intentions. I think about North Korea, there were people who fought and died in that North Korean army to...

to only to have themselves and generations of their descendants locked up in what is essentially a giant prison. But I'm sure the people who fought for that, they didn't understand what they were fighting for. I'm sure there were good people who thought they were fighting for freedom and equality and these good things. The problem isn't for the most part bad people, it's bad ideas, it's bad narratives. And so part of it is this idea that if we only...

Part of the environmental narrative is essentially that people left their own freedom will destroy the world. And a lot of it is because of a zero -sum belief system. This is like a Malthusian, right? This idea that the population will always outstrip the resources. And again, these are ideas that go back a very long time. And so they believed that the only way...

to create a society that isn't just in permanent famine and starvation is to limit people's freedom. Because if people have freedom, they'll just keep reproducing and will always have a shortage. And so, for example, China's one child policy was viewed as being very smart and progressive by these kinds of people because they...

They said, you know, if people are given the freedom to decide how many kids they'll have, they'll have too many children.

Theo Jaffee (32:00)

So.

At the end of your long pin post about the narrative on Twitter, you wrote,

interesting I want to get back to that. How would you go about like doing this in society in a society where people are so you know where people cling so hard to their narratives? How do you free them of it?

Paul Buchheit (32:44)

I think, again, just awareness. Being able to at least tell multiple narratives, and I think there's an awareness of how much narratives drive things. It's slowly entering into awareness. One of the ideas I would like to do, and I haven't really pursued enough, is I think it would be interesting to create something that's almost more like a news publication, but that...

reports from this meta -narrative context. And so if you look at whatever the issues of the day are, you know, let's say like just looking at Twitter earlier, you know, there's these stories about they deployed the National Guard into the New York City subway, right? And so there's a lot of storytelling around like what's going on there, right? But generally, you just get one side's story or the other side's story, but I think,

what I would like to see is both sides, both narratives kind of laid out side by side on essentially equal footing. And there might even be a third narrative. And so I think if you actually put things side by side, it creates a kind of awareness because you start seeing like, oh, all of these things are actually just stories. And that's not to say that the stories are equally good or equally beneficial or harmful, but they are all ultimately just stories.

There's an author I really like, Byron Katie. She writes a book called Loving What Is. It's completely unrelated to all of this, seemingly. But her practice is one of actually identifying the narratives in your own life, the thoughts that cause you trouble. And so people get very locked into this idea, oh, my mother didn't love me, or my children should...

pick up their socks. Actually, ironically, the author's ex -husband is named Paul, and so she's constantly, her examples are always like, Paul should do this, Paul should do that. And so she teaches a practice of how you can essentially identify these stories. And then she creates essentially counter narratives. So she asks you to do these turnarounds and find three ways in which...

these turnarounds are at least true or even more true than the story that you initially believed. And she says, essentially when you do that, you don't let go of the story, the story lets go of you.

And because, you know, these stories, when you believe them...

it seems so real because it takes over.

but when you see a bunch of stories side by side, it kind of loses that.

Theo Jaffee (35:49)

Interesting. And in the very last sentence, you said this is the beginning of alignment. So did you mean human alignment, AI alignment, or both?

Paul Buchheit (36:00)

Both. Right. You know, we are evolving as a species and this is, I think the biggest change since the advent of agriculture, at least. You know, in terms of how our species functions and is organized. And the reason I think agriculture is so important is before agriculture, humans were...

you know, just kind of these like little tribes of, you know, small groups of a hundred people, something like that. And agriculture is what enabled truly like the rise of the machines. Because that's when we started having, you know, large organizations, governments, cities, corporations, and these things are already sort of a kind of meta life form, right?

corporation has a life of its own, a large corporation or a large government, no one truly runs anything. Biden isn't actually in charge of the United States government. He's obviously very influential. CEO of Google isn't actually in charge of Google. These are large collective organisms.

Theo Jaffee (37:22)

Is Elon Musk in charge of Tesla?

Paul Buchheit (37:25)

Yeah, more so than most CEOs. But again, it's not like he has magical power, right? Part of what makes him very effective, I think, is that he's able to insert his thinking into the employees. I don't if you read the Walter Isaacson book. It's really good. Yeah, it's worth reading. But...

Theo Jaffee (37:45)

Oh yeah, it's on my bookshelf.

Paul Buchheit (37:51)

And actually the one with Steve Jobs is really good too. And I think part of what makes these characters so effective is that they show up. Like if there's a problem on the assembly line and it's holding up production, Elon is like there. He's there alongside the person and he's asking like, asking hard questions. Like why is this a problem? Like there's one section in the book where the production was being held up because they needed some kind of like,

plastic part to put over the battery before they shipped it or something like that. And he just kind of shows up and starts questioning all of the assumptions. And it kind of came down to they didn't need this part at all. And so things were getting held up because of the lack of a part that they didn't even need. So he has this wonderful algorithm of like questioning each part of the things, you know, like the best part is no part, the best design is no design. And by showing up at these critical points,

and actually essentially micromanaging it, I think that really gets into the culture and that gets into everyone's head. So I can imagine if you're at Tesla, the last thing you want is for Elon to show up. Right?

Theo Jaffee (39:06)

Yeah. So switching topics a little bit, this is actually a pretty good segue into startups. So you're still a managing partner at Y Combinator, right?

Paul Buchheit (39:16)

I'm, I think the word is something more like emeritus. I show up, but I don't do group anymore. So the way that we run Y Combinator is, you know, there's a couple hundred startups per batch, but then it gets split up into smaller groups, and then each group has a number of partners who's responsible for taking those startups through the program. And so I...

Theo Jaffee (39:45)

So if you could start all over again in 2024, right? If you were, you know, 20 something, just getting out of college and you wanted to build a startup, what kind of startup would you build? Always AI? Only AI?

Paul Buchheit (40:02)

Obviously AI is really important, but I mean I think it has to come from the person. It has to be what you're interested in. Part of what makes Y Combinator work is that we don't pick the ideas. We pick the founders and the founders bring the ideas. So there's often this misunderstanding that somehow we've decided like this is a thing that's hot this year and that's never the case. It really comes down to what do the founders believe in. And so...

I think it needs to come from your own experience and from your own insights in terms of what makes a good startup. So I don't put out here, here's the thing you should do. It's hard for me to know what I would be thinking if I were 20 years old.

Theo Jaffee (40:51)

And then for the future of Y Combinator, how do you see the future of Y Combinator playing out over the next few years? What kinds of startups should they fund, especially an AI that won't just get blown up by the next OpenAI release?

Paul Buchheit (41:06)

Again, you know that we are our strategy is essentially we fund really smart and effective founders and and we don't a Lot of times they pivot right and so a lot of times the idea that they come in with is not the one that's good And so the idea is we want people who are able to move fast and iterate and and you know make intelligent decisions

One of the biggest predictors of sort of success is basically just how quickly does a person iterate and so it's fine to come in with like a dumb idea or whatever. The thing that's not fine is just to get stuck on that. And so a lot of what we do is essentially just push people, you go talk to customers, whatever. And a lot of times the, you know, concerns about competition I think tend to be overblown. There's some things that are just like obvious if you put yourself...

Theo Jaffee (41:50)

you

you

Paul Buchheit (42:03)

Like one of the things people come in, you know, I get pitched on a lot of times are like email ideas and it's kind of like it's like Gmail but with one extra feature and you know, that's not really like a viable business. You have to be doing something that isn't just like trivially done by a larger competitor. But you know, it's kind of a law of large numbers. We fund a couple hundred startups per batch and it's...

it's, you know, we can take a lot of bets.

Theo Jaffee (42:38)

So what startups or founders right now do you currently think are the most promising and why? Like a lot of people talk about perplexity, for example.

Paul Buchheit (42:47)

Yeah, Perplexity is cool. I think they're doing a good job. And again, actually, that's a great example of a company that's iterating very quickly, right? They're continually improving the product. They're continually engaging with users and making it better. Will they be able to survive long term? Obviously, they're competing directly with Google. That's pretty hard. But they're going after something that's a real need.

And the advantage they have versus Google is that they don't have an existing business. So the problem that Google has is they actually have this really amazing business with putting ads on search results. But owing in part to the fact that they've had essentially a search monopoly over the last decade, the search results page has just gotten flooded with ads to the point where sometimes you search for something and all you get is ads for the first

the entire screen is just full of ads. And so perplexity has the advantage that they don't have that legacy to protect. One of the tricks that a startup can do is that they can essentially destroy an incumbent's business because an incumbent, this is the classic sort of innovator's dilemma, let's say the new business is only 10 % as good as the old business, that's terrible for the incumbent but still great for a startup.

Theo Jaffee (44:13)

Do you think perplexity in Google can coexist?

Paul Buchheit (44:18)

Yeah, certainly. I mean, you know, these things are always... When something's this big, things always play out differently than you expect. You know, if you go back in time 20 years, when we were at Google 20 years ago, we were just about to launch Gmail, actually, you know, April 1st, 2004. At the time, we were very worried about Microsoft. And so actually, like inside of Google, people were like really scared of Microsoft and, you know, there were this terrifying threat.

And here we are, you know, 20 years later the two companies obviously are competitors, but they coexist You know very successfully they're both multi -trillion dollar companies and But Microsoft has shifted a lot right like they 20 years ago Microsoft was entirely this company based on the windows and office Monopoly and that's not their business anymore. I mean they still sell that stuff, but that's not that's not what makes Microsoft

Windows has sort of been de -emphasized and now they're just this enterprise software company.

Theo Jaffee (45:25)

What other startups or founders do you think are very promising right now?

Paul Buchheit (45:31)

I don't have a catalog for you, unfortunately. Anything with AIs, interesting to look at. Because obviously, I think that's the biggest trend is how does all of this play out. We have a lot of companies that are looking at storytelling. I think it's kind of...

really intriguing possibilities in terms of just enabling people to do really great things like, you know, my daughter writes a lot of like fan fiction and things like that and, you know, isn't it going to be really cool when you can just automatically turn that into something that's, you know, a quality animation or something like that, animated television shows. There's a lot of things right now that requires a very large budget to produce.

And within probably a year, just an amateur will be able to make something just as good using these AI tools. And so I think we'll see an explosion of creativity and of content because it's a thing that enables people. And obviously that's like disruptive in a lot of different ways, but it's remarkably hard to predict these things. In hindsight, it's like super easy, but...

I can tell you at the time it's never as easy as it looks in hindsight. One of the examples that comes to mind was at Google, again about 20 years ago we had this product called Google Video and most people haven't heard of it but it actually launched before YouTube. And so when we were working on Google Video I actually remember we'd be like, what are people gonna upload? What even is there? It was a thing like YouTube basically.

you could upload videos and we would host them. At the time, the only thing we could think of is, well, probably they're just going to upload copyrighted content and porn. What else is there, really? What could people possibly upload that would be so interesting? There was a lot of skepticism of the Google video product. Also, part of the reason Google video failed is because they are overly cautious. When you would upload,

Theo Jaffee (47:36)

you

Paul Buchheit (47:55)

a video to Google video, you had to fill out this great big form showing who are the actors and directors, as though it were like a Hollywood production, and then it would have to go through a review process. And then the startup, YouTube, just comes along and just makes this thing where you just upload and that's it. And you don't have to jump through any of those hoops and it's live. And they went viral with some videos, which were, of course,

Theo Jaffee (48:14)

Thank you.

Paul Buchheit (48:23)

Copyrighted I think the first viral YouTube video was a Saturday at live sketch Lazy Sunday, which is like a really good. It was hilarious but now you know YouTube is this incredible repository of Educational content everything imaginable, but you know you can learn so much on YouTube it's you know if you want to learn how to be an electrician or my son is really into 3d printing he watches all this stuff about 3d printing and

material science and mathematics and it's YouTube is probably the greatest like educational resource that has ever existed in like the history of humanity and we didn't anticipate that

Theo Jaffee (49:03)

So you talk about AI leading to like an explosion in creativity. And one important realm of creativity is software. You know, Paul Graham likes to talk about hackers and painters, you know. Software is like art. So do you think AI is fundamentally like an enhancement for existing software developers, or is it more of a replacement? Like, do you think there will be more or fewer developers, if you had to guess, you know, these predictions are hard, but if you had to guess, do you think there will be more or fewer developers in like five years?

Thank you.

Paul Buchheit (49:34)

Um, both. So I mean, what it means to be a developer will change, right? Um, so as the tools get better, um, the way that you use them changes, what it, the accessibility certainly improves when you can just describe what it is you want. Like, what does it mean to be a developer when you're really just talking to an AI and telling it what you want and then kind of iterating on that. So what I imagine is, is essentially a dialogue system, right? Where it creates a product.

And it's, and you're like, well, no, not quite like that. You know, you can continue to iterate and refine what it is you're looking for. But certainly it's going to change a lot. But again, you know, five years is like forever at this point because things are moving so quickly. So it's, like I said, AI makes it extremely hard to look into the future at this point.

Theo Jaffee (50:30)

Mm -hmm. So switching topics a bit to talk about Gmail and email in general. So obviously you've been in this field for like a very, very long time. But in 2024, how important do you think email still is considering we have all kinds of other forms of communication like Slack for the workforce and Twitter DMs for, or Instagram DMs for personal communication?

And email is increasingly used by scammers and whatnot.

Paul Buchheit (51:02)

Yeah, I mean, it's always been popular with scammers. I think that the thing that email has is just the fact that it's universal. It doesn't belong to any one platform, and it's kind of the thing that binds everything together. So when you sign up for an account on Amazon, it doesn't DM you on Instagram, right? It sends you an email. And so it's kind of like the base layer. But yeah, certainly,

a lot of communication moves off of email, which is good. Email is not always the best way to communicate. I think especially for anything that's kind of complicated, I would avoid email if there's like, if you have a stressful issue to discuss, don't ever do it over email. Email is good for just factual things, right? It's good for, here's a document.

here's a receipt, whatever. But yeah, I think it's good that we're creating other channels of communication.

Theo Jaffee (52:10)

So when Gmail came out, you pioneered a whole bunch of new text interfaces that previous email systems didn't really have. I believe Gmail was the first to have very fast search, and it was the first to natively support email threads and whatnot.

And so now we're in like another big opportunity with text UI, which is communicating with LLMs. So what would you want from a text interface or any interface with a large language model?

Paul Buchheit (52:43)

I'm not sure I understand what you're asking. How would I change the interface of like chat GPT you're asking?

Theo Jaffee (52:50)

Yeah, chat .gbt or any other kind of AI. Like how would you want to change it so that it's better to interact with, just like Gmail is better to interact with other humans and other email platforms.

Paul Buchheit (53:01)

I think it's a very different situation. So part of the reason we were able to innovate so much on Gmail was that it had been, email had been kind of a stagnant product. It just hadn't changed in a long time. Like, you know, our competitors at the time in the webmail space were Popmail and Yahoo mail, which are just like these incredibly clunky, I mean, I guess you're young enough, you've never seen these kinds of things. They were...

the whole webpage load would reload every time you did anything and it was just covered in ads, you would get, the default quota you would get from Hotmail was two megabytes. And you know, for comparison, like a photo that you take on your iPhone is probably like five megabytes. Right? And so like it was just such, there were such,

poor products and they had just kind of been stagnant for a long time. So there was a tremendous amount of space for us to innovate because no one had done anything in a long time. If anything, it seemed like they were making the products worse. And so there is no analogous situation. It isn't like the chat GPT interface is 10 years old, right? Like this is the, the AI stuff is the most innovative space going on right now. And you have,

you know, a lot of really smart people at Google and OpenAI and Thropic, all these companies are competing in this space. So I don't, I wouldn't try to compete on interface. You know, there's a lot of people working on it. There's, there's, you know, perplexity, all these apps are trying to present different interfaces to it. The thing I think that is going to happen, and partially this is just like a technology improvement is essentially.

the point at which I can just like whip out my phone and it's like opening the camera app and then I can just start having a conversation with the AI about whatever it is the camera is pointed at. So I think that the next step is that you go beyond kind of that simple.

chat interface, essentially, to be more one of a conversation with an intelligent agent that's actually on your device. And I think that's really cool, because then I just open it up, and it has the camera and the microphone, and then I just have a conversation with it in real time.

Theo Jaffee (55:14)

like the Ragnar one.

So are you bullish on the Rabid R1? Have you seen it? Yeah. It's pretty similar to what you're talking about. There's also just, I mean, the way I solve this particular issue is I have an iPhone 15, so I just have an action button, and then I map it to chat GPT, and it'll just open it, and then I can talk to it from there. But it's still not the same as having something, you know, live always on at the OS later. I think Apple made both.

Paul Buchheit (55:26)

I haven't looked at it.

Mm -hmm.

Yeah, I think one thing I'm waiting for, it'll be interesting, is just what Apple, when will Apple finally show up? Because they're arguably in some ways in the best position because they own the platform that is in my pocket. And so in terms of being able to have something that's really tightly integrated, they're in a really good position. But it seems like they kind of missed the boat in terms of actually building good AI models.

Theo Jaffee (56:17)

Well, have they missed the vote or do they just have something really cool that still hasn't come out yet? A lot of people think they're gonna...

Paul Buchheit (56:22)

Could be, that could be it. But usually the thing is that, you know, it takes a while and it takes iteration to actually launch a product and have it be good. You know, we were kind of in the same place a year ago or more than a year ago when ChatGPT launched and everyone just assumed that Google had this thing that they could just launch the next day and that would be better. And obviously that isn't true. It actually, there's a big difference between having a product that kind of like,

you're working in a research capacity and actually having something that's out in the world and dealing with the more adversarial environment of having actually millions of users working with it. And of course these products, the AI products learn, right? I mean, they're learning from your interaction, right? ChatGPT is learning from you using it.

Theo Jaffee (57:21)

Yeah. So I think that's a pretty good place to wrap it up. So thank you so much, Paul Buchheit, for coming on the show.

Paul Buchheit (57:27)

Great. Sure. All right. Great chatting.

Theo Jaffee (57:31)

Yeah.

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