The world's weirdest billionaires
His arrival at the top also marks the rise of a new generation of billionaires whose investment portfolios look like something out of a science fiction novel. Once upon a time, the world’s mega-rich spent their money on getting richer, or gifted it, like Bill Gates, to humanitarian causes such as saving the world from Aids.
Now their projects sound as if they have been ripped from the pages of a Bond villain manual. Tesla founder, Elon Musk, for example, wants to colonise Mars and save us from destruction by intelligent robots. Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel, meanwhile, wants to create libertarian utopian societies on artificial islands in the sea. The fusion of human and artificial intelligence, the creation of utopian societies on sea or in space, and immortality, are the obsessions of these men - and they are all men incidentally. Today’s billionaires want to live forever and fly us to Mars.
Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel (net worth £2 billion) has long been developing a reputation for investing in outlandish projects: reintroducing the woolly mammoth, the creation of small countries on the sea, life extension therapies. Thiel even donated to the Donald Trump election campaign, making him one of the few tech entrepreneurs to have backed the current US President.
An openly gay, evangelical Christian, Thiel has expressed some startling views and philosophies, including an affinity for hardcore libertarianism and support of anti-democratic capitalism. It’s not surprising therefore that some of the projects he funds are about creating escape from current society. To this end, in 2011 he pledged $125 million to the Seasteading Institute, “an organization dedicated to launching small countries on oil-rig-type platforms in international waters”. These he believes are the “only option to create new societies on Earth” – the libertarian utopias of his dreams.
But Thiel is not just interested in alternative societies. He also hopes to escape death. He has channelled millions into biotech start-ups to cure diseases and spent significant time and energy in researching life-extending therapies for his own use. On Bloomberg TV in 2014, Thiel explained that he was taking human-growth hormone pills as part of his plan to live for 120 years. He has even expressed an interest in parabiosis – the transfusion of blood from the young into the old – as a form of therapy. “It’s one of these very odd things where people had done these studies in the 1950s,” he said, “and then it got dropped altogether. I think there are a lot of these things that have been strangely under-explored.” He also sponsored the longevity studies of the SENS Research Foundation, run by controversial biomedical gerontologist and anti-ager Aubrey de Grey.
In a more banal, though sinister effort, he put $10 million into helping to bankrupt Gawker Media through litigation, a project which he told the New York Times, he felt was “one of my greater philanthropic things that I’ve done.”
He says: “I stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual.”
Back in 2016, Jeff Bezos, the Amazon CEO with a net worth around £65 billion, joked that he wanted to send Donald Trump into space and created the hashtag #SendDonaldToSpace. He even quipped: “I have a rocket company, so the capability is there.”
Briefly, for about four hours last week, Jeff Bezos was the richest man on the planet, ousting Microsoft's Bill Gates from the number one spot before shares in Amazon plummeted and he slipped back down to third again. Some of this extraordinary wealth is being put into extraordinary schemes, and, naturally, some of these involve space. Bezos is behind Blue Origin, a space tourism company that is creating reusable rockets and plans to send its first passengers into space next year.
What he wants to create is an “Amazon-like” shipment service for the moon that would deliver gear for experiments, cargo and habitats by mid-2020, and help to enable "future human settlement". And Bezos is a real space nerd, who grew up with space exploration as his childhood obsession and dream. Such is his personal interest that he also funds, and participates in a project that combs the oceans for the discarded historic NASA rocket ships which fell down into the sea and were never traced. One of his teams even found the Apollo 11 rocket.
Space, however, is just one of Bezos’s interests. He owns the Washington Post. He has donated £32 million and part of his land in Texas to the construction of The Clock Of The Long Now, an underground timepiece designed to work for 10,000 years and tick only once a year.
He says: “People will visit Mars, they will settle Mars, and we should because it's cool.”
The 21st century has brought a new space race, not between countries, but between tech entrepreneurs, and if it could be measured by the size and power, of the funders’ respective rockets, it would be a tight competition between Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Bezos, has, in New Glen, created the bigger rocket, but Musk’s Falcon Heavy, reportedly, has more thrust. It's all very 'mine is bigger than yours'.
But also Musk, the Tesla founder who has driven the electric car revolution, has with SpaceX, and his plans to colonise Mars, for many years owned space in the public imagination. He’s been going at it for longer – SpaceX was founded in 2002, and was the first private space company to create plans for reusable rockets, and then propose Mars colonisation. He’s also a key idol for many a tech geek.
Musk views space travel as a matter of species survival. He has claimed that there are “two fundamental paths” for humanity. "One is that we stay on Earth forever and then there will be an inevitable extinction event...the alternative is to become a space-faring civilisation, and a multi-planetary species."
SpaceX has already become the first private company to deliver cargo and dock at the International Space Station, and earlier this year Musk announced that SpaceX will fly two tourists around the Moon in 2018. He said that the passengers will "travel faster and further into the solar system than any before them."
And space isn’t Musk’s only frontier. The eccentric billionaire (net worth around £11 billion) has become one of the most vocal doomsayers regarding artificial intelligence. He has described AI as humanity’s “biggest existential threat”, and has talked of his fears that we will create “a fleet of artificial intelligence-enhanced robots capable of destroying mankind.” His solution? Some “sort of merger of biological intelligence and machine intelligence”, or what he has called a “neural lace”, through which our brains will connect to the web, or cloud, enhancing our own intelligence. To this end, he has created Neuralink, a company launched in March, dedicated to creating such a brain-computer interface.
He says: “I would like to die on Mars. Just not on impact.”
As billionaire plans go, you can’t really get more theatrically megalomaniac than the project Russian billionaire scientist, Igor Ashurbeyli has put his wealth behind – that of the creation of the very first “space state”, dubbed Asgardia. Last autumn, the former head of Russia's military-industrial corporation, Almaz-Antey, made a video announcement to the world: “Hello Asgardians. Igor Ashurbeyli, the founding father of Asgardia, welcomes you to his office in Moscow.”
Naturally, Ashurbeyli is the “head of nation” of this state, to which half a million people have signed up as citizens. Asgardia, ultimately, according to plans, will be a permanent space station that will house space tourists, run asteroid mining missions, and provide defence for Earth against meteorites, space debris, and other serious threats. It will be a nation that exists outside current earthly political and legal restraints. Some speculate that it could be a data haven and tax haven.
But right now, it's something much smaller. This year, Asgardia plans to send its first envoy up into space, in the form of a small satellite, piggybacking on a supply mission to the International Space Station. That satellite will carry and store data for the nation's newly selected citizens – and will represent the first bit of Asgardia in space.
He says: “Greetings to over half a million Earthlings from over 100 Earth countries who have joined Asgardia!”
“Within the next 35 years I’m going to make sure we can all live forever.” This was how Russian internet billionaire Dmitry Itskov introduced himself in the documentary, The Immortalist. Itskov had, in 2013, funded a conference in New York with the aim of seeing if a system could be created to allow him to become immortal. Without such help, he has said, he expects not to be alive in 35 years’ time. Hence, in order to outpace death, he has founded the 2045 initiative, which aims by that year not only to have devised the technology to map the brain, but to be able to transfer the human mind and personality onto computer, and from there into a robot body.
As preparation for his eternal life and transferral into other bodies, Itskov is now focused on developing a higher consciousness and spends several hours a day devoted to doing yoga or breathing exercises.
He says: “In an ancient text, I read that whatever we have in our mind, in our consciousness, whatever we intend to achieve, we will achieve. It depends when, and it depends on the internal certainty."
This super-secretive computer scientist Robert Mercer was an early developer of artificial intelligence who is so rich he spent around $2.6million on the construction of a model railroad at his mansion in Long Island – before suing the builder saying he had been overcharged by around $1.9 million.
The American is also a billionaire hedge fund manager who became the biggest single donor to the Republican Party during Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign, handing over a reported $23.5 million.
Mercer, who is also a major donor to the hard-rightwing Breitbart News Network, funnelled the money to fuel the president’s political ambitions using a so-called super PAC (political action committee) which can raise and spend unlimited sums of money advocating for or opposing political candidates – but cannot directly donate money to their favoured candidate.
The hedge fund manager was initially the main donor to the super PAC 'Keep the Promise 1' which was supporting Trump’s rival Ted Cruz but when Cruz dropped out of the race the super PAC was rebranded 'Make America Number 1' and focused on highlighting the “corruption” of the Clinton machine as Mercer threw his support behind Trump. The PAC also goes by the name 'Defeat Crooked Hilary' - one of the Trump campaigns mantras.
Mercer, 71, from New Mexico, is a long-time friend of Nigel Farage and became a backer of Brexit during the EU referendum. He directed the data analytics firm his family funds to provide expert advice to the Leave campaign on how to target swing voters via Facebook.
Mercer and his wife Diana live in New York and have three daughters. As well as train sets, Mercer enjoys competitive poker, spending time on his 200-feet yacht named Sea Owl, and guns. He is a part owner of Centre Firearms, a company that claims to have the country’s largest private cache of machine guns, as well as a weapon that Arnold Schwarzenegger wielded in The Terminator.
He says: We've no idea what he says as he's so secretive.
Australian mining industry tycoon Clive Palmer has a taste for bizarre investments – and his five private jets and collection of dinosaur fossils are only the start of it. Among his biggest extravagances have been the, not yet completed, rebuilding of the Titanic, equipped to take 2,435 passengers and planned to actually take to the oceans in 2018, and the Palmer Coolum Resort Dinosaur Park, the biggest robotic dinosaur theme park in the world. When asked if his Titanic II could sink, he said: “Anything will sink if you put a hole in it.”
He says: "I don’t want to die wondering. I’ve always wondered can we build another Titanic?"
An elderly house-builder worth an estimated $3.5 billion. Currently President of the United States. Interests include: p***y-grabbing, spray-tans, wall-building, Russia, nepotism, the possible destruction of America as a global power, the definite destruction of truth, and casual racism.
He says: "Bigly Covfefe."
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