Stephen Cohen: The Path to Palantir [Entire Talk] | Summary and Q&A

February 26, 2013
Stanford eCorner
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Stephen Cohen: The Path to Palantir [Entire Talk]

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In this video, the speaker shares his journey from Stanford to founding Palantir. He discusses his experiences as a student, his early entrepreneurial endeavors, and his insights on talent, entrepreneurship, and the future of technology.

Questions & Answers

Q: How did the speaker's experiences during high school shape his perspective on entrepreneurship?

The speaker worked on an online grade book software company during high school, giving him valuable insights into the world of entrepreneurship and a broader perspective on how the world worked.

Q: What led the speaker to start working on products and what are some examples?

The speaker wanted to work on non-linear paths to entrepreneurship, so he started working on various products. For example, he developed a 2D topological model of wireless signal strength in a room and an augmented reality toolkit that allowed for 3D interaction with video games.

Q: How did the speaker's experiences with AI research shape his perspective on artificial intelligence?

The speaker found that while AI research had brilliant and elegant models, it did not fully capture the complexity and subtlety of human intelligence. He believed that AI was more "artificial" than "intelligent" and that there were aspects of human reasoning that machines couldn't replicate.

Q: How did the speaker find the brilliant people to work with at Palantir?

The speaker asked his friends for recommendations and followed the trail of brilliant people. He ended up co-founding Palantir with a friend who had been working with Peter Thiel at Clarium, Peter's global macro hedge fund. Peter was recognized as one of the smartest people and became the CEO of Palantir.

Q: What was the demarcation point for the speaker when he knew Palantir had the potential to change things?

The speaker had a meeting with senior government executives who were excited about Palantir's platform and saw the potential for it to make a significant impact. Seeing these government officials give each other high-fives and express their enthusiasm convinced the speaker that Palantir had the opportunity to change things.

Q: What is the aspiration of Palantir's platform?

The aspiration of Palantir's platform is to enable humans to perform analytical reasoning that machines currently cannot replicate. The platform aims to bridge the gap between quantitative and qualitative domains of human economic activity and leverage the unique capabilities of both humans and machines.

Q: What qualities does Palantir look for in potential hires?

Palantir looks for the highest concentration of talent, individuals with long-term time horizons, and generative personalities who are willing to propose solutions and build upon ideas. These qualities ensure that the hires can contribute to Palantir's mission and create substantial value over time.

Q: How does the speaker decide which ideas to focus on?

The speaker believes in exploring various ideas and pushing boundaries. He suggests trying different things and seeing what sticks. The key is to have a deep passion for ideas, products, and the desire to make an impact. Even if some ideas don't work out, the experience gained is valuable.

Q: Can natural language processing be approached using Palantir's qualitative and quantitative framework?

The speaker believes that natural language processing may not be fully tackled by quantitative approaches. While brute force translation technologies can be useful, the ability to understand and interpret subtle aspects of language remains a challenge. The speaker suggests that focusing on the qualitative aspects of the problem and studying human reasoning can lead to advancements in this field.

Q: Is the line between quantitative and qualitative phenomena itself qualitative?

The line between quantitative and qualitative phenomena may be fuzzy and constantly moving. While the line itself may be difficult to precisely define, the speaker suggests that there are qualitative aspects that cannot be fully translated into quantitative domains. Algorithms may not be able to solve all qualitative problems, but studying qualitative phenomena can lead to optimization in using computers to achieve desired outcomes.


The speaker's journey from Stanford to Palantir emphasizes the importance of talent, long-term time horizons, and generative personalities. Palantir's platform aims to leverage the unique capabilities of humans and machines to bridge the gap between quantitative and qualitative domains. The speaker encourages exploring various ideas, focusing on deep passion and impact, and studying qualitative aspects to tackle complex problems.

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