There is little of the conventional about Alex Karp, chief executive of Palantir, the Big Data company that has become a bête noire of privacy and civil liberties activists for its work for the national security establishment.

A former investor who trained in philosophy under renowned German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, he now runs a tech company on the cutting edge of data analytics and artificial intelligence. He describes himself as a progressive yet his company has been criticised for supplying governments with technology that could be used to exert excessive control over citizens.

As head of one of the most closely watched private US tech companies, Mr Karp often disdained the idea of taking it public and claims to have little interest in personal wealth. But he finally took the plunge this week, and his own stake was worth just under $1bn at week’s end.

Palantir made its debut on Wall Street this week, 17 years after it was founded, to give long-term employees and other investors a chance to cash in. Even as the company’s technology raises thorny issues about privacy, Mr Karp expresses some personal reservation about stepping more into the public eye.

“I don’t particularly enjoy being well known,” he says. “So on that axis, I’ve lost a lot of freedom I used to enjoy.”

A conversation with Mr Karp is not like a discussion with most CEOs. He is liable to spend the entire time striking poses from Chen style tai chi, while clad in a wardrobe of cross-country ski gear. A mop of hair gives him the air of a mad composer picking big ideas out of the ether, as the talk swings from the future of AI to geopolitics and the state of capitalism.

READ ALSO  Concerns grow inside Downing Street as polls point to Biden victory

His view on what lies ahead is simple: “The country that wins the AI battles of the future will set the international order” because the technology is as important as the nuclear bomb.

Mathias Döpfner, chief executive of Axel Springer, points to “this combination of the nerdy, intellectual approach to tech and a very broad, big picture, long-term political world view” to explain why he added Mr Karp to the German media company’s board. Don’t be taken in by the impression of a “chaotic, artistic guy”, he says: there is a highly disciplined mind at work.

Stefan Oschmann, Merck’s chairman, is among the executives won over by the Palantir CEO’s ability to blend technology with knowledge of business and the world. He first encountered Mr Karp after the German drugmaker expressed interest in hiring Palantir and Mr Karp insisted on vetting the potential client.

“Initially, I found that arrogant,” says Mr Oschmann. But he adds: “He’s not arrogant at all, he’s actually shy-ish.” Once the ice was broken, “we were talking tech, we were talking politics, literature, music,” says Mr Oschmann.

The Palantir CEO comes from outside the cultural mainstream, says Sam Rascoff, an New York University law professor who is a longtime friend and Palantir adviser. The product of a Jewish father and black artist mother, Mr Karp says he spent childhood in a Philadelphia home filled with artists.

Asked if he identifies as black because of his mother, he says: “I feel a strong affinity to fighting discrimination and I’m sure it comes from her.”

After a law degree at Stanford University, an interest in German philosophers took him to Frankfurt, where he was given a research associate position and earned a PhD in social theory. But he also spent time “floating around”, Mr Karp says. “He was presented as a kind of dropout — smart guy, no prospects,” says Mr Döpfner, who met Mr Karp at a party in France.

READ ALSO  Victory for vegans as plant-based burgers stay on EU menus

Everything changed in 2004, when Peter Thiel — a friend from Stanford, who had gone on to help found PayPal — was trying to launch a company to sell technology to track terrorists in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The libertarian Mr Thiel and Mr Karp have since made an unlikely pairing for critics claiming that Palantir rides roughshod over civil liberties to make a sale.

Joe Lonsdale, the Palantir founder who claims to have persuaded Mr Karp to take the job, says what the company really needed was a leader who knew “how to interact with the rest of the world”. He says Mr Karp has an almost preternatural ability to understand large institutions and the motivations of those who work in them.

Mr Karp is unabashed about his company’s work for national intelligence and security agencies, including US immigration enforcement. Palantir says it supports the democratic west. While expressing less confidence about the impact of Palantir’s technology on privacy, Mr Döpfner says, “I don’t believe he is a cynical person.”

But what of the threat to civil liberties from supplying governments with such powerful surveillance tools? Mr Karp claims that Palantir software’s built-in audit trails make it “hard for government to abuse its authorities”.

But there are limits: “You can make a system that tracks what people do with the data, but if the people in charge are violating human rights and no one in the organisation cares, that we can’t prevent,” he says. Palantir claims to have walked away from customers it didn’t trust to use the technology ethically — though it won’t say who they are.

READ ALSO  Ryan Lance, the oilman defying crash with big bet on US shale

US politics often posits a choice between national security and civil liberties, says Mr Rascoff, and for Mr Karp “being stubborn in the face of that demand can lead to a lot of translation difficulty. He’s allergic to simplicity.” Now he has to translate Palantir for a new audience on Wall Street.

richard.waters@ft.com

Via Financial Times