There is little of the conventional about alex karp, chief executive of palantir, the big data company that has become a bte 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 jrgen 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 weeks 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 companys technology raises thorny issues about privacy, mr karp expresses some personal reservation about stepping more into the public eye.
I dont particularly enjoy being well known, he says. so on that axis, ive 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.
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 dpfner, 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 companys board. dont be taken in by the impression of a chaotic, artistic guy, he says: there is a highly disciplined mind at work.
Stefan oschmann, mercks chairman, is among the executives won over by the palantir ceos 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: hes not arrogant at all, hes 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, a 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 im 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 dpfner, who met mr karp at a party in france.
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 companys 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 palantirs technology on privacy, mr dpfner says, i dont 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 softwares 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 cant prevent, he says. palantir claims to have walked away from customers it didnt trust to use the technology ethically though it wont say who they are.
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. hes allergic to simplicity. now he has to translate palantir for a new audience on wall street.