Who needs the metaverse when your life can be as weird as Palmer Luckey’s? In 2016, the founder of the virtual reality startup Oculus was unceremoniously pushed out of the company that acquired it—Facebook. Zuckerberg and his minions had soured on Luckey’s Trump-embracing politics. At the time, few would have guessed that the fanciful technologist, gamer, and cosplayer who once posed on a virtual beach on the cover of Time Magazine would become a major figure in defense technology. But Luckey quickly founded Anduril, a Founders Fund-backed startup devoted to cutting-edge military tech.
Luckey is now winning billion-dollar Pentagon contracts. One of them is for a counter-drone system based on its “battlefield operating system,” called Lattice. Anduril’s demo video shows one of the company’s sentry surveillance towers detecting a hostile drone and dispatching a small high-speed drone of its own to literally knock the intruder out of the sky. Recently, Anduril acquired a company that makes robot submarines. Luckey’s video games are now real—and deadly.
Anduril has a valuation of nearly $5 billion, making Luckey a rare founder of two unicorns. He is unusual for a military contractor. Perpetually garbed in a Hawaiian shirt, and occasionally still in cosplay threads, his vibe is much more cheerful hacker. His conservative politics also make him an awkward figure in Silicon Valley. (One of his sisters is married to the right-wing provocateur and congress member Matt Gaetz.) Unapologetic and upbeat, Luckey spoke of his talks with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, the ethics of defense technology, and Mark Zuckerberg’s dive into the metasphere.
The interview is edited for length and clarity.
Steven Levy: How does the Ukraine invasion affect the way you think about your strategies?
Palmer Luckey: I met with President Zelensky shortly after we started, and I last saw him about two years ago. He was one of the few leaders on the European continent who understood that you can’t deter expansionist dictatorships using mean words or moving money around, that it could only be deterred through credible threat of force. That was not a popular opinion among his allies at the time. But that’s the thesis of our company: You want to have really strong technology that deters conflict by raising the cost high enough so that it’s not thinkable.
What were you talking about with Zelensky and his deputies?
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I can’t get into specifics. But I will say Zelensky reached out to us way ahead of most world leaders, at a time when people didn’t believe in applying autonomy to warfare. He and a handful of others were seeing the future and realizing that autonomy was going to be an important part of deterring conflict. I’m really devastated that he wasn’t able to stop it, that the whole world wasn’t able to stop it.
If Anduril technology had been deployed, would that conflict be playing out differently?
There’s a few assumptions in that question, like w
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