hi, i'm jaan tallinn, a founding engineer of skype and kazaa, as well as a co-founder of cambridge center for the study of existential risk and a new personalised medical research company called metamed. ask me anything.

VERIFICATION: http://www.metamed.com/sites/default/files/team/reddit_jaan.jpg

my history in a nutshell: i'm from estonia, where i studied physics, spent a decade developing computer games (hope the ancient server can cope!), participated in the development of kazaa and skype, figured out that to further maximise my causal impact i should join the few good people who are trying to reduce existential risks, and ended up co-founding CSER and metamed.

as a fun side effect of my obsession with causal impact, i have had the privilege of talking to philosophers in the last couple of years (as all important topics seem to bottom out in philosophy!) about things like decision theory and metaphysics.

Comments: 1381 • Responses: 50  • Date: 

jorelaif711 karma

Thoughts on what microsoft has done with skype?

And the whole PRISM thing?

jaantallinn427 karma

microsoft: skype was acquired 3-4 times, depending on how you count, and microsoft was certainly different, since the earlier acquirers basically left the company mostly untouched (eg, it continued being a luxembourg business), whereas microsoft seems to be actually trying to squeeze out as much value (a.k.a. "synergies") from skype as possible (eg, actually integrating skype into their platforms and products).

PRISM: interesting situation. basically we have the word (and documents) of a whistleblower against the word of PR departments of respected tech companies. without knowing the details (just having read couple of articles from HN) i would assign equal credence to both sides.

wycks244 karma


jaantallinn216 karma

right, that's a good point. what i've seen happen in PR departments is that they really want to avoid outright lying, but are OK with using careful wording and exotic definitions to make the meaning come out in certain light.

joopius37 karma

How much of the 8 Billion did you get as tax-free take-home pay?

jaantallinn63 karma

nothing, because i sold my shares to EBAY, not microsoft (as i said above, skype has been acquired several times).

youvebeengreggd21 karma

Your PRISM response is dodgy at best. Whistle blowers with documents and proof vs people paid to lie in a clever way...and you say both have equal credence?

That is ridiculous.

jaantallinn9 karma

to clarify, by "equal credence" i did not mean that they are both right, but "given the information i have (which is very little!) i would assign roughly similar probabilities to their statements being true".

oh, and i disagree with the "people being paid to lie" statement.

ojoa663 karma

estonian make front page

nation rejoice

possiblelion48 karma

for some reason Estonia has become really well known on reddit lol

mainly because of the awesome polandball shit but also generally in a positive light, unlike latvia and potatos

but yes

estonia big

e-stonia hehueheuehuuhehue

jaantallinn141 karma

sometimes journalists ask me what's the "secret of estonia" -- i believe a large part of it is that we were "lucky" to be in a position of having to completely rebuild our infrastructure in the 90-s when the web was already around (and having young people in charge -- one of our early prime ministers, mart laar, was 32 years old at the time!). kind of similar advantage that new startups have over old companies -- having less legacy systems and hence more flexibility to take advantage of recent technological environment.

4wsn63 karma

I love how you refer to old people as "legacy systems".

jaantallinn50 karma

heh, that was not my intention :) but a friend of mine once made an interesting point by saying that the world has been taken over by aliens -- and, after a dramatic pause, clarified that most of the power and wealth in the world today is held by people who are older than people traditionally used to live.

candescent262 karma

How does it feel to have a capital city named after you?

On a more serious note, I remember when Kazaa went from being the be-all end-all of P2P apps, to being famous for being a definite no-no because it was full of malware. What happened? Had you lost control of it by then?

jaantallinn256 karma

capital city: heh, yeah, i wish.. tallinn (the city) has about a 1000-year head-start on me unfortunately. which when we'll be looking back on this in a couple of billion years will hardly matter of course :)

kazaa and malware: what happened was that a) kazaa (like napster before it) failed to negotiate licensing deals with content companies, while b) the "paid downloads" industry was offering extremely lucrative deals.

one thing to remember is that malware industry pretty much started around then and co-evolved with the likes of kazaa -- so it was constantly trying to find a balance between agressiveness and sustainability. much like real world viruses are, i might add.

BrowsesATon201 karma

I'm sorry if this is a little off-topic but

I just want to thank you so much for Skype. It helped me a lot during the days where i had to leave my family for 4 years. It just gave me happiness to see my son and my wife, after a long day at work. I remember when it was my sons birthday, and i skype'd him, he told me that he wanted to see me again. And that just gave me a boost to work harder, and to someday come home. (I'm a Filipino Engineer that worked in Saudi for those who want to know)

baolin2174 karma

Why is it that when I hit the close button on skype, it minimizes it? Who thought of that?

jaantallinn42 karma

that's standard behaviour for IM clients (after which skype was modeled). the client needs to remain running in order for other people to be able to contact you. skype was (and, to a significant degree, still is) P2P.

AmerikanInfidel246 karma

oh Kazaa, Thank you for taking my internet innocence

jaantallinn162 karma

you're welcome, especially if you put it that way :)

StickleyMan192 karma

A few years ago, I was in East Africa on business for a month and away from my family for the first time. But I was able to Skype with them every day, and as a result I was actually able to see my son, who was then just one-year old, take his very first step on the screen in front of me. I just wanted to say thank you for that. I'm so grateful for that. Thank you.

hopefulbumper97 karma


jaantallinn334 karma

thanks :) i once did a quick fermi calculation at a party to estimate that i can take credit for roughly a million saved human relationships :)

theevildjinn119 karma

And probably a fair few created human relationships, too! I was bored one evening in 2006 and tried SkypeMe. One of the first people to pop up was a girl from Lima, Peru - 6,000 miles away. We've now been married for 5 years, and have a 2.5-year-old son together. So, thanks a million! :)

jaantallinn73 karma

wow, very cool :) glad to hear that skype-me managed to be good for something before it got removed.

Mnawab24 karma

it got removed! why???? i never knew of this skype me....

jaantallinn44 karma

skype-me was a special presence you could set, making you visible to the entire world. unfortunately, we got a lot of complaints from users who accidentally set it and then were disturbed by unsolicited calls from strangers. so eventually, a business decision was made to get rid of it instead of fixing it.

outdoorkids54 karma

How good does it feel to have altered human sexuality?

jaantallinn97 karma

haha! as my american friends would say, exciting! :)

hiragar185 karma

How do you think programming and philosophy relate to each other? do you think everyone is a philosopher?

jaantallinn348 karma

oh, wow, an excellent question! i think programming can help people to overcome the mind projection fallacy, because you develop a sense of what it means to have your thoughts fully specified. this is extremely important in philosophy (not to mention other areas!) that has a really bad track record due to treating intuitions as evidence (or, as my friend michael vassar puts it, "philosophers have been spectacularly bad at recognising that their insights are produced by cognitive algorithms"). in my view philosophers have had thousands of years to come up with interesting thoughts and questions, but now we need answers, and they better be in the form of executable computer code!

suugakusha110 karma

How do you pronounce Kazaa?

Is it KAH-zah or kah-ZAH?

My childhood would appreciate an answer.

(My childhood also thanks you for porn, even if I never did finish downloading a single video)

jaantallinn154 karma

internally we pronounced it ka-ZAH. the project was originally called KAA (after a restaurant in amsterdam, i was told), but we were not able to procure kaa.com domain, so the project was renamed to kazaa.

interestingly, similar thing happened to skype -- it was originally called skyper, but skyper.net was taken, so we dropped the "r".

viineripirukas102 karma

Aitäh sulle.

jaantallinn76 karma

palun :)

Salacious-57 karma

Who in the tech business world do you most respect, and who do you respect the least?

jaantallinn142 karma

most: out of the well known figures, i would have to go with elon musk -- it's uncanny how much he resembles hank rearden! least: no one in particular comes to mind, but as a reference class, i would probably go with people who optimise their companies to be as fashionable as possible in order to attract investments (vs doing something that makes an actual difference). not that i can't understand them.

xamdam18 karma

Having just read AS I had the same thought, if only Hank Rearden went after 3-4 different industries... This is sort of a general flaw of Randian characters: they tend to be good at one thing (except for the pirate guy). If they spent 1/5th of their talents on psychology they would've effectively taken over the government without a shot, and not let the country starve first. Though this outcome seems in line with Ayn's utilitarianism highly skewed towards people she imagined being like her.

jaantallinn25 karma

i've also thought that hank rearden's character was unrealistic in the sense that he was not a general optimiser (eg, able to overcome technical problems, but not political/social ones). some of my friends have pointed out that, no, this is completely realistic, since this is how people - even the geniuses - work. i guess we'll see what happens to elon in 20 years :) if his businesses fail due to legislation, i will concede the point.

xamdam19 karma

My personal beef with Rand is that her characters didn't even try. E.g. the Francisco D'anconia character clearly seems to have significant political acumen and social capital, which he did not even attempt to use to steer the ship. Her protagonists' posture seemed to have been "admit that we're better and you need us, we don't need you". The books were interesting, and set up some good society design questions, but I don't think I like her values (admittedly she has the solid excuse of having lived through the Soviet Revolution and collectivisation).

Moving away from fiction, I think Elon's spread into 4 industries (Finance, Energy, Electric cars and Space) bodes well for his generality. Plus his friend Thiel is a highly strategic thinker, though he seems to perfer to operate from a contrarian position rather than being more of an insider (like Buffett and Gates).

jaantallinn17 karma

yes, agreed on both points.

JesseGalef48 karma

Hi Jaan, thanks for your time today and for all your philanthropy! I'm hoping to get your opinion on the optimal distribution of resources/education.

Do you think it's a better investment to focus on the best minds in hopes of developing new, revolutionary ideas; or to distribute our efforts to raise the education level of society as a whole?

jaantallinn65 karma

i guess that depends on the eventual goals. i have been thinking about this very question in the context of existential risks, and there it seems to boil down to timelines: since education takes time, it would not be very useful against risks that need to be addressed in the next decade or so. however, for longer term risks, it clearly is, so as long as one tries to address a wide range of possible scenarios, (effective) education can certainly play a very important role. hence my support to the center for applied rationality for example.

zdravko45 karma

if existential risk is as serious as you (and i) think , why isn't there almost any funding for it? why doesn't bill gates chip in the measly $100 million? if we think of this in terms of prediction markets, it appears that only few people of any consequence think that existential risk is worth bothering.

i'm puzzled.

jaantallinn64 karma

yeah, i'm somewhat puzzled too.. here's a talk where i speculated about some of the reasons behind this: http://youtu.be/84G6An1Ff2E

tl;dr: humans - including prominent people - mostly do things that feel intuitively right to them, and our instincts value things that give you social status, meaning that you have to focus on things that a) most people easily understand (not the case with x-risks that are rather abstract) and b) where you can get short term feedback (again, not the case with x-risks).

jhogan26 karma

I have thoughts on this, as someone who's thought a lot about this space over the past couple of years:

1) The whole problem space is scary / depressing as fuck.

2) It's a "black swan" problem (i.e. a low-probability, high-impact event might occur in the future that is not easily predictable from looking at the past), and human intuition SUCKS at having a proper awareness of these. (The recent bestseller "The Black Swan" covers this issue in detail)

3) It's much harder to see tangible progress / results, which is demotivating to people. If your cause is education you can (donate money to) build a school, and then see a physical school building with kids inside of it. Existential risk is a huge fuzzy problem that's as much about policy and human behavior, with no clear right answer, as much as it is about concrete solutions like asteroid deflectors.

Even if you succeed in shifting the probability distribution that humans get wiped out, that effect may not be apparent, so it's hard to tell whether your money/effort is doing any good.

(also, hi Jann)

jaantallinn28 karma


  1. yes, it can be depressing, but once you realise that you can actually move the probabilitites around on such an important topic, it also becomes very rewarding.

  2. i don't agree that it is a black swan problem, actually. i agree with martin rees (my co-founder at CSER) that the chances of some existential risk materalising this century are around 50%.

  3. absolutely agreed! that's one of the reasons we started metamed, actually -- if the company works out as we hope it will, it would provide an excellent step-by-step platform for addressing x-risks. sometimes i joke that metamed is the only company on this planet that has x-risk reduction as its explicit instrumental goal -- ie, you need to avoid catastrophes in order to keep people healthy! :)

jhogan10 karma

i don't agree that it is a black swan problem, actually. i agree with martin rees[1] (my co-founder at CSER) that the chances of some existential risk materalising this century are around 50%.

Well, the concept of a black swan (or predictive probability in general) is always relative to one's understanding of the problem space, right? After all, if you have a perfect model of reality (ignoring quantum mechanics), the probability of any specific future event will be 0 or 100%. So existential risk is low-probability from the perspective of people who don't understand the problem space (which is almost everyone), and therefore a black swan (as Taleb defines it) to those people.

Taleb uses the turkey analogy -- for a turkey on a farm, the first 100 days of its life it's cared for, fed, very comfortable. On the 101st day it is slaughtered. In an "objective" sense, the probability of the slaughter happening was (~)100% -- it's been the farmer's plan since the beginning. From the turkey's point of view, given its limited understanding of the world, the slaughter is a complete surprise. On day 100, the turkey's estimate of the probability of the slaughter is extremely small.

The slaughter is a black swan to the turkey, just as catastrophic risk is a black swan to those who have not deeply considered the problem space.

absolutely agreed! that's one of the reasons we started metamed, actually -- if the company works out as we hope it will, it would provide an excellent step-by-step platform for addressing x-risks.

I want to hear more about this... I remember the basic MetaMed pitch, but can you connect the dots for me to existential risk?

jaantallinn11 karma

  1. ah, very good point from the subjective probability point of view (and being a bayesian, i think there is no such thing as objective probability!)

  2. my overall strategy with x-risk reduction has been to cultivate a sustainable ecosystem of research and commercial x-risk aware organisations that can hopefully push things towards positive outcomes. now, the entire core team of metamed is composed of x-risk concerned people, and the long-term hope with metamed (obviously subject to the company surviving the start-up phase) is to build an organisation that can contribute both money (eg, i have committed to contributing most of my income from metamed towards x-risk reduction), and research capacity (since we're officially a research organisation). not to mention creating a company with a really good core mission (saving lives -- hence the "x-risk reduction as instrumental goal" joke).

Fabien2736 karma

Can you ask Priit Kasesalu if he will ever work on Subspace again?

Ref for those who want to know what Subspace is: http://www.subspace.co/index

jaantallinn24 karma

sure, will do :)

norabean29 karma

How does one juggle programming, family, and being a founder of more than one organization? I want to know, what sort of sleep regimen and schedule do you keep? You never seem to be late, so would like to know, how you keep yourself organized.

jaantallinn47 karma

TODO-s and delegation :) (i really should delegate more of my coding projects, but i have the "old programmer's" problem of having hard time trusting other people's code).

Warlizard23 karma

You're a remarkable person.

Two questions:

  1. Why do you think you've been able to work on such amazing technology? What do you differently than most that gives you such opportunities?

  2. What drives you every day? What is your passion?

jaantallinn36 karma

thanks :)

  1. well, i've worked on a lot of technologies, some of them less amazing -- so 10k hours i guess. also, i've always tried to pick my friends and colleagues from the pool of people who care about actually being right (not just appear convincing), so we could mutually learn.

  2. my passion is definitely x-risk and related topics. it seems both the most important thing i could spend my time on, as well as the most rewarding in terms of people i get to work with (see previous point).

factsdontbotherme22 karma

In light of recent events. Has the government every approached you asking for a way to monitor skype?

jaantallinn30 karma

me personally? no. of course skype's legal people were constantly contacted by various law enforcement agencies -- as you would expect.

bruce-bogtrotter20 karma

Skyroads was an amazing game, and pretty much what introduced me to PC gaming as a child. I just wanted to say thanks

jaantallinn10 karma

thanks :) yes, bluemoon still gets an occasional fan-email about that.

dexemplu20 karma

What eventually happened to Kazaa?

jaantallinn63 karma

it was sold to sharman networks that eventually crumbled under the weight of incoming lawsuits. interestingly, we actually developed next generation kazaa that never got launched due to sharman going under (also, skype was taking off, so we did not have much time to focus on it). which is a shame, because the world hasn't really seen what a p2p filesharing tech is actually capable of :)

gozu28 karma

You can't just say that and not expound on it! What do you mean?

jaantallinn47 karma

a few things:

  1. as opposed to fasttrack (the p2p platform underlying kazaa), it had exhaustive global searches (kazaa could only search 100k computers or so, whereas at its peak there were 5M users simultaneously online), and

  2. it was able to do sql-like queries over structured metadata of files (eg, "give me all artists whose recent albums contain a string 'hello'"), not just search file names.

J4k0b4219 karma

What is your opinion on Eleizer Yudkowsky, another prominent rationalist/futurist and founder of lesswrong.com?

jaantallinn26 karma

well, eliezer's certainly an unorthodox figure, but i consider him a good friend. not to mention that i'm a donor to the organisation he founded -- MIRI.

most importantly though, eliezer's writings were largely responsible for getting me interested in the whole x-risk reduction topic -- so he has been hugely influential in my current "career path".

Zhangar19 karma

What do you do for fun?

jaantallinn31 karma

i like to dance :) as a computer nerd, i was completely surprised how much utility it can yield when you do it right.

embretr18 karma

1.What do you think about when you start a tech start-up? (no really, what would you say were your frame of mind, at launch)

2.Bitcoins. Hot or not?

Also: well done, representing Estonia!

jaantallinn51 karma

  1. doing a startup is a process, not a moment, so there is no a single thing you're thinking about. at launch people are usually anxious about the public reception -- as you'd expect, really.

  2. brilliant idea, at least technically. as a friend of mine said, "bitcoin, like wikipedia, is one of those ideas that can never work in theory.. only in practice!"

mondoman71216 karma

What do you think of the Free Software movement?

jaantallinn29 karma

it clearly works well in areas where the problems are mostly limited to interesting technical challenges (such as OS-es), and less well when there are lots of nitty-gritty cross-domain challenges that require coordinating people with different expertise.

underdabridge16 karma

What's the existential risk you're most afraid of? What should we be doing about it.

jaantallinn22 karma

i would not frame it in terms of fear, but intelligence explosion is on the top of my list of things to address -- both because of my own personal background (eg, i'm much less knowledgeable about x-risks from biology or nanotech) and also because AI, if done responsibly, can actually help with addressing the other x-risks.

Dgauthier1716 karma

What was your inspiration for Skype?

jaantallinn16 karma

the initial idea was to develop a wifi-sharing network, and then provide various "telecom-like" services on top of that, such as TV and telephony. however, 1) we were in the midst of lawsuits with major content producers after having done kazaa, so we dropped the TV idea, and 2) we found out that all the existing VOIP products out there at the time sucked (mostly due to their inability to work through NAT), so we focused on developing our own protocol.

uster14 karma

Effectively communicating with doctors/medical professionals is hard for the average layperson. This problem is compounded when you're sick, scared, and uninformed. Is this one of the objectives of MetaMed? To help optimize the doctor-to-patient and patient-to-doctor communication dynamic?

jaantallinn21 karma

yes, at least eventually.

the premise of metamed is that there's a lot of valuable people and expertise out there in the healthcare system and medical science, but it's fragmented and diluted in a system that does not really reward excellence (at least not in a way, say, that commercial aviation really has tight feedback loops that makes the system promote safety). so you need something or someone to identify the good bits.

increasingly this is left to the patients themselves, but it can't be sustainable in the long term to assume that everyone is supposed to do their own medical research. at metamed we basically hire our researchers based on their ability to review medical literature and do the meta-research, so we can hopefully yield qualitatively better results.

audiopotamus10 karma


jaantallinn8 karma

well, ignoring things like preferred shares, veto rights, etc for a moment, you just have to do the calculation of whether you expect, given the investment, the value of your diluted share of the company be greater or less than the undiluted share, given no investment. or, put more simply, if you don't expect the investment to make a significant difference in your growth rate, don't take it.

Sjukov10 karma

How was strenghts divided between you and Janus Friis in regard to development, ideas and so on?

jaantallinn25 karma

skype was a collective idea -- we actually pivoted from doing a wifi-sharing network (not unlike fon), to doing a VOIP product.

we actually got a lot of good press out of the fact that there are 5 countries on this planet who felt patriotic about skype (sweden and denmark because the main founders were from there, estonia because it was developed here, UK because the main business office was in london, and luxembourg because skype was a luxembourg company!)

WannaBobaba10 karma

Being a creator of kazaa, what are your personal views on the ethics of piracy? Do you believe piracy is wrong and companies should seek to stop it at all costs, or rather that piracy is only enabled by those who wont reinvent their business practices?

jaantallinn9 karma

i'm a consequentialist, so i don't think there is anything that should be done at all costs, or stopped because it's (normatively) "wrong".

RedWingNut10 karma

Good morning and thanks for doing this AMA. When you developed games, was the end goal making them incredible difficult to win? Also, how long did Skype take to create?

jaantallinn27 karma

haha! yes, my games career spanned the 90's, when "men were real men, women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri", so people had a different view of what "playability" meant. that said, you're right, of course many of them were clearly over the top even according to the standards back then :)

first version of skype took just 8 months from idea to launch -- from december 2002 till august 2003. shows the importance of having an experienced team that can hit the ground running.

qwhat_10 karma

How do you see companies like Viber threatening Skype?

jaantallinn18 karma

i think, in general, the main advantage that new companies have, is to be better adjusted to the current state of the ever-evolving technological environment.

for example, when the core skype code was written, we were mostly addressing desktop and laptop computers, so the tech design did not have energy consumption as a priority. now with the primary growth platform being smartphones, that is a problem (and once you have 100-s of millions of users, things like backwards compatibility considerations make your code hard to change)

Barnacles_G10 karma

Damnit, I missed this.

How's it going Mr. Tallinn. Did you ever work closely with Priit Kasesalu? I used to play with him in a game called Subspace, in which he was working on the client for the game, Continuum; shortly before he started working on Skype. Was a cool guy!

Did you ever work on small projects like that before you worked on Skype?

jaantallinn6 karma

sure, we started our programming careers together, co-founded bluemoon and now are working together at ambient sound investments.

verybadwolf9 karma

Id like to know what you think about the latest NSA illegal wireless tapping, the storage of meta data and how it all ties in with skype talk sessions that are stored and given to Government Agencies.

jaantallinn6 karma

i gave one quick reply here, but as a general rule, i try to steer clear of hot political debates (and signalling tribal affiliations), because doing that seems instrumentally counter-productive for my goal of x-risk reduction.

Waldoonay8 karma


jaantallinn9 karma

no, not while developing it. once it was released though in august 2003, it immediately became clear that we have something serious in our hands again, because the growth was even sharper than we saw with kazaa.

stickyricepudding7 karma

Wow, Kazaa. That's a name I haven't heard in a while. How long did it take to develop the program? Your thoughts on torrenting?

jaantallinn8 karma

i remember the initial kazaa project brainstorm was in summer 2000, and we released it in spring 2001 i think. not a lot of thoughts on torrenting other than it's clearly a solid technological protocol.

ckg4565 karma


jaantallinn20 karma

as i wrote here, the meta-advice of always keeping in mind that your thoughts and intutions, including the philosphical ones, are generated by atoms moving around in your brain, must be one of my favorite ones.

perche4 karma

Is Tallinn your real name, or a pseudonym taken from the capital of Estonia? If it is your real name, is there a story there?

jaantallinn4 karma

both real name and taken from the capital, since estonian peasants got last names only a couple of hundred years ago when the city was already around.