Click photo to enlarge
"Seasteaders" want to populate the high seas with autonomous city-states on oil rig-like platforms. (Artist's rendering courtesy of the Seasteading Institute)

Colonizing the oceans to free human progress from the choking grasp of regulation has drawn a wealthy group of futurists, engineers, maritime lawyers and libertarians to San Francisco this weekend.

"We've run out of frontier. All land is claimed. And our revolutions have become superficial," said Patri Friedman, who cofounded The Seasteading Institute four years ago with billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel.

They envision a floating city movement whose most immediate step is to launch a "visa-free" ship by 2014 to house and employ high-tech workers in international waters 12 miles off the Peninsula.

Next might be a medical tourism ship in a refurbished, $8 million casino ship recently donated to the institute, said Friedman, a Berkeley resident and grandson of the late libertarian economist Milton Friedman.

But those are just pioneer projects for "seasteaders" who want to populate the high seas with autonomous city-states that compete for the world's residents by creating the best governments.

"We could let a thousand experiments like Hong Kong bloom," Friedman said. "Politics can be like shopping for a country."

Engineers and more than 100 other enthusiasts on Friday talked about what these "seasteads" could look like: offshore "coastels" on barges near the calmest shorelines; industrial-strength "floatel" ships for the open seas; oil-rig type platforms or concrete semi-submersibles with decked housing; floating breakwaters that harness wave energy for electricity.

"Ocean cities can be modular. They can constantly evolve by trading buildings," Friedman said.

Amid criticism of the seasteading enthusiasts as loony utopians, conference attendee Bill Riedy said American entrepreneurs should broaden their vision. A marketplace of oceanic nations may be unrealistic or at least a long way off, but there are good reasons to invest in floating communities, said Riedy, director of The Maritime Alliance, an economic development group in San Diego.

"Philosophy doesn't really drive technological innovation," but entrepreneurship does and many countries -- from the flood-prone Netherlands to space-constrained Monaco -- are experimenting with maritime technology, he said.

Dario Mutabdzija, president of Blueseed, which bills itself as "Silicon Valley's visa free offshore startup community," said more than 200 startup companies have expressed interest in his "visa-free" seastead off the Bay Area coast. The group is looking for a ship and believes it can go to sea as early as the end of next year.

Blueseed expects its offshore seastead will bypass U.S. immigration and business restrictions to draw entrepreneurs from around the world to work near Silicon Valley.

According to the plan, however, the seafaring tech workers could still obtain U.S. travel visas to ferry from the mother ship to Half Moon Bay's Pillar Point Harbor for shore leave or business.

Mutabdzija is less driven by philosophical motives than Friedman, who said he finds concepts such as representative democracy and the U.S. Constitution outdated and in need of improvement.

"We have to work in a very intimate way with certain agencies, starting with the Coast Guard," said Mutabdzija, a Hayward resident.

"To be prudent and realistic, cooperation with the U.S. government is of paramount importance to us."

---