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Elon Musk: a cheat sheet

He’s determined to send humans to Mars, wants to insert AI into our brains and got so fed up with the LA traffic that he started a company to build a tunnel underneath the city. Is there anything that Tesla CEO Elon Musk doesn’t do?

OK. Brief bio, please.
Elon Musk, 48, was born in Pre­to­ria, South Africa in 1971 to his South African father Errol, and Cana­di­an moth­er, Maye. The eldest of three, he was supreme­ly bright and taught him­self to code at an ear­ly age. At 12, he sold the source code of a video game he had invent­ed – Blas­tar – to a mag­a­zine for $500. At 17, he moved to Cana­da to attend Queens Uni­ver­si­ty, lat­er mov­ing to the States where he stud­ied two degrees, in eco­nom­ics and physics, at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pennsylvania. 

What were those uni days like? Wild?
Appar­ent­ly not. To pay his tuition fees, Musk and a friend turned their house into a night­club at week­ends, but Musk is said to have only ever enjoyed the odd vodka/​Diet Coke. Some­body had to stay sober dur­ing these par­ties,” he said. I was pay­ing my own way through col­lege and could make an entire month’s rent in one night.”

In 1995, he was set to move on to a PHD at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty, but quit after a few days to start up his first busi­ness with his broth­er, Kim­bal. Zip2 was a soft­ware com­pa­ny that made and licensed online city guides specif­i­cal­ly for news­pa­pers. In 1999, they sold it for over $300million. Musk took away $22million.

He went on to invest rough­ly half of his earn­ings into X.com, a finan­cial ser­vices start-up. It did exceed­ing­ly well, and was lat­er renamed after merg­ing with its com­peti­tor, Con­fin­i­ty. When it was sold to eBay in 2002, Musk had already been oust­ed as CEO (over alleged office in-fight­ing) but he still left with some­where between $160m and $180m – after tax.

What was the company’s new name?
Pay­Pal.

Blimey.
In 2017, he inter­est­ing­ly re-pur­chased the domain name X.com’. Thanks Pay­Pal for allow­ing me to buy back X.com!” he tweet­ed. No plans right now, but it has great sen­ti­men­tal val­ue to me.”

What came next?
SpaceX.

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Obvi­ous point but, that’s to do with space. Isn’t it?
SpaceX is an aero­space man­u­fac­tur­er that makes rock­ets and space­craft, and also offers space trans­porta­tion ser­vices. Its offi­cial name is Space Explo­ration Tech­nolo­gies”, and it was found­ed by Musk in 2002

Why this par­tic­u­lar enter­prise?
He wants to make space trav­el cheap­er. Also, he has this lit­tle ambi­tion: to colonise Mars.

Err, OK. Why does he want to send us there?
In essence, he thinks mul­ti-plan­e­tary liv­ing is the next step in human evo­lu­tion, on par with the emer­gence of sin­gle-celled organ­isms and, like, consciousness.

How’s he get­ting along with that?
Ups and downs, if you’ll excuse the pun. The ups include, in 2010, becom­ing the world’s first pri­vate com­pa­ny to launch a space­craft into orbit and bring it back safe­ly to earth (pre­vi­ous­ly, only gov­ern­ment agen­cies like NASA had man­aged it).

In 2011 when NASA award­ed SpaceX a con­tract to devel­op one of its ves­sels – the Drag­on – for human trans­porta­tion; ear­li­er this year that upgrad­ed ves­sel Crew Drag­on” (or Drag­on 2) made a suc­cess­ful test flight, dock­ing at the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion (ISS) on March 3. In so doing, it made his­to­ry again for SpaceX: the first Amer­i­can space­craft to com­plete that par­tic­u­lar mis­sion autonomously. 

So yes, there have been many suc­cess­es. How­ev­er, there have also been set­backs. Like when Crew Drag­on under­went some tests in April this year and dur­ing them, it explod­ed. Luck­i­ly no one was aboard. 

Oh dear. Where did Musk say?
He has been remark­ably qui­et on the mat­ter. But he did tell CBS last month, he thinks a SpaceX crew will make it to the ISS in about six months”. 

He also said, Send­ing crews to Mars in four years? I think that sounds pret­ty do-able. Inter­nal­ly we would aim for two years, and then, real­i­ty, it might be four.” 

Guess we’ll just watch this space. Sorry.

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Ter­ri­ble. So he starts SpaceX, and then two years lat­er, just… co-founds Tes­la?
Cor­rect. In 2004, he did some mega invest­ing in the com­pa­ny. Although Tes­la had been offi­cial­ly found­ed by Mar­tin Eber­hard and Marc Tarpen­ning a year ear­li­er, Musk’s finan­cial back­ing and hands-on approach earned him co-founder sta­tus. Today, he is CEO.

Tesla, in a nut­shell?
Tes­la makes elec­tric cars. Super lux­u­ry ones. They also make solar pan­els through a sub­sidiary com­pa­ny called SolarCi­ty, as well as clean ener­gy gen­er­a­tion and stor­age products. 

The first Tes­la car ever designed was the Road­ster, in 2008. Then came Mod­el S in 2013, which was the best-sell­ing plug-in elec­tric car in the world for two years run­ning (between 2015 and 2016). 

After Mod­el S came Mod­el X and then Mod­el 3 – their most afford­able vehi­cle yet, which was final­ly deliv­ered to UK cus­tomers on Clean Air Day this June. 

How involved is Musk?
In response to the ques­tion, what keeps you up at night?” Musk replied: Well, it’s quite hard to run com­pa­nies, espe­cial­ly car com­pa­nies. I have to say, it’s quite challenging.” 

He said it was the hard­est of all his endeav­ours, so we might infer he gets pret­ty stuck-in. SpaceX is no walk in the park,” he con­tin­ued. But it’s very dif­fi­cult to keep a car com­pa­ny alive… There’s only two com­pa­nies in the his­to­ry of Amer­i­can car com­pa­nies that haven’t gone bank­rupt and that’s Ford and Tes­la.”

Yes, but didn’t Tes­la expe­ri­ence some mega dif­fi­cul­ties at one point?
Yes, in Decem­ber 2008. Not only had the finan­cial cri­sis struck, but Musk had just sep­a­rat­ed from his first wife, Jus­tine, and SpaceX was also expe­ri­enc­ing major set­backs. Try­ing to get the Road­ster out was cost­ing a for­tune – lit­er­al­ly. Indeed, Musk spent his, entire­ly, on the busi­ness. Gave every­thing I had to Tes­la in Dec 2008,” he wrote on Twit­ter.

That was def­i­nite­ly the worst year of my life,” he told a 60 Min­utes inter­view­er, in 2014. I remem­ber wak­ing up the Sun­day before Christ­mas in 2008 and think­ing to myself, Man, I nev­er thought I was some­one who could ever be capa­ble of a ner­vous break­down’… I felt this is the clos­est I’ve ever come. Because it seemed pret­ty, pret­ty dark.”

So what hap­pened?
On 23rd Decem­ber 2008, NASA gave SpaceX the con­tract to deliv­er com­mer­cial car­go to the ISS over 12 flights. NASA called and told us we won a $1.5 bil­lion con­tract,” Musk revealed in the 60 Min­utes inter­view. I couldn’t even hold the phone. I just blurt­ed out, I love you guys!’”

The next day, Christ­mas Eve, Tes­la investors agreed to fur­ther fund­ing, keep­ing the com­pa­ny afloat.

Lucky escape. And why Tes­la”?
Niko­la Tes­la – the immi­nent Ser­bian-Amer­i­can inven­tor and engi­neer, born in 1856

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Alright, AI in your brain – what’s that all about?
Well, when Elon Musk is not engi­neer­ing space­craft to take us to Mars, or build­ing elec­tric vehi­cles, he is work­ing on devel­op­ing ultra high band­width brain-machine inter­faces to con­nect humans and com­put­ers”. He does that through yet anoth­er com­pa­ny he co-found­ed (in 2016), Neu­ralink.

…but why?
Because Musk believes AI will even­tu­al­ly over­take mankind and at least this way, we’re not left behind.

Any­thing else?
He thinks, in the imme­di­ate future, this tech­nol­o­gy could help treat brain-relat­ed dis­or­ders like Alzheimer’s and demen­tia. All this he explained in a Neu­ralink launch event last month.

There’s an incred­i­ble amount we can do to solve brain dis­or­ders – dam­age – and all this will occur actu­al­ly, I think quite slow­ly,” he said.

Get­ting FDA-approval for implantable or devices of any kind is quite dif­fi­cult, and this will be a slow process, where we will grad­u­al­ly increase the issues that we solve, and so ulti­mate­ly, we can do a full brain-machine inter­face,” he added.

Sounds pret­ty weird.
Exact­ly what he said. This is going to sound pret­ty weird, but [we can ulti­mate­ly] achieve a sort of sym­bio­sis with arti­fi­cial intelligence.”

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So, what, our chil­dren become half man-half robot?
Not nec­es­sar­i­ly. This is not a manda­to­ry thing,” he stressed. This is a thing that you can choose to have, if you want.”

I do want to empha­sise that it’s not going to be, like, sud­den­ly Neu­ralink will have this incred­i­ble neur­al lace and start tak­ing over people’s brains,” he accen­tu­at­ed. It will take a long time – and you’ll see it coming.”

Our brains have a lim­bic sys­tem – which deals with things like emo­tion and mem­o­ry – and a cor­tex, respon­si­ble for think­ing and per­ceiv­ing. Musk wants us to have a ter­tiary cog­ni­tive lay­er, a dig­i­tal super intel­li­gence layer”.

Creepy.
Do you own a mobile phone or a lap­top?

Yes.
In that case, Musk would argue you already have this lay­er. It’s your phone and your lap­top. And the con­straint is just how well you inter­face the input and out­put speed.”

He explains our out­put speed is espe­cial­ly slow because it relies on our typ­ing thumbs, where­as our input speed is much faster, owing to vision.

The thing that will ulti­mate­ly con­strain our abil­i­ty to be sym­bi­ot­ic with AI is band­with,” he sug­gests. And that is also what Neu­ralink is try­ing to cre­ate, super high bandwidth.

He con­clud­ed: After solv­ing a bunch of brain-relat­ed dis­eases, there is the… mit­i­ga­tion of the exis­ten­tial threat of AI. This is the point of [Neu­ralink]. So, cre­at­ing a well-aligned future, that’s the idea.”

So what does he think will hap­pen? Will we reach the sin­gu­lar­i­ty – when AI becomes smarter than man? Will robots take over?
Musk says he has been warn­ing about the dan­gers of AI – specif­i­cal­ly, not reg­u­lat­ing it – for years. He says the sin­gu­lar­i­ty is hard to pre­dict, once liken­ing what hap­pens beyond it as a black hole”.

It could be ter­ri­ble and it could be great – it’s not clear,” was his view.

Omi­nous­ly, he added though: One thing is for sure, we will not con­trol it.”

The best solu­tion? Humans merg­ing with AI, hence the rai­son d’etre of Neu­ralink. If you can’t beat it, join it,” he said. 

Was that from the inter­view where he smoked weed?
It was.

For a smart guy, was that so smart?
Smok­ing mar­i­jua­na is legal in Cal­i­for­nia where the inter­view took place.

I’m sens­ing a but…
Well, it did cause Tes­la shares to crash by 6%. And two senior exec­u­tives quit. OK, it wasn’t the clever­est thing to do, not least since Musk was under inves­ti­ga­tion by the Secu­ri­ties and Exchange Com­mis­sion at the time, for alleged mar­ket manip­u­la­tion after tweet­ing: Am con­sid­er­ing tak­ing Tes­la pri­vate at $420. Fund­ing secured.”

What was the out­come?
He stepped down as Tesla’s chair­man and had to pay a $20million fine.

He gets him­self into both­er quite a bit, doesn’t he?
Some would say. There was, for instance, the inci­dent last sum­mer where 12 teenagers and their foot­ball coach got trapped in a cave in Thai­land. Musk said he could build a mini sub­ma­rine to get them out, but one of the British res­cue work­ers involved in the res­cue mis­sion dis­missed his idea, telling CNN it was just a PR stunt” that had absolute­ly no chance of working”.

Musk retal­i­at­ed by tweet­ing, with­out evi­dence, that the div­er was a pedo”.

Good­ness. So what is Elon Musk actu­al­ly like then?
As with any­one, it depends who you ask. Rich Sorkin, for­mer CEO of Zip2, for instance, told Wired, Elon is the most relent­less per­son I have ever met in my entire life.”

In the same arti­cle, for­mer Zip2 VP of prod­uct devel­op­ment, Jim Ambras, said: He def­i­nite­ly had a lot of clash­es with peo­ple. Part of it was there was a few peo­ple who had dif­fer­ent opin­ions, and Elon would just dou­ble down on want­i­ng to prove that he was right some­times and that would cause some prob­lems. He had a low tol­er­ance for any degree of incompetence.”

Any­thing else?
His moth­er, Maye Musk – an Insta­gram star at 70 years old – told Today, He was always bril­liant. I always said he was.”

And although his first ex-wife, Jus­tine, once wrote a fair­ly crit­i­cal account of their mar­riage and the dif­fi­cul­ties she expe­ri­enced, she con­clud­ed: I’ve worked through some anger, both at Elon for ren­der­ing me so dis­pos­able, and at myself for buy­ing into a fairy tale when I should have known bet­ter. But I will always respect the bril­liant and vision­ary per­son that he is.” So, mixed reports then.

How much more is there?
Just The Bor­ing Company.

Oh, god.
Not bor­ing in that sense. The drilling-of-holes”one.

Go on.
Musk set up The Bor­ing Com­pa­ny to solve the prob­lem of soul-destroy­ing traf­fic”. He believes the issue of traf­fic can be resolved if roads become 3D, and that means trav­el­ling either by air or tun­nel. Musk cham­pi­ons the lat­ter. The Bor­ing Com­pa­ny is an infra­struc­ture and tun­nelling company.

So cars will trav­el inside under­ground tun­nels. What about pol­lu­tion?
Obvi­ous­ly, Musk is design­ing them for elec­tric vehi­cles – autonomous ones. His first under­ground tun­nel was unveiled last Decem­ber and tri­alled by a select few who jour­neyed in a Tes­la Mod­el S. One reporter said the expe­ri­ence gave them motion sick­ness. Musk made the assur­ance that in future, the ride would be smooth as glass”.

And where does Hyper­loop come into his sched­ule? Hyper­loop is yet anoth­er of Musk’s ven­tures, one he unveiled in 2013. It is, in essence, the con­cept of a super high-speed under­ground pub­lic trans­porta­tion sys­tem”, one that can whizz peo­ple across town in autonomous elec­tric pods, trav­el­ling at speeds of over 600 mph, in pres­surised cab­ins.

My brain can’t take much more. What is Musk’s ulti­mate aim do you think? The White House?
So far no con­crete polit­i­cal aspi­ra­tions have been report­ed.

So what does the future hold?
For Musk? Any­thing seems pos­si­ble. For us? You’ll have to ask Musk – he’s design­ing it after all.


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