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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
Because Musk believes AI will eventually overtake mankind and at least this way, we’re not left behind.
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.”
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”.
Do you own a mobile phone or a laptop?
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?
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.”
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.
Not boring in that sense. The “drilling-of-holes”one.
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.