Elon Musk on How to Build the Future

by Sam Altman9/15/2016

Elon is the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors.

Originally a cofounder of Paypal, Elon Musk founded SpaceX to enable the colonization of Mars.


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Craig Cannon [00:00] – Hey, this is Craig Cannon, and you’re listening to Y Combinator’s podcast. Today’s episode is with Elon Musk and Sam Altman. Sam is the president of YC Group and he interviewed Elon for a series called How to Build the Future which you can watch on YC’s Youtube channel. I don’t think Elon needs much of an introduction, so let’s get right into it.

Sam Altman [00:18] – Today we have Elon Musk, Elon thank you for joining us.

Elon Musk [00:21] – Yeah, thanks for having me.

Sam Altman [00:21] – So we want to spend the time today talking about your view of the future and what people should work on. So to start off, could you tell us, you famously said when you were younger, there were five problems that you thought were most important for you to work on? If you were 22 today, what would the five problems that you would think about working on be?

Elon Musk [00:40] – Well first of all, I think, if somebody is doing something that is useful to the rest of society, I think that’s a good thing. It doesn’t have to change the world. If you’re doing something that has high value to people and frankly, even if it’s something just a little game, or you know, some improvement in photo sharing, if it has a small amount of good for a large number of people, that’s fine. Stuff doesn’t need to change the world to be good. But in terms of things that I think are most likely to affect the future of humanity, I think AI is probably the single biggest item in the near term that’s likely to affect humanity. It’s very important that we have the advance of AI in a good way that is something that if you could look into a crystal ball and see the future you would like that outcome. Because it is something that could go wrong as we’ve talked about many times, and so we really need to make sure it goes right. Working on AI and making sure it’s a great future, that’s the most important thing I think, right now. The most pressing item. Then, also, I think to do with genetics. If you can actually solve genetic diseases, if you can prevent dementia, Alzheimer’s or something like that, with genetic reprogramming, that would be wonderful. So I think genetics might be the second most important item. I think having a high bandwidth interface to the brain, we’re currently bandwidth limited. We have a digital tertiary self in the form of our email, capable of our computers, phones, applications. We’re effectively superhuman. But we’re extremely bandwidth constrained in that interface between the cortex and that tertiary digital form of yourself. And having solved that bandwidth constraint, would be very important for the future as well.

Sam Altman [03:05] – So one of the most common questions I hear ambitious young people ask is, “I want to be the next Elon Musk, how do I do that?” Obviously, the next Elon Musk will work on very different things than you did, but what have you done or what did you do when you were younger that you think set you up to have a big impact?

Elon Musk [03:27] – I think I should say that I did not expect to be involved in all these things. So the five things that I thought about at the time in college, quite a long time ago, 25 years ago, making life multi-planetary, exploring the transition to sustainable energy, the internet, broadly speaking, and genetics and AI. I didn’t expect to be involved in all of those things. Actually, for the time in college, I sort of thought, helping with electrification of cars was how I would start out. And that’s actually what I worked on as an intern, was advanced ultra-capacitors, to see if they would be a breakthrough relative to batteries for engine storage in cars. And then when I came out to go to Stanford, that’s where I was going to be doing my grad studies on was working on a advanced energy storage technologies for electric cars. And then I put that on hold to start an internet company in ’95 because there didn’t seem to be a time for particular technologies when they’re at a steep point in the inflection curve. And I didn’t want to do a PhD at Stanford and watch it all happen and I wasn’t entirely certain that the technology I’d be working on would actually succeed. You can get a doctorate on many things that ultimately are not, do not have a practical bearing on the world. And I wanted to, I really was just trying to be useful. That’s the optimization, what can I do that would actually be useful?

Sam Altman [05:15] – Do you think people that want to be useful today should get PhDs?

Elon Musk [05:18] – Mostly not.

Sam Altman [05:21] – What is the best way to be useful?

Elon Musk [05:23] – Some yes, but mostly not.

Sam Altman [05:26] – How should someone figure out how they can be most useful?

Elon Musk [05:29] – Whatever this thing is that you’re trying to create, what would be the utility delta compared to the current state of the art times how many people it would affect. So that’s why I think having something that has a, makes a big difference but affects a small to moderate number of people is great, as is something that makes even a small difference but it affects a vast number of people. Like the area under the curve. Area under the curve would actually be roughly similar for those two things, so it’s actually really about trying to be useful.

Sam Altman [06:06] – When you’re trying to estimate probability of success, so this thing will be really useful, area under the curve, I guess to use the example of SpaceX, when you made the go decision to actually do that, this was kind of a very crazy thing at the time.

Elon Musk [06:20] – Very crazy, for sure. Well not sure I’ll attain that. But I agreed with them that it was quite crazy. Crazy if the objective was to achieve the best risk adjusted return, starting our company is insane. But that was not my objective. I turned the company conclusion that if something didn’t happen to improve rocket technology, we would be stuck on earth forever. And the big aerospace companies had just had no interest in radical innovation. All they wanted to do was try to make their old technology slightly better every year, and in fact, sometimes it would actually get worse. Particularly in rockets, it was pretty bad, in ’69 we were able to go to the moon with the Saturn 5, and the space shuttle could only take people to low earth orbit, and then the space shuttle retired. That trend is basically trends to zero. People always think technology just automatically gets better every year, but it actually doesn’t. It only gets better if smart people work like crazy to make it better. That’s how any technology actually gets better. And by itself, technology, if people don’t work on it, actually will decline. You can look at the history of civilizations, many civilizations, and look at say, ancient Egypt where they were able to build these incredible pyramids, and then they basically forgot how to build pyramids. And even hieroglyphics, they forgot how to read hieroglyphics. Or we look at Rome and how they were able to work to build these incredible roadways and aqueducts and indoor plumbing, and they forgot how to do all of those things. And there are many such examples in history. So I think, sure, let’s bear in mind that entropy is not on your side.

Sam Altman [08:17] – One thing I really like about you is you’re unusually fearless and willing to go in the face of other people telling you something is crazy. And I know a lot of pretty crazy people, you still stand out. Where does that come from or how do you think about making a decision when everyone tells you this is a crazy idea. Where do you get the internal strength to do that?

Elon Musk [08:35] – First of all, I actually think I feel fear quite strongly. So it’s not as though I just have the absence of fear. I feel it quite strongly. But there are just times when something is important enough, you believe in it enough that you do it in spite of the fear.

Sam Altman [08:55] – So speaking of important things.

Elon Musk [08:56] – People shouldn’t think I feel fear about this and therefore I shouldn’t do it. It’s normal to feel fear, there’d have to be something mentally wrong if you didn’t feel fear.

Sam Altman [09:12] – So you just feel it and let the importance of it drive you to do it anyway?

Elon Musk [09:15] – Yeah, you know something that can be helpful is fatalism. To some degree. If you just accept the probabilities, then that diminishes fear. Starting SpaceX, I thought the odds of success were less than 10%. And I just accepted that probably I would just lose everything. But that maybe we’d make some progress, if we could just move the ball forward, even if we died, maybe some other company could pick up the baton and keep moving it forward. So we still do some good. Same with Tesla, I thought the odds of a car company succeeding were extremely low.

Sam Altman [09:59] – What do you think the odds of the Mars colony are at this point, today?

Elon Musk [10:03] – Well, um, oddly enough, I actually think they’re pretty good.

Sam Altman [10:10] – So when can I go?

Elon Musk [10:11] – Okay, at this point, I’m certain there is a way. I am certain that success is one of the possible outcomes for establishing a self-sustaining Mars colony, a growing Mars colony. I’m certain that that is possible. Where as until maybe a few years ago, I was not sure that success was even one of the possible outcomes. So a meaningful number of people going to Mars, I think this is potentially something that could be accomplished in about 10 years. Maybe sooner, maybe nine years. I need to make sure that SpaceX doesn’t die between now and then, and that I don’t die, or if I do die, that someone takes over who will continue that.

Sam Altman [10:54] – Shouldn’t go on the first launch?

Elon Musk [10:55] – Yeah, exactly. The first launch will be robotic anyways.

Sam Altman [11:00] – I want to go, except for that internet latency.

Elon Musk [11:03] – Yeah, the internet latency would be pretty significant. On Mars, it’s roughly 12 light minutes from the sun, and earth is eight light minutes, so the closest to approach Mars is four light minutes away the furthest approach is 20, a little more ’cause you can’t talk directly through the sun.

Sam Altman [11:19] – Speaking of really important problems, AI. You have been outspoken about AI. Could you talk about what you think the positive future for AI looks like and how we get there?

Elon Musk [11:32] – I do want to emphasize that this is not really something that I advocate, or this is not prescriptive, this is simply hopefully predictive. Some people say this is something that I want to occur, instead of something that I think probably is the best of the available alternatives. The best of the available alternatives that I can come up with and maybe somebody else can come up with a better approach, or better outcome, is that we achieve democratization of AI technology, meaning that no one company or small set of individuals has control over advanced AI technology. I think that’s very dangerous. It could also get stolen by somebody bad, like some evil dictator, or a country could send their intelligence agency to go steal it and gain control. It just becomes a very unstable situation, I think, if you’ve got any incredibly powerful AI. You just don’t know who’s gonna control that. So it’s not as though I think that the risk is that the AI would develop all of its own right off the bat. I think it’s more the concern is that someone may use it in a way that is bad. And even if they weren’t going to use it in a way that is bad, that somebody could take it from them and use it in a way that is bad. That, I think is quite a big danger. So I think we must have democratization of AI technology, make it widely available, and that’s the reason that obviously you, me, and the rest of the team, created open AI was to help with the, help spread out AI technology so it doesn’t get concentrated in the hands of a few. But then of course that needs to be combined with solving the high bandwidth interface to the cortex.

Sam Altman [13:39] – Humans are so slow.

Elon Musk [13:41] – Humans are so slow, yes, exactly. But we already have a situation in our brain where we’ve got the cortex and limbic system. And the limbic system is kind of the, it’s the primitive brain, kind of like your instincts, what not, and then the cortex is the thinking, alpha part of the brain. Those two seem to work together quite well. Occasionally your cortex and limbic system may disagree, but they.

Sam Altman [14:11] – Generally it works pretty well.

Elon Musk [14:12] – Generally it works pretty well and it’s rare to find someone who, I’ve not found someone who wishes to either get rid of their cortex or get rid of their limbic system.

Sam Altman [14:20] – Very true.

Elon Musk [14:21] – Yes, that’s unusual. So if we can effectively merge with AI by improving the neural link between your cortex and the digital extension of yourself, which already exists, it just has a bandwidth issue. And then effectively you become an AI human symbiote. And if that then is widespread with anyone who wants it can have it, then we solve the control problem as well. We don’t have to worry about some evil dictator AI because we are the AI, collectively. That seems like the best outcome I can think of.

Sam Altman [15:10] – So you’ve seen other companies in their early days that start small and get really successful. Hope I don’t regret asking this on camera, but how do you think Open AI is going as a six-month-old company?

Elon Musk [15:21] – I say she’s going pretty well. I think we’ve got a really talented group at Open AI.

Sam Altman [15:25] – Seems like it.

Elon Musk [15:26] – Yeah, really talented team and they’re working hard. Open AI’s structure, there is a 5123 nonprofit, but many nonprofits do not have a sense of urgency. It’s fine, they don’t have to have a sense of urgency, but Open AI does because I think people really believe in the mission. I think it’s important and it’s about minimizing the risk of existential harm in the future. I think it’s going well, I’m pretty impressed with what people are doing and the talent level. And obviously we’re always looking for great people to join who believe in the mission.

Sam Altman [16:11] – Close to 40 people now.

Elon Musk [16:11] – Yeah.

Sam Altman [16:12] – Alright, just a few more questions before we wrap up. How do you spend your days now? What do you allocate most of your time to?

Elon Musk [16:21] – My time is mostly split, well it’s split between SpaceX and Tesla and of course, I try to spend part of every week at Open AI. So I spend basically half a day at Open AI most weeks and then I have some Open AI stuff that happens during the week. But other than that it’s really.

Sam Altman [16:44] – And what do you do when you’re at SpaceX or Tesla? What does your time look like there?

Elon Musk [16:49] – Good question, I think a lot of people think I must spend a lot of time with media or on businessy things. But actually almost all my time, like 80% of it is spent on engineering and design. Engineering and design, so it’s developing next generation product, that’s 80% of it.

Sam Altman [17:12] – You probably don’t remember this, a very long time ago, many many years, you took me on a tour of SpaceX. And the most impressive thing was that you knew every detail of the rocket and every piece of engineering that went into it. And I don’t think many people get that about you.

Elon Musk [17:23] – Yeah, I think a lot of people think I’m kind of a business person or something, which is fine, business is fine. But really it’s, you know it’s SpaceX, Gwynne Shotwell is Chief Operating Officer, she manages legal, finance, sales, and kind of general business activity. And my time is almost entirely with the engineering team, working on improving the Falcon 9 and the Dragon spacecraft and developing the Mars colony architecture. And at Tesla, it’s working on the Model 3, so many designs to do, half a day a week, dealing with aesthetics and look and feel things. And most of the rest of the week is just going through engineering of the car itself as well as engineering of the factory. Because the biggest company I’ve had this year is that what really matters is the machine that builds the machine, the factory. And that is at least two orders of magnitude harder than the vehicle itself.

Sam Altman [18:36] – It’s amazing to watch the robots go here and these cars just happen.

Elon Musk [18:41] – Yeah, now, this actually has a relatively low level of automation compared to what the Giga factory will have and what Model 3 will have.

Sam Altman [18:51] – What’s the speed on the line of these cars?

Elon Musk [18:54] – Actually, the average speed on the line is incredibly slow. It’s probably about, including both X and S, it’s maybe five centimeters per second.

Sam Altman [19:10] – And what can you get to?

Elon Musk [19:11] – This is very slow.

Sam Altman [19:12] – And what would you like to get to?

Elon Musk [19:15] – I’m confident we can get to at least one meter per second, so 20 fold increase.

Sam Altman [19:20] – That will be very fast.

Elon Musk [19:21] – Yeah, at least. I think one meter per second, just to put that in perspective, is a slow walk, or a medium speed walk. A fast walk would be one and a half meters per second. And then the fastest humans can run over 10 meters per second. So if we’re only doing .05 meters per second, that’s very slow, current speed. At one meter per second, you can still walk faster than the production line.

Sam Altman [19:51] – I’m looking for a new video game to play. Can you give me a recommendation?

Elon Musk [19:53] – Overwatch.

Sam Altman [19:54] – I play Overwatch, anything else?

Elon Musk [19:55] – Umm.

Sam Altman [19:58] – Overwatch is amazing.

Elon Musk [19:59] – Overwatch is amazing, yeah. Generally Blizzard is great stuff. Um well there’s Hearthstone.

Sam Altman [20:05] – I haven’t tried that one yet.

Elon Musk [20:06] – Yeah.

Sam Altman [20:07] – I know people love it.

Elon Musk [20:08] – That’s what my kids play the most, is Hearthstone. They’re also from Blizzard.

Sam Altman [20:13] – I’ll check that out tonight. Alright, well thank you very much for the time. I know you gotta get going.

Elon Musk [20:17] – Do you play anything besides Overwatch? Have you tried the new DSX?

Sam Altman [20:22] – I have tried the new DSX. The best game that I’ve played recently, it’s not a super new game, is The Last Of Us.

Elon Musk [20:28] – Oh is it really?

Sam Altman [20:29] – It’s from a couple years ago. I loved it.

Elon Musk [20:31] – The Last Of Us?

Sam Altman [20:32] – Yeah.

Elon Musk [20:33] – You like that too? Is it really good?

Sam Altman [20:37] – Uncharted 2.

Elon Musk [20:38] – Yeah, I’ve heard good things about Uncharted. I mean, honestly, I think that’s really neglected. That’s the criticism I heard of the latest DSX is the storytelling is kind of lame. Whereas the prior DSX and the original DSX, the storytelling was amazing. I don’t know if anybody’s played, do you play the original DSX?

Sam Altman [21:00] – No, I have the

Elon Musk [21:01] – That was killer.

Sam Altman [21:03] – Yeah, that was. As games become more like the replacement for the NFL I think the storytelling just gets generally neglected, especially Striking to Play 1 that was absolutely cinematic storytelling.

Elon Musk [21:14] – Yeah and some of the oldest games, the graphics and sound were terrible, so they had to rely on storytelling.

Sam Altman [21:19] – Yeah the old Mario games had incredible story.

Elon Musk [21:21] – Yeah.

Craig Cannon [21:22] – Alright, thanks for listening. Please remember to subscribe to the show and leave a review on iTunes. After doing that, you can skip this section forever. And if you’d like to learn more about YC or read the show notes, you can check out blog.ycombinator.com. See you next week.


  • Sam Altman

    Sam Altman is the CEO of OpenAI. He was the president of YC from 2014-2019. He studied computer science at Stanford, and while there, worked in the AI lab.