Elon Musk on How to Build the Future

by Elon Musk

Elon is the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors.

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


Sam: Today we have Elon Musk. Elon, thank you for joining us.

Elon: Thanks for having me.

Sam: 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?

Elon: 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...if it's just a little game or, you know, the system improvement in photo sharing or something, if it has a small amount of good for a large number of people, I mean I think that's fine. Stuff doesn't need to change the world just to be good.

But, you know, 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. So it's very important that we have the advent 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 and as we've talked about many times. And so we really need to make sure it goes right.

I think working on AI and making sure its a great future, that's the most important thing I think right now, the most pressing item. Obviously, anything to do with genetics. If you can actually solve genetic diseases if you can prevent dementia or Alzheimer's or something like that with genetic reprogramming that would be wonderful. So I think this genetics might be the sort of 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 e-mail capabilities, our computers, phones applications. We're effectively superhuman but we are extremely bandwidth constrained in that interface between the cortex and that tertiary digital form of yourself and helping solve that bandwidth constraint would be I think very important for the future as well. Interviewer: So one of the I think most common questions I hear young people, 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 sort of set you up to have a big impact?

Elon: Well I think first of all I should say that I did not expect to be involved in all these things. So the five things that I thought about the time in college, quite long time ago 25 years ago, making life multi-planetary, accelerating the transition to sustainable energy, the Internet broadly speaking and then genetics and AI. I didn't expect to be involved in all of those things. I actually at 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 ultracapacitors to see if there would be a breakthrough relative to batteries for energy storage in cars.

And then when I came out to go to Stanford that's what I was going to be doing my grad studies on was working on advanced energy storage technologies for electric cars. And then I put that on hold to start an Internet company in 95 because there does seem to be like a time for particular technologies when they're at a steep point in the inflection curve. And I didn't want to do a Ph.D. at Stanford and watch it all happen. And I wasn't entirely certain that the technology I'd been working on would actually succeed. You can get a doctorate on many things that ultimately do not have a practical bearing on the world. And I wanted to just...I really was just trying to be useful. That's the optimization. It's like what can I do that would actually be useful.

Sam: Do you think people that want to be useful today should get PHDs?

Elon: Mostly not.

Sam: What is the best way to be useful?

Elon: Some yes, but mostly not.

Interviewer: How should someone figure out how they can be most useful?

Elon: 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 makes a big difference but affects a sort of small to moderate number of people is great as is something that makes even a small difference but affects a vast number of people like the area under the curve...

Sam: The area under the curve.

Elon: Yeah exactly. That area of the curve would actually be roughly similar for those two things. So it's actually really about just trying to be useful and matter.

Sam: When you're trying to estimate probability of success, this thing will be really useful, good area under the curve. I guess to use the example of SpaceX. When you made the go decision that you were actually gonna do that this was kind of a very crazy thing at the time...

Elon: Very crazy for sure. Yeah. People are not shy about saying 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'd soon come to the conclusion that if something didn't happen to improve rocket technology we'd be stuck on earth forever. And the big aerospace companies had no interest in radical innovation. All they wanted to do was try to make their own technology slightly better every year and in fact, sometimes it would actually get worse.

And particularly rockets is pretty bad. In '69 we were able to go to the moon with Saturn V and then the space shuttle could only take people to low Earth orbit and then the space shuttle retired. That trend basically trends to zero. If you also 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, 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 then even hieroglyphics, they forgot how to read hieroglyphics. Or you look at Rome and how they were able 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 you should always bear in mind that entropy is not on your side.

Sam: One thing I really like about you is you are 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: Well 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 do it in spite of fear.

Sam: So speaking of important things.

Elon: People shouldn't think well, I feel fear about this and therefore I shouldn't do it. It's normal to feel fear. You'd have to definitely have something mentally wrong if you didn't feel fear.

Sam: So you just feel it and let the importance of it drive you to do it anyway.

Elon: Yeah. I actually something that can be helpful is fatalism to some degree. If you just accept the probabilities, then that diminishes fear. So when starting SpaceX, I thought the odds of success were less than 10% and I just accepted that actually probably I would just lose everything. But that maybe would 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 that would still do some good. Yeah same with Tesla, I thought the odds of a car company succeeding were extremely low.

Sam: What do you think the odds of the Mars colony are at this point today?

Elon: Well, oddly enough I actually think they're pretty good.

Sam: So like when can I go?

Elon: Okay. At this point, I am 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 whereas until maybe a few years ago, I was not sure that success was even one of the possible outcomes. Some meaningful number of people going to Mars, I think this is potentially something that can 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: Shouldn't go on the first launch.

Elon: Yeah, exactly. The first launch will be robotic anyway.

Sam: I want to go except for the Internet latency.

Elon: Yeah there aren't latency would be pretty significant. Mars is roughly 12 light minutes from the Sun and Earth is eight light minutes. So the closest approach to Mars is four light minutes away, the furthest approach is 20. A little more because you can't talk directly through the sun.

Sam: Speaking of really important problems, AI. So you've been outspoken about AI. Could you talk about what you think of the positive future for AI looks like and how we get there? Elon: Okay. I mean I do want emphasize that this is not really something that I advocate or this is not prescriptive. This is simply hopefully predictive. Some say, well this is something that I want to occur instead of this I something I think that 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 that's very dangerous.

It could also get stolen by somebody bad like some evil dictator. 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 a will of its own right off the bat, I think the concern is that someone may use it in a way that is bad or even if they weren't going to use in a way that's bad but somebody could take it from them and use it in a way that's bad. That I think is quite a big danger.

So I think we must have democratization of AI technology and make it widely available. And that's the reason that obviously you and me and the rest the team created open AI was to 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: Humans are so slow.

Elon: Humans are so slow. Yes, exactly but we already have a situation in our brain where we've got the cortex and the limbic system. And the limbic system is kind of...that's the primitive brain. It's kind of like your instincts and whatnot. And then the cortex is the thinking upper part of the brain. Those two seem to work together quite well. Occasionally your cortex and limbic system may disagree but they...

Sam: It generally works pretty well.

Elon: Generally works pretty well and it's like 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: Very true.

Elon: Yeah. That's unusual. So I think if we can effectively merge with AI by improving the neural link between your cortex and the digital extension of yourself which already, lie I said, it already exists 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 sort of evil dictator or AI because we are the AI collectively. That seems like the best outcome I can think of.

Sam: So you've seen other companies in their early days that start small and get really successful. I hope I never get asked this on camera but how do you think OpenAI is going as a six-month-old company?

Elon: I think it's going pretty well. I think we've got a really talented group at OpenAI...

Sam: It seems like.

Elon: Yeah really really talented team and they're working hard. OpenAI is structured as a 5 1 2 3 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 OpenAI 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. And so 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: You're up to...close to 40 people now. All right 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: My time is mostly split between SpaceX and Tesla and of course I try to spend part of every week at OpenAI. So I spend basically half a day at OpenAI most weeks and then I have some OpenAI stuff that happens during the week. But other than that, it's really Space X and Tesla.

Sam: And what do you do when you are at SpaceX or Tesla? What does your time look that there?

Elon: Yeah. So that's a good question. I think a lot of people think I must spend a lot of time with media or on business things but actually almost all my time, 80% of it is spent on engineering and design. So it's developing next-generation product. That's 80% of it.

Sam: 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: Yeah I think a lot of people think I'm kind of a business person or something which is fine I like business is fine but really it's... SpaceX, Gwynne Shotwell is Chief Operating Officer. She kind of manages legal finance sales and kind of general business activity and then my time is almost entirely with the engineering team working on improving the Falcon 9 and the Dragon spacecraft and developing the Mars colonial architecture. And then at Tesla, it's working on the Model 3 and some in the design studio typically half a day a week dealing with aesthetics and look and feel things. And then most of the rest of the week is just going through engineering of the car itself as well as the engineering of the factory because the biggest epiphany I've had this year is that what really matters is the machine that builds the machine the factory and that is at least towards a magnitude harder than the vehicle itself.

Sam: It's amazing to watch the robots go here in these cars just happen.

Elon: Yeah. Now, this actually has a relatively low level of automation compared to what the Gigafactory will have and what Model 3 will have.

Sam: What's the speed on the line of these cars?

Elon: Actually the average speed line is incredibly slow. It's probably about...including both X and S it's maybe 5 centimeters per second.

Sam: And what can you get to?

Elon: This is very slow.

Sam: And what would you like to get to?

Elon: I'm confident we can get to at least 1 meter per second so a 20 fold increase.

Sam: That'll be very fast.

Elon: Yeah, at least. I mean I think quite...1 meter per second just to put that in perspective is a slow walk or a medium speed walk. A fast walk would be one would be 1.5 meter per second and then the fastest humans can run over 10 meters per second. So if we're the only doing 0.5 meters per second that's very slow current speed and at one meter per second you can still walk faster than the production line.