Before Buaphan saw that Starlink satellite train silently crossing the pre-dawn sky, I’d never taken much interest in Elon Musk. Now, I’ve been catching up. Spacing out on Starlink. Trying get my head around Neuralink.
Is Musk a genius? Well, if a genius is someone who doesn’t just master a field but changes it forever, then possibly he is. At the very least he can lay claim to a talent for rethinking, for going back to first principles to find solutions to long-standing technological problems. And he applies this talent not to a single field but many: rocket science and satellite constellation deployment; low latency, high bandwidth internet, using lasers in space. Cool, self-driving cars. Brain-machine interface.
But a genius at what, exactly?
To be clear, he’s not a scientist as such. Like his role-model Thomas Edison, his drive is primarily commercial, not scientific. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Economics as well as in Physics.
It’s not what is that drives Elon, it’s what could be.
In late summer of 1995, young Elon moved to California from Pennsylvania to do a PhD in Applied Physics and Materials Science at Stanford. Then, at the last minute, he suddenly changed his mind, and withdrew from the programme to go into business.
He co-founded a software company, and then an online bank. After the sale of the former and the merger of the latter, he was already a billionaire by 2002, when he founded SpaceX. Once Starlink starts raking in $30-$50 billion a year, it will be better funded than NASA. In 2008 Marvel Comics made the first of its Iron Man films; it’s widely believed that ‘Tony Stark’, the visionary tech-billionaire who transforms himself into the Iron Man, is modelled on Musk. In 2020, the driving force and public face of SpaceX, Neuralink, Tesla Inc. and The Boring Company (which digs tunnels) is surrounded by considerable adulation, regarded as a visionary and philanthropist. He gives numerous interviews, and comes across extremely well: nice guy, unassuming, modest, thoughtful, honest… and funny too, sometimes. There are Youtube compilations: Elon Musk’s Funniest Moments; Elon Musk, King of Sarcasm.
His long interviews on the massively popular Joe Rogan podcast have done a lot to make him cool. The fact that, sitting across the table from one of the richest men in the world, rough tough Mr Rogan goes all moist and turns into a simpering fan-boy is understandable, because Elon isn’t just extraordinarily successful and cool with it, he really cares about the future of humanity.
I’m only kidding: Rogan does a fantastic job, has to work hard and be on his toes. His job, after all, is not to ask hard questions, but to get the guy to relax and open up, to humanise this key player in kitting out a future which is both, according to Musk, inevitable and impossible to predict.
It takes a while. This is a long-form interview in an intimate setting; Musk hasn’t done this kind of thing before, and he’s also looking kind of tired. He’s used to a shorter interview, often in front of an audience who are hanging on his every word and laughing at his slightest joke. And you can understand all the love he gets. After all, he’s not just building the future, he finds time to talk about it, to try to bring us along with him, and the ideas are just so out there, the delivery so understated, the wry humour so ready to appear.
But then, just once in a while, you get this strange note of melancholy, which only makes him even more interesting. This hint of sadness.
Is it acting? Instinctively adding some shadow to the cool bright picture he’s painting — a little chiaroscuro in the cult image?
I don’t think so. Not entirely, anyway.
”You wouldn’t necessarily want to be me,” he tells Joe, wryly — it’s a confession; a confidence.
Rogan has had to work hard to get him to go with the flow, and he’s broken out a nice bottle of whisky someone had given him. They’re on their third glass, and when Rogan sparks up a joint and passes it across to Elon, he takes it — it is legal in California, after all — sniffs it, looks at it with curiosity, and takes a token mouthful which he doesn’t inhale but blows straight out. Then he shrugs and shakes his head. Doesn’t have any effect.
All in all it was completely redundant for him to have to spell out in the aftermath that he is not a pot-smoker. That was after the media got themselves all whipped up about it; there’d been speculation about SpaceX’s USAF contracts being affected, and Tesla stock even took a hit. In fact, it took only moments after his token drag for him to start receiving texts from friends saying, ‘What the fuck are you doing???’
But Elon’s got too much on his mind to worry about that kind of nonsense.
Rogan has finally changed the subject from the endless ritual talk about cool cars and watches, and is pressing him on his ‘role in civilisation, in the culture’ — his unique position. “There’s only one Elon Musk,” he’s saying. There’s a long pause.
“I don’t think…” says Elon. “I don’t think you’d necessarily want to be me… I don’t think people would like it that much.”
And OK, it could just be the stress and tiredness talking, but actually that’s not the only time he’s said it. There’s another interview, in front of a live audience, where he uses the line, perhaps where he first came up with it. Asked what advice he would give to young people who want to be like Elon Musk, he says, “Well, first of all probably they shouldn’t want to be… me.” He’s joking, but — “I think it sounds better than it is — it’s not as much fun being me as you’d think. I mean (laughing) it could be worse, for sure. But I’m not sure I would… I‘m not sure I wanna be me!” (Audience laughter.)
That interviewer doesn’t follow up, but Rogan presses him…
“Come on, that’s some superhero-type shit. You know, you wouldn’t want to be Spiderman… just sleep tight in Gotham City and hope he’s out there doing his job.”
It takes Musk a few moments to articulate a response to that.
He’s talking about his restless mind.
“It doesn’t stop… it’s like a never-ending explosion. When I was five or six or something I thought I was insane… because it was clear that other people did not… that their mind wasn’t exploding with ideas… all the time… it was just strange… I hoped they didn’t find out, cos they might, like, put me away or something.”
But of course they found out, Elon. Of course they did.
And then, out of nowhere, a monologue. And as he speaks, strangely, he just looks sadder and sadder.
“My goal is to try to do useful things… try to maximise it, probably the future is good… make the future exciting… something you’re looking forward to… you know like with Tesla we’re trying to make things that people love …”
He livens up momentarily.
“I mean, how many things can you buy that you really love, that really give you joy? It’s so rare… so rare. I wish there were more things. That’s what we try to do — just make things that somebody loves.”
He’s looking down. His expression, now, seems almost heart-broken…
“That’s so difficult.”
Rogan is doing a brilliant job, gently probing, coaxing…. This is on the money, now. But he blows it.
“Do you think about, like, what things would improve people’s experience? Like what, what would change the way people interface with life… that would make them more relaxed, more happy? Do you think, like, what could I do that would help people, that maybe they wouldn’t be able to figure out?”
On the word ‘interface’, Musk’s eyes flare momentarily. A signal? — Like, I thought we weren’t going to get into that today.
Elon gets it back on track.
“Yeah, like, what are the set of things that can be done to make the future better?” he says. “A future where we are a space-faring civilisation and out there among the stars — this is very exciting. This makes me look forward to the future.”
“This makes me want that future. You know there need to be things that make you look forward to waking up in the morning. Waking up in the morning you look forward to the day, forward to the future. In a future where we’re a space-faring civilisation and out there among the stars — I think that’s very exciting. That is a thing we want. Whereas if we knew we would not be a space-faring civilisation and forever confined to earth, that would not be a good future, that would be very sad. We don’t want the sad future.”
Forever confined to earth… so sad.
Rogan probes — “It would be sad in terms of just with the finite life-span…”
And Musk interjects — ‘Yeah!’ — before he can finish…
“… of the Earth itself and the solar system itself?”
Ah. Musk readjusts, realising he’d anticipated the wrong question, and continues talking about space travel and a multi-planetary civilisation.
At one point he says, completely out of the blue. ‘I’m pro-human. I love humanity. I think it’s great. Strangely you know I think a lot of people don’t like humanity and see it as a blight, but I do not. This may sound corny, but love is the answer.’
Elon — are you sure that joint had no effect?
The dangers of passive smoking, hey?
Eighteen months later, Musk was back for another session. There’s no whisky or weed this time. And no sadness. But plenty of seriousness.
And this time we do, finally, get into the interface question.
There’s a lot of talk about biomedical applications first. The blind will see, the quadriplegic will walk. Though slightly better than normal.
Musk always tries hard to paint an exciting picture of the future — ‘a future people can get excited about, a future people want to be part of’ — but it’s also, as the Singularity approaches, a future he’s obliged — honour-bound, I would say — to warn us about.
“There’s no way of telling whether AI will be benign,” he says, as he has done so many times. “Beyond the Singularity, there is no way to predict what will happen.”
Which is, in fact, more or less the definition of the word. A singularity, mathematically speaking, is when one function in the equation takes an infinite value.
Such as at the centre of a black hole, says the dictionary.
And Elon’s looking into that black hole.
It might sound great to turn it on.
His sadness comes from the future…
But what if it doesn’t turn off?
He has called for the regulation of AI research — in which there are more than forty companies currently involved. And that’s just what we know about.
But there’s a problem, he explains.
Imagine it takes us, say, a hundred years to invent Artificial General Intelligence — ‘strong’ AI. Not an algorithm, a machine that thinks. That gives us a maximum of ninety-nine years to come up with a way of controlling it. How do you invent a way of controlling something that has not yet been invented?
And that‘s why — the real reason, he says — he’s involved in Neuralink, the state-of-the-art brain-machine interface using soft, flexible polymer electrodes threaded into the brain, fusing the human connectome with the telecosm.
Is there a contradiction here? Why, if he thinks digital intelligence is such a threat, is he investing in DeepMind, Google’s AI subsidiary, and devoting so much of his legendary problem-solving ingenuity to the interface problem, the bandwidth problem, of being merely human?
Elon is three steps ahead of you.
“It’s already too late,” he says. “We’re already a cyborg to some degree, right, ‘cos you’ve got your phone, your electronic devices… today if you don’t bring your phone along it’s like you have missing-limb syndrome…
“The thing is, even in a benign scenario, we’re kind of left behind. We’re not along for the ride. We’re just too dumb. So how do you go along for the ride? Your computer can do things like a million times faster. Basically at some point the AI is, like, talking to a tree…
Which is not very entertaining.”
Forever confined to earth, talking to a tree. Elon’s idea of hell.
Not mine, I have to say.
He means not very entertaining for the AI, by the way, though it occurs to me that the tree might feel the same tedium. Tiny human with its head full of neural lace, blurring around like a hyper-active insect…
In any case, we’re all already participating in the creation of digital intelligence.
“There’s sort of like a collective AI in the Google search; we’re all plugged in like nodes on a network, like leaves on a big tree, and we’re all feeding this network with our questions and answers, we’re all collectively programming the AI.”
Since we can’t stop the process, Neuralink should properly be seen as a survival strategy for humanity.
“The ‘merge’ scenario with AI is that one that seems probably the best. If you can’t beat it, join it. From a long-term existential standpoint that’s like the purpose of Neuralink — to create a high-bandwidth interface to the brain such that we can be symbiotic with AI. Because we have a bandwidth problem. There’s an interface problem — particularly output. You just can’t communicate with your fingers, it’s too slow.”
The guy’s a good promoter, you’ve got to admit. Explainer, whatever.
Maybe that’s his genius.
People seem to feel they know this guy. Admirers call him just ‘Elon’.
I almost feel like I’m getting to know him myself.
From there the conversation only gets more sinister.
The human brain has two layers, Elon explains, warning that brain-purists will quibble: the cortex is the rational mind, the computational layer. That’s wrapped around the limbic system, which the reptilian/ paleo-mammalian brain. Our drives, our emotions, our lusts, hungers, fears. The AI interface will give us a super-intelligent tertiary layer.
The strange thing is, he notes, that the cortex serves the limbic system; the more advanced part of the brain serves the more primitive. You’d think it would be the other way round.
“But we’re happy with that arrangement. I don’t know anyone who wants to replace their limbic system, or their cortex.”
And then he says something stunning — the most important thing, perhaps, in the entire two-and-a-half-hour conversation.
“But the AI isn’t formed, strangely, by the human limbic system. It is in large part our id writ large.”
And Rogan completely fails to pick up on it.
Id. Latin for ‘it’. In Freudian psychology, the unconscious depths of the mind, the disorganised component of personality that contains a human’s basic, instinctual drives.
So that’s what’s coming.
And we all helped to teach it.
Elsewhere, Musk has put it even more dramatically. There’s a clip, in the ‘Elon Musk: Pumping Irony‘ compilation. It’s from an interview at MIT in front of a student audience.
“With AI we are summoning the demon,” he says.
He nods. Serious. As it happens, he’s sitting on a deep red sofa in front of a deep red theatre curtain. The interviewer is not in shot. Elon is wearing a black jacket over an open-necked shirt which is white with a black check. Red, white and black.
He looks out at the audience and towards the camera.
“You know all those stories where… there’s the guy with a pentagram and the holy water and it’s like, yeah, you’re sure you can control the demon.
It doesn’t work out.”
And he’s doing the honourable thing by warning us.
NEXT: CLOSING THE SYSTEM
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