A couple days ago, TED’s Chris Anderson interviewed Elon Musk. While it was a bit of a softball interview, it did bring out a lot of useful information for people who follow Elon Musk. Like him or hate him, he’s a pretty big player in the CleanTech industry, and it’s good to have an idea of what he’s doing. For those who can’t watch the video or who don’t like watching videos, I’ll have a summary of key things below the video followed by some commentary.
The general format of the interview seemed to follow the basic things Elon Musk aims to solve. They discussed the threats to humanity one by one, and then went into questions about his wealth.
Optimism on Renewable Energy
In the first part of the interview, Anderson focused on clean energy and climate change. On this topic, Elon Musk was very much an optimist. He thinks we’re already on the right track to solve the issue, even saying “Don’t worry about it.” at one point. This doesn’t mean he thinks we can stop working hard to solve the issue, but it does mean that he thinks our efforts are working and that things will be OK with regard to climate change if we continue this.
He then went through the basic formula of how he sees this problem being solved. Renewable energy (especially solar and wind), backed up by batteries, and then used for clean transport, cleans a lot of it up. They discussed the massive battery needs this involves, especially when you include energy for heating and other non-transportation needs. He doesn’t see this as an insurmountable challenge.
The next existential risk Anderson talked about is artificial intelligence. This topic ranged across several companies Elon Musk is involved in, including Tesla.
Musk was far less optimistic about this topic than renewable energy. He’s optimism that AI will continue to improve and do things for us, but he’s not optimism that AI won’t become dangerous in the future. This is one of the few things he calls for more government regulation on, and the discussed the role Neuralink has in preventing humanity from falling behind and becoming dominated by superintelligences in the future. He referred to this as a possible “dystopian situation” that needs to be avoided.
This was a topic that Anderson wasn’t nearly as easygoing about. He did ask hard questions about the way that many past predictions Elon Musk made haven’t come true. At this point, Musk was pretty clear that these past predictions were the result of being on the wrong track with things like Tesla Full Self Driving. There would be times the company was making rapid progress and he’d tell people that the problem would be solved soon, only for them to run into a wall, or a “local maximum,” that required a change of approach to continue making progress .
So, in other words, we should be careful in the future about predictions he makes. Instead of seeing them as sales pitches or promises to customers, we should probably see them as a snapshot of that day’s point of view and as goals and not as promises that must be kept. I know readers will be divided on this topic, but keep in mind we’re just summarizing things here.
When it comes to Neuralink, some predictions were made, but keep the last paragraph in mind. Musk said that he thinks the next decade will only be spent helping people with disabilities and not getting into the enhancement of human abilities or other transhumanist goals. But, disability is defined very broadly. Solving things like depression or obesity were things he mentioned in that category.
The next existential threat they discussed was having all people on one planet.
Much of this was stuff fans of SpaceX already know. The aim is to reuse rockets instead of throwing them away, which lowers the cost of space travel significantly. The speed at which successive launches can be performed is also a factor, and being able to just refuel and relaunch without a bunch of refurbishment saves both time and money.
There was some information that isn’t part of SpaceX’s elevator pitch, though. I’m not a huge follower of SpaceX like many of our readers are, so forgive me if this is stuff you’ve already heard elsewhere.
One thing that I hadn’t considered was that its first orbital launch isn’t a big indicator that Starship is ready. After the first orbital launch (which he said would hopefully happen in “a few months”), there’s still a lot of testing and work to do with regard to making sure the vehicle is durable enough for rapid reusability and more importantly, safety for human occupants every time (or at least, safety that meets or exceeds airliner safety records).
It’s also worth noting that Musk continues to discuss making fuel from renewable sources and on Mars. This probably means the Sabatier reaction, which isn’t as economically favorable as gas that comes from the ground, so don’t count on renewable-fueled rockets on Earth anytime soon. But, it’s still something Musk thinks about or at least talks about. Being able to make fuel on Mars is important not only for return trips, but because Mars is a much better place to launch from to explore and possibly colonize the rest of the solar system. There’s less gravity and a thinner atmosphere, so much less fuel is needed to achieve escape velocity.
The timeline for the first human landing on Mars has been pushed to 2029. Musk says (as he has before) that around 1,000 ships will be needed, and that’s in every launch window (two years apart). Around a million people will be needed for a colony to be self sustaining, and getting there would probably take two decades of launches. So, Elon Musk justifiably thinks that the colony will happen after his life is over.
As for governance, Musk didn’t get into specifics much. He doesn’t seem to think the governance of a Mars colony is his decision to make, but something that the colonists should decide for themselves. He has ideas, like more direct democracy, easy to understand laws, and making laws harder to make than repeal, but he doesn’t want to impose those ideas on future colonists.
There are also scientific advantages to Starship that Anderson tried to dive into. Anderson suggested a better space telescope, and Musk figured it would have double the resolution of the James Webb Space Telescope if scientists had Starship’s payload capacity. Other missions, like a Europa submarine, could fit in Starship’s cargo hold, and wouldn’t be nearly as feasible with today’s rockets.
In Part 2, I’m going to cover a few other things Anderson and Musk discussed in the interview and then cover one thing I think the interview really missed out on.
Featured image by SpaceX.
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