Notes: Elon Musk’s vision of the future

Screenshot of Elon Musk’s 2017 TED interview. Click to view.

It is widely known that Elon Musk — founder of Tesla, SpaceX, the Boring Company (for revolutionizing tunnel technology), and most recently Neuralink (for developing computer-mind interfaces) — wants humans to live on Mars. Why?

Intellectually, he describes the reason this way: if we “stay on Earth forever, there will be some eventual extinction event.” [1] Apparently his biggest worry is “World War III”.[2] Musk and others believe that spreading humans out into the solar system is the only real insurance against these existential risks to humanity’s survival.

But that’s just the intellectual rationale. Musk’s most powerful motivations for heading to Mars appear to lie a bit deeper in his psyche.

In a revealing 2017 interview [3] on the TED channel, Elon Musk often seemed to be searching for the most efficient and effective words that would convey his thoughts clearly but in an entertaining fashion. As you watched him parse the interviewer’s less-than-clear questions, which were laced with hero worship (“Yeah,” Musk would say, in a disappointed tone that suggested he was thinking, “I guess you felt you had to ask that question that way, but you could have asked it much better”) one could easily imagine why he wants to create brain-computer interfaces. There was often a methodical jerkiness to this delivery, as though having to squeeze his big, fast thoughts through the slow, cumbersome instrument of an ordinary voice, in a body, on a stage, was just so damn slow.

Musk in public is one of the most future-focused people I have ever seen, though his passion for vision is deeply influenced by his sense of the past. He reminded the TED audience that past civilizations built up impressive technologies only to forget them later (the ancient Egyptians, the Romans). He summarized the history of the US space program in a few sentences:

“If you look at the progress in space, in 1969 you were able to send somebody to the moon. 1969! Then we had the space shuttle. The space shuttle could only take people to low Earth orbit. Then the space shuttle retired and the United States could take no one to orbit. So that’s the trend.” He made a gesture with his hand, slicing downward from left to right. “The trend is down to nothing.”

This trend greatly disturbs him. “People are mistaken when they think that technology automatically improves. It does not automatically improve. It only improves if a lot of people work very hard to make it better.” Without that continuous focus and effort, says Musk, technology often degrades.

Musk often appears in the media as a single genius, reshaping the future, but of course the greatest part of his accomplishment resides not just in “dreaming big,” as the TED interviewer kept insisting, but in building companies around those visions, hiring brilliant talent, and motivating them to “work very hard to make it better.”

But what motivates Musk, at least as he reports in this interview, is not a messianic urge to save humanity. It is his inability to live without the possibility of realizing his vision of the future.

“It’s important to have a future that’s inspiring and appealing,” he says. “There have to be reasons that you get up in the morning, and you want to live.” And what makes Musk want to live? He does not wake up in the morning torn, as E.B. White famously wrote, “between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world.” Improving the world is absolutely what matters most to Elon Musk. Because Elon Musk is in love with the future. 

“What do you love about the future?” he said to the audience at TED, though he was referring to himself, and to the question he wakes up with in the morning. “If we’re not out there — if the future does not include being out there among the stars, and being a multi-planet species — I find that incredibly depressing.”

Elon Musk is not trying to save the planet, or save humanity. “I’m just trying to think about the future and not be sad.”

[1] Elon Musk, “Making Humans a Multi-Planet Species,” New Space, June 2017.

[2] Olivia Solon, “Elon Musk: we must colonise Mars to preserve our species in a third world war,” The Guardian, 11 Mar 2018

[3] TED.com, “Elon Musk at TED: The Future We’re Building – and Boring“, April 2017

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