(SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?
I’m Kara Swisher and this is Sway. [MUSIC PLAYING]
Elon Musk is complicated. Yet there’s no one else I’ve covered who embraces quirky ideas with the unmitigated glee of a brainiac child and has the terrifying cyborg drive to actually manifest them. Well, except maybe Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos. Musk, however, is the only one of that trio of tech moguls whose range has been so vast. When I met him, he was just another internet startup guy who made bank. It was 1999 and in his case the startup was x.com, which later merged with PayPal and then was sold to eBay. But he soon returned to his teen love’s, energy and cars and spaceships.
He’s pretty much been on that trajectory since. First, with SpaceX, then Tesla, then Solar City, and many more. Like a tunnel digging, traffic ending, company called Boring and a neural engineering company called Neuralink. Basically, now Elon Musk wants to put a chip in your brain.
Like a lot of charismatic people, Musk is hard to look away from. At times he embodies the never ending arrogance of Silicon Valley, which thinks it can do no wrong.
At times he lobs juvenile jokes and more problematic attacks over Twitter. And at times his legions of accolades can feel plain cultish. What’s clear is his power. He has shifted the conversation across a wide swath of critical issues for the universe. From how you drive, to the air you breathe, and even the planet you live on. Last week it was battery day. No, that’s not a party for Duracell. It was Musk’s day to unveil his plans to change the energy equation drastically via innovations in battery technology. It’s wonkish, but storing renewable energy is a problem that he and many others have been working on for a long time. It’s not easy, said Musk, which is why he was really agitated at the press and investors who dinged him for not showing off an actual battery at the event. He claims he’s been testing prototypes already but that the critics don’t have the slightest idea how far Tesla and others have come. And how much more still needs to be done to bring the future to fruition. According to Elon Musk, as usual, we still don’t get it.
This is something that the average person really has no idea about whatsoever. Not just the average person. Smart people on Wall Street have, usually, not the faintest clue about manufacturing and how difficult it is. They think that once you have come up with a prototype, well, that’s the hard part. And everything else is trivial copying after that. It is not. That is perhaps 1% of the problem. Large scale manufacturing, especially of a new technology, is somewhere between 1,000% and 10,000% harder than the prototype. I would really regard, at this point, prototypes as a trivial joke. The press coverage of this event was sad.
OK, tell me why.
Most of the press takeaway was —
A sad reflection of their understanding, really.
All right, so explain it for them then what —
I mean, I’ll try.
But I’m also not trying to convince people that much. The results will speak for themselves. The cells we’re talking about we have produced many of them. We have had cars driving with those cells since May.
My premise is never to try to convince people why they should invest in Tesla. Sell your stock, I don’t care. But why are we having this — what is the point of this podcast?
What I want to understand is what are you trying to achieve here? You’ve had lots of achievements over the years in different things. Batteries is always something you and I have talked about.
Yeah, the world is transitioning to sustainability. The question is how long it will take to transition to sustainability. You know, there’s really two constraints here, affordability and volume. So there are two billion cars and trucks in the world. There’s a massive amount of power plants and, basically, the two biggest industries in the world are energy and transport. So in order to transform energy and transport you have to make an ungodly gargantuan amount of battery cells. This is the limiting factor. The longer we take to transition to sustainable energy the greater the risk that we take. So Tesla should really be measured by how many years we accelerate the advent of sustainable energy. It will happen with or without Tesla. But the fundamental good is by how many years do we accelerate it. And in order to accelerate it we have to make the battery cells cost less so more people can afford them. And then we have to make, as I said, a truly almost unimaginably vast number of cells. Because sustainable energy is primarily solar and wind. Wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine. So therefore, we must store the energy in batteries.
So where are we in that? You’re an average person and you want to make that transition from a car, a gas powered car, to an electric car. It’s a tough decision for most people still.
Yeah, honestly, I do not see this really as a question of consumer demand. Although, I think from a personal investment standpoint, basically, I do not think this is a wise time to invest in gasoline cars. So buying a new gasoline car, probably not a wise long term financial decision at this point. Electric cars are the future. There’s really no question about that at this point.
How much do you think you’ve accelerated that idea? Because again, you’ve spoken of the existential crisis. The last time we talked you had gone through a really difficult period, an exhaustion period, when you were working hard. And you said, this was an existential crisis. I couldn’t not work hard.
I think Tesla, at this point, is not in mortal danger as it was, say, three years ago. When there was a period — well, I mean, technically Tesla’s been in mortal danger for a long time. But I would say it is not in mortal danger right now.
Why is that?
The thing that Tesla has been able to achieve is to get to a volume manufacturing and have sustainable positive free cash flow. From a car company standpoint, this is the real achievement of Tesla. There’ve been hundreds of car company startups over the years, hundreds. And yet, the only companies that have not gone bankrupt are Ford and Tesla. Even GM and Chrysler went bankrupt in 2009. It is insanely difficult to reach volume production as a car company and not die. And the only way a new car company breaks in is by making a car that is so compelling that people are willing to pay extra for that car.
So one of the things — and I know you don’t like to look at the stock market but the number is so vast — investors are saying something about Tesla, which is about the future. And it’s especially accelerated lately. How do you look at that?
I think some critical mass of the market has concluded that Tesla will win, I guess. I mean, I’ve gone on record already as saying I think the stock price is a bit high. That was well before its current level. But if you also ask me, do I think Tesla will be worth more than this in five years? I think the answer is, yes.
Because you are out ahead. How do you judge the efforts by the other car companies? All of them have been publicly talking about moving in this direction.
Yeah, no this was part of what we were aiming to achieve. Get the other car companies to head in the direction of sustainable transport as quickly as possible. And so, it’s good to see that the other car companies are moving towards electrification. That’s great.
Do you feel that you have been the one that has moved them there?
I mean, Tesla is definitely one that has moved them there. They have said this themselves. It’s not my assessment. They directly said this.
Right. So you feel good. Because you used to not feel good about the car industry. And I think right now your focus would be on the gas industry, the oil industry, which has been something you’ve talked about for a long time. And Gavin Newsom just declared that he was going to have California banning the sale of new gas powered cars. Talk a little bit about that and why this shift. This is the first big state to do this in this country. It’s been happening around the world.
When you see that what do you think?
You know, I think these are all indications that the end of the fossil fuel vehicle is nigh. Like, the end is not far. So I think it’s quite an optimistic message, really. I mean, it’s sort of ironic that I think as long as we continue to be worried and concerned and work hard toward sustainability then we will achieve sustainability. So as long as we do not actually become complacent and take it for granted, then everything will be fine. [CHUCKLES]
Right. So how worried are you, right now? I mean, there’s been the wildfires in California. You locate your company there.
Yeah, I’m definitely worried.
So, how worried? Talk about it.
I look at these things as probabilities. And pay close attention to the Keeling curve which shows the carbon ppm, which grows every year. And we show this in our presentation. Just how radically high the carbon levels are compared to the last several hundred thousand years. We weren’t even around. I mean, obviously, not even close over the past million years. But the growth in carbon ppm looks like a wall. I’m saying, I do not think this is actually the end of the world. But I just think things get riskier.
So you said it’s not the end of the world. But what is? Obviously, you’ve seen all these sort of apocalyptic looking climate events.
I mean, you can really think of civilization as almost like a thermometer. Where you’ve got the red ball and then as the temperature rises the liquid expands and it goes up. And if you think about how civilization has really developed and we’ve put ourselves right on the edge of the water. If that water level rises even a little bit, you’ve got major problems. I think we need to think in terms that are not super binary. It’s not like the future will definitely be good, the future will definitely be bad. This is just not the way it is. The actions that we take change the probability that the future will be good. It’s not all or nothing. The sooner we transition to a sustainable energy future the better for the world. And I think, [CHUCKLES] it would be hard to find a reasonable person who would disagree with that.
Well, lots of people do. [LAUGHTER]
Well, OK, that are not in the oil and gas industry. I think there’s not a lot of people outside of the oil and gas industry that would disagree with that. Or who otherwise are supported by the oil and gas industry. And by the way, I mean, honestly, I feel a bit bad about hating on the oil and gas industry. If I could just, honestly, speak on their behalf for a second here.
I mean, for a lot of the people in the oil and gas industry, especially if they’re on the other side, they kind of built their companies and did their work before it was clear that this was a serious issue. And now they feel, probably, kind of hard done by that people are making them out to be villains when they were for the longest time just working hard to support the economy and didn’t really know that it was going to be all that bad.
So you talking on behalf of the oil and gas industry is fascinating to me right now. [CHUCKLES] Because you’ve been pretty tough. You’ve been pretty tough on climate deniers and things like that.
Yeah, I should say that the thing that originally got me interested in electric cars, way back in high school, was actually not the environmental element to it. Because I didn’t really know about that at the time. Because, I mean, that’s like 35, 30 — well, well over 30 years ago. [WHISTLES] But I mean, I was really into physics and I thought, well, we don’t want to have civilization collapse if we run out of oil and that’s the only way of getting around. And we’re going to have to go back to horses. And we won’t be able to maintain civilization. We could have mass starvation. Civilization would collapse. So we’ve got to have electric cars. And so I thought a lot about electric cars and how do we solve the energy density problem. Electric cars can go a long, long way. And that was what I was going to be studying at grad school at Stanford, actually, was ultra capacitors for use as an energy storage mechanism in electric cars. And then I got kind of distracted by the internet and then got back to the cars. But you know, the thing that does kind of drive me crazy is that we know that we have to transition to a sustainable transport in the long term no matter what. Because we’ll run out of oil. So what the heck’s the point of digging all the oil out of the ground, burning it, and then having to transition anyway. But in the meantime, you’ve run this crazy climate experiment which could turn out to be extremely bad and the evidence at this point is overwhelming that it will be bad. You know, it’s kind of like what happened with cigarettes. For the longest time they were like, well, the science is unclear as to whether cigarettes are bad for your health. I’m like nope, the science is definitely not unclear. [CHUCKLES]
So how do you change that? Do you change that? You’ve talked to President Trump. You’ve talked to others. I know you’ve tried on a number of things. What do you say?
(SIGHING) You know, I think this is less a question — Man, I don’t exactly know what to do. I don’t have a great answer to be totally frank. Because, I have spoken with the president about sustainable energy many times. And actually, there are times when he’s been supportive. But then at the end of the day, he has got way more support from the oil and gas industry because it is way bigger. The electric car industry is small. But I am encouraged by the fact that the car companies are switching to electric. Because for a long time it was not just the oil and gas industry we were fighting. We were also fighting all the big auto companies as well. And they are some of the biggest supporters in the world.
Right. Well, you know, President Trump is impressed by stock. You have an impressive stock. And I think he’s a big fan of yours. Do you continue to press on that issue?
You know, I think President Trump is — we’re sure he’s supportive on the space exploration side. And then, you know, I mean arguably he has been as supportive as he can be on the electric car front. Recognizing that a massive portion of the Republican support is coming from oil and gas. So, I don’t know. I’m not a politician, obviously. But if you’re a politician and you want to win and you got a big chunk of support coming from oil and gas. Then there’s a limit to how far you’re going to push that situation.
Do you like him? Are you voting for him?
[SIGHING] I mean, I’m — to be totally frank I’m not — I mean, I think — let’s just see how the debates go. You know?
That’s going to be your thing, the debates?
Well, I think that is probably the thing that will decide things for America.
Why is that?
I think people just want to see if Biden’s got it together.
Mm-hmm. And if he does?
If he does, he probably wins.
And how do you feel about that? How do you feel, right now, about partisan politics. I know you’ve been on both sides of this a lot of times. I know you were very upset about the immigration issue. I know the gay and lesbian issue was a big issue with you around the executive order. How do you square that circle? When you have an administration that you agree with sometimes and then as other times it’s just appalling.
Well, you know like I said, if you’ve got a two party system then the problematic issues are going to kind of fall somewhat randomly into one party or the other. It’s not clear to me that there’s a cohesive set of reasoning why these things are on one party versus another. They seem semi- random. And you know, obviously, I’m socially very liberal. And then economically right of center, maybe, or center. I don’t know. I’m obviously not a communist. So I think we want to keep improving the system. But we want a system that is responsive to the people. And all capitalism really means is just doing things and making products that people want.
OK. All right, speaking of — with SpaceX right now you’ve had a lot of wins and also fantastic outfits by the way. Nice that you — yeah.
Oh, thanks. We put a lot of effort into the outfits. We’ve got to inspire the kids.
If you can get the kids to say, look at that astronaut uniform. And say, wow, I want to wear that one day. And I want to work hard and I’m going to study engineering and try to figure it out. You’ve got to look the part.
You’ve got to look the part. All right, so you — besides the outfits, you’ve done this defense department contract. Talk a little bit about that. Because you’re the first one that’s broken into this area. And this is an area I know you feel has been badly managed.
Well, [CHUCKLES] I mean, it has been a tough battle. I mean, we’re literally fighting what Eisenhower called the military industrial complex. So I mean, it’s not an easy battle fighting the military industrial complex. And so it’s really tough to break in. I mean, it might be the case that — For sure SpaceX being able to win against the combined might of Boeing and Lockheed, which are the two biggest defense contractors in the country, that was an extremely tough battle.
Well, talk about that. Talk about the specifics. How did you get in there? Because they are here and despite the award you’re still suing the Air Force for granting United Launch Alliance money in the early round. So talk a little bit about the competition and how you got in there.
Yeah, I mean, the initial lawsuit we filed was really just to be allowed to compete. Because what had happened — this was several years ago — was the pentagon had awarded Boeing and Lockheed a sole source uncompeted contract for $11 billion to launch US satellites. And they didn’t even compete it. So there was a sole source uncompeted — and we’re like, this is crazy you’ve got to at least run a competition. The law says you have to run a competition. And so, as a function of that lawsuit, or partly as a function of that lawsuit, we were able to get the Air Force to run a competition. And then we were able to win some launches from that competition. And then we were able to win more launches in the subsequent competition. Yeah, so our challenges have mostly been, to be clear, with the procurement side of things not with the Air Force operationally.
OK, so what do you think your impact’s going to be in opening it up?
Well, I think we’re able to lower the cost of access to space. So we’re certainly saving the taxpayer a lot of money. And we’re advancing the technology of launch by having reusable rockets. Reusablility has been important for improving access to space. It’s really just kind of insane to have a rocket be expendable. Build this incredibly exquisite machine and then it comes down and smashes in the ocean. And then there’s debris at the bottom of the ocean. This is crazy.
So talk about where we’re going in rocket technology? One of the things I think you’re saying is that having, sort of, two or three companies control this means no innovation.
Yes, I mean, if you at least have two competitors it’s better than having none. You know, a duopoly is better than a monopoly, an oligopoly is better than a duopoly, but ultimately you want several companies or many companies competing to serve the greater good or serve the customer, essentially. You want multiple companies competing to advance the future of spaceflight so we can ultimately become a multi-planet species in a space faring civilization. You know, I think this is actually fundamentally important for ensuring the long term survival of life as we know it is to be a multi-planet species. Again, I’m not trying to doom and gloom here but the fossil record does show that there have been many extinction events over the millennia. And these are from meteors from super volcanoes from just natural climate variation, which does become very severe but at a pace that would seem slow to us. And then eventually the sun’s going to expand and engulf Earth and — [LAUGHTER]
Not trying to be doom and gloom? So the sun is going to explode is really your message? Is that the sun is going to explode is how it’s going down. So we need to go to Mars and —
Technically expand and incinerate Earth.
OK. All right. [LAUGHTER]
This is for sure going to happen but not anytime soon.
All right, so therefore we need competitions. Blue Origin was founded by Jeff Bezos. He wasn’t awarded a contract you beat him out this time. How do you feel about him doing that, too?
Sure. Well I mean, I’ve had some — not recently, but several years ago — some dinners with Jeff Bezos. They were just private dinners talking about space and stuff. And, you know, he does care about the — He has a similar view that we need to be a space faring civilization and multi-planet species. I have some minor disagreements with him in that I don’t think we want to be living on a space station I think we want to be living on a planet. But whatever, if you have advanced rockets you can decide whether you want to live on a space station thing or live on Mars. So, right now we’ve got a long way to go. Because we can’t even get back to the moon. So, I think it’s kind of sad that we were able to go to the moon in ‘69 and here we are 2020 can’t even go back to the moon. So, you know, we definitely want to make sure civilization is improving over time. And it’s important to note that there’s an arc to civilizations. They don’t just always go up. Look at the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians, ancient Greece, and they all had a civilizational arc. Where they had incredible technology and then they lost the ability to use it.
As soon as I look at the skylines of the city I’m like, hm the skyline’s not changing much. It’s not a good sign.
What should it change? What should it become?
No, it’s just like where are we in the civilizational arc? So where are we? From your point of view. Well I’m a bit worried they were slowing down our rate of improvement. And we’re slowing down our change and we’re getting old. I’m a bit worried about that. And that’s why I’m looking at the skylines and the skyline’s not changing. Hm. I get this worry. We’re going to set in our ways. And then we’ve got to watch birthrate. If we don’t keep up our birthrate then we won’t have people. And we better hope there’s A.I. because there won’t be people.
So talk about — what do you think the most exciting — to become a space faring people, what do you think the most important technology needs to happen to do that?
The fundamental breakthrough that’s needed is a fully and rapidly reusable rocket. I mean, if you had to buy a new car every time you drove somewhere and tow another car behind you just to get back — like if cars were single use it would be absurdly expensive. Your trip might cost you $30,000 instead of $30, literally. So one cannot overstate the importance of full and rapid re-usability. And I think we’re making it happen here. The Starship that we’re developing in South Texas and Southern California is the design. The physics all work out. This can be fully and rapidly reusable.
So do you believe we’ll get there? Do you believe you will be doing this journey that you’ve talked about for so long for yourself, for example?
When? Do you have a timeframe?
I think we’ll launch Starship sometime next year to orbit.
This is with people in it?
We would run it in automatic mode without people. Because it would be too risky to put people in it right away. But I think we may be able to put people in it as soon as two years from now possibly.
Will that be you?
It might be me. I haven’t really thought about it. But I think it would be safe for people probably in two years and definitely in three years.
OK. Speaking of putting people in space, I know this sounds strange but Tom Cruise and Doug Lyman, the director of the Bourne Identity, have seats reserved on SpaceX tourist mission. Why are you doing these tourist missions? And then secondly, there’s rumors that you’re going to shoot in space. I’d love to know more about that. [LAUGHTER] Is that the case?
I don’t know if — I actually don’t know much about it. I mean, they’ve asked us if this is possible to do. And I think we said yes. And talked, I think, some approximate casts and stuff. But I don’t know. If it does I think it’d be cool if it happened.
If you shot Tom Cruise into space, you think it would be cool?
I think it would be pretty cool, yeah. [LAUGHTER] He does do a lot of his own stunts so I think people would be like, woah this could be pretty interesting.
Can you bring him back?
We’ve already brought astronauts back.
Yeah, that’s true. OK. So if you don’t shoot him too far, presumably. Let’s talk about Neuralink. I want you to explain what it is in the dumbest possible way for me, someone like me. This is a chip that goes in your brain.
Yeah, exactly. So think of it like a FitBit in your skull. Or an apple watch in your skull. So we take out a section of skull, we replace that with the chip and the inductive charger and Bluetooth antenna, and it’s really quite, almost quite literally like, a FitBit in your skull.
How many people are going to do —
With tiny wires that go into your brain.
Right. When you think about putting it in people’s brains, do you think people are going to do that? I would do it. I would do it in a second. But convince someone who wouldn’t do it.
Well, [CHUCKLES] I mean I think first of all we would have to do this many times. And we would start off with patients that are in the worst position. Like somebody’s a tetraplegic or has severe seizures or something like that. Because especially in the beginning it’s non-zero risk so we want the reward to be high so the reward balanced against the risk makes sense. And then actually a very important thing that we’re putting a lot of effort into is being able to remove the chip. So if you can remove the Neuralink you can put it in you can also remove the Neuralink and you can also upgrade it. So you can put a new one in. And do so without any damage or any noticeable damage. Because I think it’s going to actually be important to be able to have the upgrade. I mean, you wouldn’t want an iPhone one stuck in your head. [LAUGHTER] Like listen, everyone’s got the, whatever, iPhone 11 and —
IPhone 2 maybe but not the iPhone 1. No, no.
Not the iPhone 1. I mean, it doesn’t even have the app store, you know?
Right. So many years ago when we met you said A.I. would treat us like house cats. That they’re too smart to hate us. And you said, we’ll be like house cats. That’s how they think of us. And then later, when I met with you at your office, you switched it to anthills, which was your analogy that when you see an anthill you don’t kick it over unless you’re kind of a jerk. But when you’re making a highway you just roll over it. Can you give a metaphor of where we are with AI right now?
I was just pointing out with the anthill analogy that A.I. does not need to hate us to destroy us. In a sense, that if it decides that it needs to go in a particular direction and we’re in the way then it would without no hard feelings it would just roll over us. We would roll over an anthill that’s in the way of a road. You don’t hate ants. You’re just building a road. It’s a risk not a prediction. So, yeah. I think that we really need to think of intelligence as really not being uniquely confined to humans. And that the potential for intelligence in computers is far greater than in biology. Just far, far greater. There’s a great, quite a funny, essay called, I think it’s called, “They’re Made of Meat“. Which, like if some super advanced civilization coming across Earth and they’re obviously all computers and they just can’t believe we’re made of meat.
Can’t believe it.
Can’t believe it. And it’s like, well how do they talk? It’s like well, they blow air through meat flaps. And they slowly move the meat flaps and have like a meat flute that makes different tones. And then they flap the meat and then that makes sounds. And then they talk — the communication rates very, very slow. Like, it’s not terabits. It’s like, it’s only maybe a few hundred bits per second.
Were talking at the speed of a tree.
OK. [LAUGHTER] Meat flaps. All right, I want you to yap your meat flaps and explain to me what we need to do about this.
Flap the meat. Flap the meat.
Flap the meat. Sounds dirty. Can you just talk about — flap your meat and explain to us why then we need the Neuralink. What are you doing here? Because you’ve talked about the idea of, very Matrix-y, putting in in the back your brain. Explain for people what this would do. So we need to improve our meat or get out of the meat and put our brains somewhere else, right? Is that the —
Flap the meat and get in a robot. [LAUGHTER]
Yeah, so which of those things do we have to do? [LAUGHTER]
Get out of the meat. That would be funny. Yes, so the Neuralink. So (SIGHING) we are already a cyborg. In the sense that you have your computers and your phones, and your apps on your phone, and stuff like that, and your social media or whatever. It’s like you’re already part electronic if you think about it. And in fact when somebody dies they still have their — these days — their electronic ghost is left around. You know their Instagram, Twitter, or whatever, Facebook, their emails, their website. It’s all still there. Even when their body died. So what are the constraints here? Even in a good scenario, a benign scenario, where the A.I. is trying to be as nice to us as possible, it still needs to be able to communicate quickly. And our rate of communication is very slow, especially our output. You think of, like, you’re trying to type things into your phone using your thumbs. We’re not even using 10 fingers.
And the rate at which you’re typing things is maybe, optimistically — I mean, what is it several thumb taps per second, perhaps?
Right, so we’re a modem. We’re a 300 board modem or something.
Yeah, pretty much. We’re a 300 board modem. Very slowly outputting information into our phone or maybe a little bit faster into a computer if you’re using 10 fingers. And it’s just very hard to communicate. AI will diverge from us just because it can’t talk to us. It’s like in that movie —
— Her? So, you know, the computer just got bored.
Bored, right, exactly.
He was talking to the guy and, sort of, being the guys virtual girlfriend or something. But the guy just took so long to reply that the computer just decided to just go away. It just left in between and it had been gone for eons in between each conversation. Eventually, it just got too bored and left. [LAUGHTER]
Right. So what do we do? What are you going to do with Neuralink? You’re putting them in monkeys right now? What are you doing? Because I think that we’re —
It’s to improve the bandwidth of our communication.
To improve the bandwidth of our communication. So we can talk with A.I. and receive and transmit.
Yes. There’s also a lot of other good things that will be achieved, in that, any brain related disease or if somebody has a severed spinal cord and can’t walk. I mean, with a brain chip you could do a lot.
You can make people walk again. You could solve extreme depression or anxiety or schizophrenia or seizures. You could give a mother back her memory so she could remember who her kids are, you know. Basically, if you live long enough, you’re going to get dementia of some kind. And you’ll want to have something to help you.
Could it program in empathy? Or other things? Do you imagine that being part of this? [LAUGHTER] Or hey you could —
You could technically program anything. So empathy is probably a good one.
So where are we in doing this?
So where we are right now is we’re still in a very, very primitive stage. Where thus far we’ve had a lot of successful implants in pigs. And we now have a pig that has had an implant that’s working well and it’s been there for over three months. And we now have implanted about a dozen pigs. And the sensors are working well. A large part of a pig brain is about its snout. So you can literally rub the pig on its snout and we can detect exactly where you touch the snout.
And so you would tell people you’d want to put it in there one, to solve these physical infirmities. But what else? Because here’s something that could be abused.
No I mean this is for sure an ethics first situation. The whole point of it — like I said, the initial value of Neuralink will be solving a whole bunch of brain injuries. And spinal cord injuries and that kind of thing. So it’s really hard to argue with the good of that.
You know, it’s like listen, somebody can walk again. That’s definitely a good thing. And it’ll be like that for many years before we get to the esoteric long term, sort of, A.I. symbiosis thing. So it’s not like this is going to suddenly pounce on people out of nowhere. You’ll see it coming for years. And getting FDA approval will require a lot of intense examination and making sure that the good far outweighs the bad and that it’s reversible. Like I said, you can remove it if you want. So people shouldn’t be — there’s definitely not something to be worried about or think that it’s suddenly going to come out of nowhere. It’s not like internet software. You know, where you could just write some internet software and that could be on a million servers in two weeks. So you’ll really see it coming. I want to emphasize that you’ll see it coming from a mile off. And you’ll be like, is it closer? I’m not sure.
Are you funding this? Are you doing this? You’re doing this on your own?
Yeah. I mean, I created the company specifically to address the A.I. symbiosis problem, which I think is an existential threat. I mean, the reason I’m doing these things, at least aspirationally, is to maximize the probability that the future is good. So essentially, what set of actions can be taken to maximize the probability that the future is good. You know occasionally there’s some frivolous stuff. Because, you know, it’s nice to have frivolous things too. But —
Like your fire cannon shooter thing?
Yeah, like throwing flame throwers.
Which is like, kind of wrong but right, you know?
Flame throwers are always right. [LAUGHTER]
But guaranteed to make any party more fun. [LAUGHTER]
I’m not coming to your parties Elon. [MUSIC PLAYING]
We’ll be back in a minute. [MUSIC PLAYING]
Elon Musk has gotten into some trouble surrounding coronavirus. He tussled with local authorities when he insisted on keeping his factory open despite lockdown orders. On Twitter, of course, he called shelter in place orders quote, “de facto house arrest” and predicted quote “close to zero new cases in the US by the end of April.” At the end of April, with many new cases every day, he tweeted quote “free America now” in all caps. On this issue, we do not agree.
I mean this is a hot button issue where rationality takes a backseat. So in the grand scheme of things, I think this is— what we have is something with a very low mortality rate and high contagion. And something that is of low risk to a young person is of high risk to an older person. Essentially, the right thing to do would be to not have done a lock down for the whole country. But to have, I think, anyone who is at risk should be quarantined until the storm passes.
All right, but this storm is coming again. You know, you’re talking a lot about saving humanity but these are humans that die in the process.
I know that, Elon. [CHUCKLES] I get that that.
The question is what, on balance, serves the greater good.
And you feel lock-downs did not do that?
No. (SIGHING) This is a no win situation. It has diminished my faith in humanity, this whole thing.
The irrationality of people in general.
And so when you say it questions your faith in humanity it’s that people are irrational around it?
And you wish they would not be. So when you see — will you get a vaccine? Are you — what do you do with our own family?
You won’t get a vaccine. Why is that?
I’m not at risk for COVID, nor are my kids.
Mm-hmm. So you want do it.
And how do you — what do you do now? Do you just go to work? Is that how you’re conducting yourself and your family?
This entire time SpaceX has been at work. Through this entire thing we didn’t skip a day. We had national security clearance because we were doing national security work. We sent astronauts to the space station and back. Tesla has been, apart from several weeks where we were shut down by the state and then overzealous Alameda County, which was a travesty. But apart from that we’ve been making cars this entire time. And it’s been great.
All right, let me ask you one more question. So you were arguing for the car makers point of view. Let me take a point of view as someone who’s worried about their family. If they have elderly people or stuff like that. How do you answer your employees who say, I think you’re putting me and my family at risk. What do you say to them then?
Great, stay home.
Stay home. That’s it.
Do they get penalized for that? What can they do if they feel that they are at risk?
I mean, if they have a legitimate reason to be at risk then they should stay home.
All right, so when they decide — this is your policy. When these workers are worried and do you feel that they have — I want to just get back to that — put yourself in their shoes. If you feel they have a good reason to be worried, do you feel a duty to pay them and make sure they’re OK? Despite the fact that you don’t agree with how they feel about COVID versus how you feel about COVID.
Let’s just move on.
Just move on. That’s what you want to do.
Kara, I do not want to get into a debate about COVID, this situation.
OK, all right, OK. I want to finish up talking about —
If you want to end the podcast now, we can do it.
OK. What did you say? No, we don’t. I don’t want to end it. I just want to understand where you — but I do. I feel like I understand where you are. So one of the things —
And I should say, we’ve also spent quite a lot of time with the Harvard epidemiology team doing antibody studies. Tesla makes the vaccine machines for CureVac. Gates said something about me not knowing what I was doing. It’s like, hey, knucklehead, we actually make the vaccine machines for CureVac that company you’re invested in.
Seems like you have a lot of passion around this topic. Like that you feel this has been blown and that there are better ways to do it, which is what you do in your other parts of your life correct? Whether it’s Tesla or SpaceX. The rockets aren’t being reused, the cars aren’t electric, the way we address viruses is irrational.
It’s very irrational. I probably should allocate some time to this more — I mean, I have allocated some time to this but only less than 1%. So maybe it should be more than 1%.
You should. Stop complaining about how irrational people are and do something about it. That’s what I say to you.
Yeah, and honestly I’m just trying to figure out like — OK. Honestly, I really am just trying to do the most amount of good with the time that I have on this earth. And, you know, not always succeeding but that’s the goal. And then it’s like OK, man, but I’ve got to do this without my brain exploding and going too crazy. So then it’s like, OK, if I’ve got to allocate brain time to this one thing then I’ve got to take it from someone else. Well, what’s that going to be? And then I’ve tried just working myself to the bone, but you just can’t keep doing that.
That didn’t work. What do you do to calm down?
Oo. Well I don’t really get to —
Well not your brain exploding. What do you do to stop your brain from exploding?
It’s more like I just have too many thoughts in my head and then I can’t go to sleep. You know, and it’s not really so much a question of anxiety or fear or anything I’ve just too much stuff in my head. You know, it’s like having too many browser windows open or something. [LAUGHTER] It’s like, the computer’s running is it overloaded? And then you can’t close the browser windows and you can’t go to sleep. So, (SIGHING) that’s challenging. And then endurance definitely does go a little bit down as time goes by and hopefully wisdom gets a little better. I don’t know, just trying to be as useful as possible. That’s generally my advice to people, try to be useful. It’s very difficult to be useful to others. To do a genuinely useful thing to others, that’s what we should all be trying to do. And it’s very difficult.
All right. [LAUGHTER] Let’s talk about your electronic ghosts. What you’re leaving behind. You still tweet. And a lot of the last three months have been very funny, actually, which is interesting.
You wrote, what can’t we predict. Embrace tunnels, have you hugged a tunnel today. Obviously, you’re talking about the Boring company, which we didn’t get to talk about but it’s coming online in Las Vegas.
You just tweeted conceptual telepathy?
Yeah, that’s Neuralink.
Yeah, that’s Neuralink. So how are you looking at this medium now? Because sometimes, you know, free America now made everyone mad. Some of these others are just whimsical and interesting.
It made some people happy.
It made — you’re right it made some people happy. [LAUGHTER] So, how do you think about your electronic ghost? When people hundreds of years — if we manage not to die of a virus or whatever.
Yeah, maybe I should think about that tomorrow. I don’t really think about my electric ghost that much. I try to allocate my time according to what is likely to maximize the future that — maximize the probability that the future is happy at a certain civilization level.
How do you balance between delegating that and being personally involved then? How do you pick? What is your— Is it what is the biggest risk profile?
I don’t think I don’t want to delegate. I would love to delegate more. If people knew the full — I mean, probably if investors of Tesla knew the full scope of all the things that I do at Tesla they would be quite concerned. Not because I want to, but it’s just OK, I need to get this done, I need to get this done. I can’t find anyone do it. I need to get it done so I’ve got to do it. It’s not from some desire to keep things close to my vest. I would love to delegate more if at all possible. But the practical reality of it is that I cannot delegate because I can’t find people to delegate it to.
Why not? Like, what do you do? Give me an example of one thing.
Please recommend some people that I can delegate things to. That would be great.
I will try but I don’t think I’m on that level. All right, last question. When you talk about all this you’re talking about doing more good than harm. You’re talking about what’s the right path to save humanity. Why do you want to save these meat beings?
I just wanted it to last longer, you know? At a root level, I think, I guess I kind of like, I had some sort of a, I guess, existential crisis when I was a kid and I was, like, what’s this all about? There’s no meaning to life. I read all the philosophers that I could get my hands on. And then ultimately I read Douglas Adams and I think he had the best approach, which is that the universe is the answer. What’s the question? And I came to the conclusion that the more we can expand the scope and scale of consciousness the better we’re able to answer the questions, or ask the questions, to understand the nature of the universe. So therefore, we want to expand the scope and scale of consciousness. So it’s better to ask the questions that reveal the nature of the universe.
So what is that question? [MUSIC PLAYING]
We don’t know the question. [LAUGHTER] We have to find out the question. [MUSIC PLAYING]
Sway is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by name Nayeema Raza, Heba Elorbany, Matt Kwong, and Vishakha Darbha. Edited by Adam Teicholz and Paula Szuchman With music and sound design by Isaac Jones. Fact checking by Kate Sinclair. Special thanks to Mahima Chablani, Laura Kim, Liriel Higa, and Kathy Tu. Here’s what’s going to happen. And you’ll do it because I’m asking really nicely. Hit subscribe if you’re in a podcast app already. If you’re listening on the Times website and want to get a new episode of “Sway” delivered to you hot like a Falcon 9 rocket ship, download a podcast app, search for “Sway,” and hit subscribe. We release every Monday and Thursday.