On Sunday night, an Axios interview with Elon Musk aired on HBO. If you don’t have an HBO subscription, you might want to get one. It is, as the expression goes, “appointment TV.” That is, it offers programs too good to miss. But in case you did, here are three takeaways from the program.
How The Model 3 Almost Killed Tesla
Earlier this year, as Tesla began ramping up production of the Model 3, Musk told Axios the company came within a few weeks of going out of business. Tesla “faced a severe threat of death. Essentially, the company was bleeding money like crazy and just … if we didn’t solve these problems in a very short period time, we would die. And it was extremely difficult to solve them.” Asked how close the company came to actually shutting down, Musk replied, “I would say within single-digit weeks.”
Musk’s notes about living, sleeping, and eating at the factory during that stressful time have become a bit of a joke on the internet, but Musk says it was no joke for him personally. “I was in the paint shop, body shop … end of [the] line where we do final check out of vehicles,” he said. “I personally redesigned the whole battery pack production line and ran it for three weeks. Pretty intense.”
“I think what a lot of people don’t understand is that I’m like the chief engineer like that. I actually do lead engineering of the rockets and lead the engineering of the vehicles and production. Ninety percent of my day is spent on engineering and production.
“No one should put this many hours into your work. This is not good. People should not work this hard. This is very painful. It hurts, it hurts my brain and my heart. It hurts. … There were times when I was working literally 120 hours. This is not recommended for anyone. I just did it because if I didn’t do it, then [there was a] good chance Tesla would die.”
The Existential Threat From Artificial Intelligence
When the topic turned to artificial intelligence, Musk’s remarks took on a somber tone. “My faith in humanity has been a little shaken this year. But I’m still pro-humanity. We’re like children in a playground. … We’re not paying attention. We worry more about … what name somebody called someone else than whether AI will destroy humanity. That’s insane.”
He worries that AI will soon outstrip human intelligence, rendering humans subservient to digital masters. AI is “just digital intelligence,” he summarizes. “And as the algorithms and the hardware improve, that digital intelligence will exceed biological intelligence by a substantial margin. It’s obvious.”
“When a species of primate, homo sapiens, became much smarter than other primates, it pushed all the other ones into a very small habitat,” Musk said. “So there are very few mountain gorillas and orangutans and chimpanzees — monkeys in general. They occupy small corners of the world — cages, zoos. Even the jungles that they’re in are narrowly defined so they were sort of like big cages. So, you know, that’s one possible outcome for us.”
Musk has founded Neuralink, a company that is working on finding ways to interface the human brain with computers, which he sees as a way of preventing pure AI from dominating the human race. Neuralink is comprised of about 85 of the “the highest per capita intelligence” engineers ever assembled. “The long term aspiration with Neuralink would be to achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence. To achieve a sort of democratization of intelligence, such that it is not monopolistically held in a purely digital form by governments and large corporations.”
What is he talking about, exactly? An “electrode-to-neuron interface at a micro level — a chip and a bunch of tiny wires implanted in your skull. I believe this can be done — It’s probably on the order of a decade.”
In a way, we are already halfway to such a reality, Musk says. “And by the way, you kind of have this already in a weird way. You have a digital tertiary layer in the form of your phone, your computers, your watch. You basically have these computing devices that form a tertiary layer on your cognition already.”
One of the first applications for the technology could be helping people with spinal cord injuries. “We already know how to do this. Implant electrodes into the motor cortex of the brain, then bypass the severed section of the spine and have effectively local micro controllers near the muscle groups. It could restore full limb functionality. As people get older, they lose their memory — incredibly sad to have a mother forget her children, and that can be solved too.”
Then the conversation turned darker. “You could make a swarm of assassin drones for very little money. By just taking the face I.D. chip that’s used in cell phones, and having a small explosive charge and a standard drone, and just have it do a grid sweep of the building until they find the person they’re looking for, ram into them and explode. You could do that right now. No new technology is needed.”
Even scarier to Musk is the ability of AI to impact the electoral process, something America should be wary of as the revelations about Facebook and the 2016 presidential election continue to emerge. He warns us about the power of AI to create “incredibly effective propaganda … influence the direction of society … influence elections.” It can hone a message by watching online feedback and reacting to news, then making the message “slightly better within milliseconds.”
The government is largely blind to the threat, Musk says, and hopelessly behind in its feeble attempts to control AI. “The way in which regulation is put in place is slow and linear. And we are facing an exponential threat. If you have a linear response to an exponential threat, it’s quite likely the exponential threat will win. That, in a nutshell, is the issue.”
Is Mars An Escape Hatch For The Rich?
Musk told Axios there is a 70% chance he will be one of the people who travels to Mars aboard a SpaceX rocket in the future. He thinks the first trip could happen within 7 years. A ticket to Mars could cost as little as “a couple hundred thousand dollars,” a sum some suggest will make Mars an “escape hatch” for wealthy people as the Earth warms to the point where it can no longer sustain human life.
Musk scoffs at that idea. “Your probability of dying on Mars is much higher than earth. Really, the ad for going to Mars would be like Shackleton’s ad for going to the Antarctic. It’s gonna be hard. There’s a good chance of death, going in a little can through deep space.”
Once someone arrives there, it will not be a life of leisure, reclining by the pool and eating bonbons. “You’ll be working nonstop to build the base. So, you know, not much time for leisure. And even after doing all this, it’s a very harsh environment. So there’s a good chance you die there. We think you can come back, but we’re not sure. Now, does that sound like an escape hatch for rich people?”
So, why go? “There’s lots of people who climb mountains. People die on Mount Everest all the time. They like doing it for the challenge.”
It is fair to say that Elon Musk is not risk averse. Indeed, he seems to thrive on risk, feed off it, and then actively seek out more. That appetite for skating up to and sometimes over the edge is what separates him from normal mortals. And it may be the factor that allows Musk to save us from ourselves, although there is no guarantee anything can keep people from sowing the seeds of their own destruction and reveling in the process.
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