Mars spaceships will be ready for short flights by the first half of next year, predicts Elon Musk. The SpaceX and Tesla CEO was taking questions during an on-stage appearance at the SXSW conference in Austin.
Musk did fudge on this prediction a little bit by conceding that his timelines can be optimistic.
It was only last month that SpaceX launched the Falcon Heavy rocket with a payload that included Musk’s cherry-red Tesla convertible.
“In the short-term, Mars is really about getting the spaceship built,” an effort that has begun, Musk says. That will prove to other companies and countries that it can be done, providing the impetus for them to go and do it themselves.
“They currently don’t think it’s possible, so if we show them that it is, they’ll up their game and build interplanetary transport vehicles, as well,” he says.
From there, Musk says, “a tremendous amount of entrepreneurial resources (will be) needed because you have to build out the entire base of industry, everything that allows human civilization to exist.”
That will be hard in places like Mars or the moon, he says, pointing out that such celestial outposts will not become an “escape hatch for rich people” but rather require those with a frontier mentality.
“For the early people that go to Mars, it will be far more dangerous. It kind of reads like (Ernest) Shackleton’s ad for Antarctic explorers: Difficult, dangerous, good chance you’ll die. Excitement for those who survive.”
Musk was asked what he thinks the futuristic first Martian colony government might look like. Most likely, it will be some form of a “direct democracy,” he says, in which people vote directly on issues as opposed to going through a representative government.
With that in mind, Musk recommends keeping laws short. “Long laws (mean) something suspicious is going on. If the size of the law exceeds the word count of Lord of the Rings, then it’s like something’s wrong. ... It should be easier to remove a law than create one. ... I don’t know what the right number is — maybe it’s like 60% to get a law in place, but any number above 40% can remove a law. ... Maybe there should even be some kind of sunset clause so that they just automatically expire unless there is enough of an impetus to keep them around.”
Musk weighed in on several other topics during a wide-ranging discussion.
On who inspires him
Musk joked on stage that he is inspired by Kanye West, drawing laughter from the SXSW audience. He then mentioned Fred Astaire. “You should see my dance moves,” he quipped.
How he approaches business
Musk says he doesn’t rank business or financial opportunities so much as see “things that don’t seem to be working that are important for our life and for the future to be good. If you were to do a risk-adjusted rate of return estimate on various industry opportunities, I would put building rockets and cars pretty much at the bottom of the list. They would have to be the dumbest things to do.”
“In the case of SpaceX, I just kept wondering why we were not making progress towards sending people to Mars. Why we didn’t have a base on the moon? Where are the space hotels that were promised in (2001: A Space Odyssey) the movie? It just wasn’t happening. Year after year, it was getting me down. ... The genesis of SpaceX was not to create a company but really how do we get NASA’s budget to be bigger.”
Meanwhile, in the history of the auto industry the only two companies that never have gone bankrupt or were failing and got acquired are Ford and Tesla, Musk says.
“I gave basically both SpaceX and Tesla from the beginning probably less than 10% of (being) likely to succeed.” He says he wouldn’t even let friends invest in SpaceX in the early days because he figured they would lose their money.
“We almost did die at SpaceX,” he recalls.
Musk said he had about $180 million from PayPal and thought he could allocate half of that sum to SpaceX, Tesla and another of his companies, SolarCity. He eventually realized that he had to put pretty much all of his money in “or the companies are going to die.”
That period around 2008 was a rough patch for Musk. He borrowed rent money from friends, had gotten divorced, SpaceX had the third consecutive failure of its Falcon rocket, and Tesla almost went bankrupt. "We closed our financing 6 p.m. Christmas Eve 2008, the last hour of the last day that it was possible."
His experience largely explains why others haven't followed his path. “What’s your pain threshold?” he asked. “SpaceX is alive by the skin of its teeth. So is Tesla. If things had just gone a little bit the other way, both companies would be dead.”
Musk says for all the drama of SpaceX, Tesla is even more of a “drama magnet.” He says he spends most of his business time on SpaceX and Tesla, and people misunderstand that he doesn’t invest in things. “The only public security I own of any kind is Tesla.”
On the Boring Company, which focuses on drilling tunnels beneath major urban centers
“That kind of started more as a joke because I thought that would be a funny name for a company. ... After four or five years of begging people to build tunnels, and still no tunnels, it was like, `OK, I’m going to build a tunnel.’”
Musk says the Boring Company accounts for 2% of his time but 20% of his tweets. “Tweets do not correlated to actual time spent. I just have fun with the Boring Company, but my time allocation is literally about 2%.”
On why he's not high on flying cars
"Do you want all your neighbors having a flying car? This is exactly the question: 'Oh, you want a flying car? How about everyone around you has a flying car, too?' That doesn’t sound so good."
On why artificial intelligence is so scary
“I’m very close to the cutting edge in AI, and it scares the hell out of me. It’s capable of vastly more than almost anyone knows, and the rate of improvement is exponential.”
Musk believes that by the end of next year, self-driving will encompass all modes of driving and be “at least 100(%) to 200% safer than a person.” He says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration did a study on Tesla’s “relatively primitive” Autopilot 1 and found that it was a 45% reduction in highway accidents, and “that’s despite being version 1.”
But he says that “we have to figure out some way to ensure that the advent of digital superintelligence is one that is symbiotic with humanity. That’s the single biggest existential crisis that we face and the most pressing one.”
How do you deal with that crisis? Musk says he’s not normally an advocate of regulation and oversight. “But this is a case where you have a very serious danger to the public, and therefore ... needs to (have) a public body that has insight and oversight to confirm that everyone is developing AI safely. I think the danger of AI is much greater than the danger of nuclear warheads by a lot. ... Mark my words, AI is far more dangerous than nukes. ... If humanity collectively decides that creating digital superintelligence is the right move, then we should do so very, very carefully. This is the most important thing that we can possibly do.”
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Follow USA TODAY Personal Tech Columnist on Twitter @edbaig