Elon Musk: A glimpse into the future

Elon Musk has made headlines last week for smoking cannabis live on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast. But what those headlines missed out is what happened in the other 150 minutes of that interview (a sorry reflection of today’s click-bait reporting culture). That interview revealed a portrait of Musk which is simply fascinating.

What I’ve discovered in my own studies of Musk is that he is as close to the definition of ‘genius’ as anybody alive and in the public eye. His achievements with Tesla Inc., revolutionising the quality of and attitude towards electric cars, are truly special. Also his SpaceX project, which intends to improve the cost and reliability of access to space, has made public interest in space exploration as significant as it has been in years. Musk, in fact, is well-known to be an advocate of colonising Mars, as well as (eventually) other planets. He believes that it is a plausible idea, that it is a good idea, and Musk has announced that SpaceX plans to send humans to Mars by 2024.

While I myself have my scepticism about the necessity of landing man on Mars, Musk sees it as necessary for human preservation. In his interview with Joe Rogan, he described the colonisation of other planets as a beautiful dream — a future that, logically speaking, we should seriously consider (with overpopulation issues looming, and the climate changing in ways that we don’t really understand).

Strange, given his stance on space travel, is Musk’s existential outlook on life. He said during the interview: “Enjoy the journey! Even if we sort of existed as humans forever there’d still eventually be, like, the death of the universe … eventually it’s gonna end. It’s just a question of when … so it really is all about the journey!” Knowing that the end of humanity is inevitable, it seems paradoxical that Musk is so passionate about striving to survive the human race via ‘planet hopping’.

Another of his projects, The Boring Company (which apparently started as a joke), is currently implementing Musk’s idea to build a tunnel under Los Angeles in a bid to improve traffic. That such a project has been approved so easily demonstrates one of two things: that Musk is super-rich, and super-rich people can do whatever they want; or that the authorities have so much respect towards him that they believe whatever he touches will turn to gold. In any case, Musk is clearly an extremely powerful man — probably much more powerful than any politician.

Yet, behind that mechanical and scientific brain of his, there resides a genuinely emotional and vulnerable individual. “I don’t think anybody wants to be me,” he told Rogan, when the MMA commentator described him as having a super power. This degree of self-depreciation brought to mind an Uncle Ben quote from the 2002 Spider-Man movie: “with great power comes great responsibility.”

I happen to believe that Musk feels deeply responsible for the future of the human race. He declared throughout the interview with Rogan that he “loves humanity,” and on the dangers facing the species at present, he seemed extremely affected. He appeared emotional when speaking about the high-profile issue of carbon emissions:

“We’re taking vast amounts of carbon, from deep underground, and putting this in the atmosphere. This is very dangerous […] The bizarre thing is that, in the long term, we know we’re going to run out of oil […] It’s tautological. We must have sustainable energy transport and infrastructure in the long term, so why run this crazy experiment?”

He seemed just as emotional when discussing the dangers posed by AI. “Nobody listened,” he mourned when explaining how he told as many people as he could about those dangers — including former President Barack Obama. Musk, though, has thought long and hard about solutions to the AI problem, and declared that another of his companies, Neuralink, will have something to share soon regarding the merging of AI with the human mind. It sounded rather creepy, actually! One of the possibilities for the future he described verged on dystopian sci-fi: “if your biological self dies you can probably upload it into a new unit… literally.”

This possibility didn’t seem to creep out Musk, however, who believes that the universe is probably a simulation. However, Musk himself is talented at using the resources of the simulation in a more productive way than most other people. It seems like a paradox that someone who understands what we call the real world so deeply believes, in fact, that reality is not strictly ‘real’. What an interesting thought.

It also seems paradoxical that someone like Musk so openly encourages, above everything else, something as abstract as love. “Love is the answer!” he declared at the end of the podcast. His self-described “fatalistic” world view seems a whisper away from nihilism; yet, he is still emotionally involved with humanity, and has an honest desire to help people. His ideas are intended to literally help humanity to better itself. Perhaps he is simply rich and bored — perhaps his eccentric ideas will cause more harm than good; but maybe we should be thankful that such power has found itself in the hands of someone like Musk.