His early years as the not-too-popular kid in school may have served as the best cover for someone secretly planning to save the electric vehicle from obscurity and making commercial spaceflight a reality in his lifetime.
Today, those awkward years at Pretoria and Bryanston High is ancient history and the name Elon Musk is at the centre of some of the most exciting developments in technology. The owner of a host of companies, Musk is venturing into new territories on many fronts, with the world watching his every move.
After selling his stake in PayPal in 2002 to eBay and also parting with his initial venture, Zip2 to Compaq, Musk was ready to pursue visions far greater than mere E-commerce domination. Instead, he placed his bets and most of his money on conquering the outer reaches of our planetary system.
But while some are cheering the quiet kid from Pretoria on in his many projects and ambitions, there’s also a palpable sense of uneasiness in the air when it comes to Elon Musk’s vision for the world – welcome to the age of disruption.
To Infinity and Beyond! But Not So Fast.
SpaceX, Tesla Motors and SolarCity are just some of the companies Musk heads up that are making ripples across ponds that have long been the domain of entrenched power brokers. When NASA launched its final manned space flight in 2010, the agency decided to deregulate the production of spacecraft and allow private sector players to contend for production contracts. This paradigm-shifting decision made it possible for Musk to pursue his lifelong obsession with space travel and exploration.
After selling Paypal and Zip2, investing nearly all of his money and borrowing more wherever he could find it (including the U.S. government) SpaceX was born. Years of prototyping and failed attempts followed until the company managed to successfully launch and recover a human/cargo capsule from space, placing Musk in the company of only the USA, Russia and China.
His accomplishment demonstrated that private space travel could be more efficient and cheaper than traditional government-funded programs and become less of a burden on taxpayers in the process, while also being a more inclusive human endeavour. In fact, he sees space travel as a very important opportunity for humans to explore their natural environments far beyond perceived limits.
“I think it’s important that humanity becomes a multi-planet species…most people would agree that a future where we are a space-faring civilisation is inspiring and exciting compared to one where we are forever confined to Earth until some eventual extinction event.”
Yet, Musk isn’t without his critics and according to the entrepreneur, the scrutiny couldn’t have come from a worse place. Space legends and pioneers, Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan, joined a chorus of naysayers against commercial space flight and SpaceX’s unwelcome disruption of a decades-old and tightly structured industry. SpaceX’s opponents chiefly argue that it would take decades for companies like it to meet the safety standards required to reliably send people into space on a frequent basis.
However, Musk has gone beyond matching leading countries’ feats in space exploration. He’s also improved on current systems and technologies traditionally used by NASA. For example, the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch rockets are the first of their kind. The rockets are partially reusable in that they are capable of automatically returning to the earth’s orbit after unloading their cargo and reverse-land on predefined coordinates. SpaceX is also making space travel safer by adding more redundancies to its craft, such as including additional rockets to compensate for possible engine failures and reducing the amount of fuel required to launch the craft into space.
“If something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favour”
Musk’s beloved Tesla project is also no stranger to controversy. Not only did the car company face a torrent of criticism for taking government subsidies, but Musk also had to defend his vision for the electric vehicle from hostile politicians, an unkind media and general scepticism. In fact, Musk was accused of siphoning billions of tax dollars into his companies by many in the media and having Tesla called a “loser” by fellow billionaire and presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.
When placed into context, the nearly $4 billion Musk’s companies received in tax cuts and other subsidies simply dwarf in comparison to the government bailouts companies like General Motors and Chrysler received after the Wall Street crash. Further, the oil and gas industry isn’t exactly cash-starved when compared to the average entrepreneur looking to get an ambitious project off the ground, which makes it difficult to account for the annual $4 trillion the industry receives in subsidies and incentives globally
Moreover, Tesla Inc. managed to repay the $465 million loan it received from the U.S government, with interest, bonus payment and nine years left on the repayment terms – resulting in a profit to the American taxpayer. One can also argue that the vision behind Musk’s companies serves a greater good. There seems to be a thread of purpose-over-profit in the way he approaches his visions for his companies, which is a fresh break from the machinations of traditional for-profit business models.
“What is remarkable about my companies is that they have been successful despite having such a tiny incentive from the government relative to our competitors.”
From Open Space to an Open Digital Future
Another massive, yet comparatively new, industry Musk is taking on is that of Artificial Intelligence (AI). When probed at a conference of leading thinkers on the possibilities around AI for the human race (ranging from hyper-sophisticated warfare to the alleviation of global poverty) Musk didn’t disappoint. He delved into the possibilities of a direct human-brain-to-computer link as a possible way to bypass the bottleneck caused by the (according to Musk, slow speed) at which the human brain currently receives and processes information – classic.
However, more idealistically, Musk’s belief in AI’s ability to radically change the world for the better makes him a little more circumspect. He believes in a future where AI’s evolution and implementations are the ambit of the masses and not a select group of corporate masters. His vision is a democratised global internet backbone that establishes an environment that provides access to the intellectual property, innovation, people and technologies needed to address the biggest problems facing the world through AI-based solutions.
Musk often paraphrases a quote by Lord Acton which says, “Freedom consists of the distribution of power. Despotism consists of the concentration thereof”. To this end, he founded Open AI, a non-profit company dedicated to what it calls Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). Its mission statement boldly proclaims that AGI will be the most important technology created by humans and that the company intends to see its benefits reach as many people as possible.
It seems Musk is ready to lead the way in an industry touted to pivot human civilisation into a brand new and exciting era. With no entrenched power brokers claiming dominance or proprietorship over AI – or outer space for that matter – having Elon Musk in the driving seat might just be a good thing.