It’s mid-afternoon on a Friday at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, and three of Elon Musk’s children are gathered around him — one of his triplets, both of his twins. Musk is wearing a gray T-shirt and sitting in a swivel chair at his desk, which is not in a private office behind a closed door, but in an accessible corner cubicle festooned with outer-space novelty items, photos of his rockets, and mementos from Tesla and his other companies.
Most tellingly, there’s a framed poster of a shooting star with a caption underneath it that reads, “When you wish upon a falling star, your dreams can come true. Unless it’s really a meteor hurtling to the Earth which will destroy all life. Then you’re pretty much hosed, no matter what you wish for. Unless it’s death by meteorite.” To most people, this would be mere dark humor, but in this setting, it’s also a reminder of Musk’s master plan: to create habitats for humanity on other planets and moons. If we don’t send our civilisation into another Dark Ages before Musk or one of his dream’s inheritors pull it off, then Musk will likely be remembered as one of the most seminal figures of this millennium. Kids on all the terraformed planets of the universe will look forward to Musk Day, when they get the day off to commemorate the birth of the Earthling who single-handedly ushered in the era of space colonisation.
And that’s just one of Musk’s ambitions. Others include converting automobiles, households and as much industry as possible from fossil fuels to sustainable energy; implementing a new form of high-speed city-to-city transportation via vacuum tube; relieving traffic congestion with a honeycomb of underground tunnels fitted with electric skates for cars and commuters; creating a mind-computer interface to enhance human health and brainpower; and saving humanity from the future threat of an artificial intelligence that may one day run amok and decide, quite rationally, to eliminate the irrational human species.
So far, Musk, 46, has accomplished none of these goals.
But what he has done is something that very few living people can claim: Painstakingly bulldozed, with no experience whatsoever, into two fields with ridiculously high barriers to entry — car manufacturing (Tesla) and rocketry (SpaceX) — and created the best products in those industries, as measured by just about any meaningful metric you can think of. In the process, he’s managed to sell the world on his capability to achieve objectives so lofty that from the mouth of anyone else, they’d be called fantasies.
At least, most of the world. “I’m looking at the short losses,” Musk says, transfixed by CNBC on his iPhone. He speaks to his kids without looking up. “Guys, check this out: Tesla has the highest short position in the entire stock market. A $9 billion short position.”
His children lean over the phone, looking at a table full of numbers that I don’t understand. So his 13-year-old, Griffin, explains it to me: “They’re betting that the stock goes down, and they’re getting money off that. But it went up high, so they lost an insane amount of money.”
“They’re jerks who want us to die,” Musk elaborates. “They’re constantly trying to make up false rumours and amplify any negative rumours. It’s a really big incentive to lie and attack my integrity. It’s really awful. It’s…”
He trails off, as he often does when preoccupied by a thought. I try to help: “Unethical?”
“It’s…” He shakes his head and struggles for the right word, then says softly, “Hurtful.”
It is easy to confuse who someone is with what they do, and thus turn them into a caricature who fits neatly into a storybook view of the world. Our culture always needs villains and heroes, fools and geniuses, scapegoats and role models. However, despite opinions to the contrary, Elon Musk is not a robot sent from the future to save humanity. Nor is he a Silicon Valley savant whose emotional affect has been replaced with supercomputer-like intelligence. Over the course of nine months of reporting, watching Musk do everything from strategize Mars landings with his rocket-engineering team to plan the next breakthroughs with his artificial-intelligence experts, I learned he is someone far, far different from what his myth and reputation suggest.
The New York Times has called him “arguably the most successful and important entrepreneur in the world.” It’s an easy case to make: He’s probably the only person who has started four billion-dollar companies — PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX and Solar City. But at his core, Musk is not a businessman or entrepreneur. He’s an engineer, inventor and, as he puts it, “technologist.” And as a naturally gifted engineer, he’s able to find the design inefficiencies, flaws and complete oversights in the tools that power our civilisation.
“He’s able to see things more clearly in a way that no one else I know of can understand,” says his brother, Kimbal. He discusses his brother’s love of chess in their earlier years, and adds, “There’s a thing in chess where you can see 12 moves ahead if you’re a grandmaster. And in any particular situation, Elon can see things 12 moves ahead.”
His children soon leave for the home of their mother, Musk’s ex-wife Justine. “I wish we could be private with Tesla,” Musk murmurs as they exit. “It actually makes us less efficient to be a public company.”
What follows is … silence. Musk sits at his desk, looking at his phone, but not typing or reading anything. He then lowers himself to the floor, and stretches his back on a foam roller. When he finishes, I attempt to start the interview by asking about the Tesla Model 3 launch a week earlier, and what it felt like to stand onstage and tell the world he’d just pulled off a plan 14 years in the making: to bootstrap, with luxury electric cars, a mass-market electric car.
The accomplishment, for Musk, is not just in making a $35,000 electric car; it’s in making a $35,000 electric car that’s so good, and so in-demand, that it forces other car manufacturers to phase out gas cars to compete. And sure enough, within two months of the launch, both GM and Jaguar Land Rover announced they were planning to eliminate gas cars and go all-electric.
Musk thinks for a while, begins to answer, then pauses. “Uh, actually, let me go to the restroom. Then I’ll ask you to repeat that question.” A longer pause. “I also have to unload other things from my mind.”
Five minutes later, Musk still hasn’t returned. Sam Teller, his chief of staff, says, “I’ll be right back.”
Several minutes after that, they both reappear and huddle nearby, whispering to each other. Then Musk returns to his desk.
“We can reschedule for another day if this is a bad time,” I offer.
Musk clasps his hands on the surface of the desk, composes himself, and declines.
“It might take me a little while to get into the rhythm of things.”
Then he heaves a sigh and ends his effort at composure. “I just broke up with my girlfriend,” he says hesitantly. “I was really in love, and it hurt bad.”
He pauses and corrects himself: “Well, she broke up with me more than I broke up with her, I think.”
Thus, the answer to the question posed earlier: It felt unexpectedly, disappointingly, uncontrollably horrible to launch the Model 3. “I’ve been in severe emotional pain for the last few weeks,” Musk elaborates. “Severe. It took every ounce of will to be able to do the Model 3 event and not look like the most depressed guy around. For most of that day, I was morbid. And then I had to psych myself up: drink a couple of Red Bulls, hang out with positive people and then, like, tell myself: ‘I have all these people depending on me. All right, do it!'”
Minutes before the event, after meditating for pretty much the first time in his life to get centered, Musk chose a very telling song to drive onstage to: “R U Mine?” by the Arctic Monkeys.
Musk discusses the breakup for a few more minutes, then asks, earnestly, deadpan, “Is there anybody you think I should date? It’s so hard for me to even meet people.” He swallows and clarifies, stammering softly, “I’m looking for a long-term relationship. I’m not looking for a one-night stand. I’m looking for a serious companion or soulmate, that kind of thing.”
I eventually tell him that it may not be a good idea to jump right into another relationship. He may want to take some time to himself and figure out why his previous relationships haven’t worked in the long run: his marriage to writer Justine Musk, his marriage to actress Talulah Riley, and this new breakup with actress Amber Heard.
Musk shakes his head and grimaces: “If I’m not in love, if I’m not with a long-term companion, I cannot be happy.”
I explain that needing someone so badly that you feel like nothing without them is textbook codependence.
Musk disagrees. Strongly. “It’s not true,” he replies petulantly. “I will never be happy without having someone. Going to sleep alone kills me.” He hesitates, shakes his head, falters, continues. “It’s not like I don’t know what that feels like: Being in a big empty house, and the footsteps echoing through the hallway, no one there — and no one on the pillow next to you. Fuck. How do you make yourself happy in a situation like that?”
There’s truth to what Musk is saying. It is lonely at the top. But not for everyone. It’s lonely at the top for those who were lonely at the bottom.
“When I was a child, there’s one thing I said,” Musk continues. His demeanor is stiff, yet in the sheen of his eyes and the trembling of his lips, a high tide of emotion is visible, pushing against the retaining walls. “‘I never want to be alone.’ That’s what I would say.” His voice drops to a whisper. “I don’t want to be alone.”
A ring of red forms around his eyes as he stares forward and sits frozen in silence. Musk is a titan, a visionary, a human-size lever pushing forward massive historical inevitabilities — the kind of person who comes around only a few times in a century — but in this moment, he seems like a child who is afraid of abandonment. And that may be the origin story of Musk’s superambitions, but more on that later. In the meantime, Musk has something he’d like to show me.
“If you say anything about what you’re about to see, it would cost us billions,” he says, rising from his desk. “And you would be put in jail.”
The most interesting tourist attraction in Los Angeles County is one that’s not in many guidebooks: It’s in the otherwise-untouristed southwestern city of Hawthorne, around SpaceX. If you walk along Crenshaw Boulevard from Jack Northrop Boulevard to 120th Street, what you will see is a city of the future that’s under construction. This is Musk city, an alternate reality, a triumph of futuristic imagination more thrilling than anything at a Disney park. On the west side of the street, a 156-foot-tall rocket towers above SpaceX headquarters, symbolising Musk’s dream of relatively low-cost interplanetary travel. This particular rocket booster was the first in human history to be launched into space, then recovered intact on Earth after separating, and then fired back into space. On the east side of the street, an employee parking lot has been dug up and turned into the first-ever tunnel for the Boring Company, Musk’s underground-honeycomb solution to traffic jams and the future home of all his terrestrial transportation projects. Then, running for a mile beside Jack Northrop Boulevard, there’s a white vacuum tube along the shoulder of the road. This is the test track for the Hyperloop, Musk’s high-speed form of city-to-city travel. Taken together, the dreams of Musk city promise to connect the planet and the solar system in ways that will fundamentally change humanity’s relationship to two of the most important facets of its reality: distance and time.
But there is a particular building in Musk city that few have visited, and this is where Musk takes me. It is the Tesla Design Studio, where he’s slated to do a walkthrough of the Tesla Truck and other future vehicle prototypes with his team of designers and engineers.
Outside the door, a guard takes my phone and audio recorder, and I’m given an old-fashioned pen and paper to take notes on. Musk then continues into the building and reveals the Tesla Truck, which aims to help the trucking industry go green. (Musk has even been toying with creating a supersonic electric jet, with vertical takeoff and landing, in the future.) Four key members of the Tesla team are there — Doug Field, JB Straubel, Franz von Holzhausen, Jerome Guillen — and watch with anticipation as Musk explores a new configuration of the cab for the first time.
Guillen explains the idea behind the truck: “We just thought, ‘What do people want? They want reliability. They want the lowest cost. And they want driver comfort.’ So we reimagined the truck.”
“I was literally told this is impossible and I’m a huge liar,” Musk says of the early days of Tesla. “But I have a car and you can drive it. This is not like a frigging unicorn.”
This is a perfect example of the idea that Musk-inspired wannabe visionaries around the world worship like a religion: first principles thinking. In other words, if you want to create or innovate, start from a clean slate. Don’t accept any ideas, practices or standards just because everyone else is doing them. For instance, if you want to make a truck, then it must be able to reliably move cargo from one location to another, and you must follow existing laws of physics. Everything else is negotiable, including government regulations. As long as you remember that the goal isn’t to reinvent the truck, but to create the best one, whether or not it’s similar to past trucks.
As a result of this type of thinking, Musk is able to see an industry much more objectively than others who’ve been in the field their whole lives.
“I was literally told this is impossible and I’m a huge liar,” Musk says of the early days of Tesla. “But I have a car and you can drive it. This is not like a frigging unicorn. It’s real. Go for a drive. It’s amazing. How can you be in denial?”
An unfortunate fact of human nature is that when people make up their mind about something, they tend not to change it — even when confronted with facts to the contrary. “It’s very unscientific,” Musk says. “There’s this thing called physics, which is this scientific method that’s really quite effective for figuring out the truth.”
The scientific method is a phrase Musk uses often when asked how he came up with an idea, solved a problem or chose to start a business. Here’s how he defines it for his purposes, in mostly his own words:
1. Ask a question.
2. Gather as much evidence as possible about it.
3. Develop axioms based on the evidence, and try to assign a probability of truth to each one.
4. Draw a conclusion based on cogency in order to determine: Are these axioms correct, are they relevant, do they necessarily lead to this conclusion, and with what probability?
5. Attempt to disprove the conclusion. Seek refutation from others to further help break your conclusion.
6. If nobody can invalidate your conclusion, then you’re probably right, but you’re not certainly right.
“That’s the scientific method,” Musk concludes. “It’s really helpful for figuring out the tricky things.”
But most people don’t use it, he says. They engage in wishful thinking. They ignore counterarguments. They form conclusions based on what others are doing and aren’t doing. The reasoning that results is “It’s true because I said it’s true,” but not because it’s objectively true.
“The fundamental intention of Tesla, at least my motivation,” Musk explains in his halting, stuttering voice, “was to accelerate the advent of sustainable energy. That’s why I open-sourced the patents. It’s the only way to transition to sustainable energy better.
“Climate change is the biggest threat that humanity faces this century, except for AI,” he continues. “I keep telling people this. I hate to be Cassandra here, but it’s all fun and games until somebody loses a fucking eye. This view [of climate change] is shared by almost everyone who’s not crazy in the scientific community.”
For the next 20 minutes, Musk examines the Tesla Truck. He comments first on the technical details, even ones as granular as the drawbacks and advantages of different types of welding. He then moves on to the design, specifically a driver-comfort feature that cannot be specified here, due to said threatened jail time.
“Probably no one will buy it because of this,” he tells his team. “But if you’re going to make a product, make it beautiful. Even if it doesn’t affect sales, I want it to be beautiful.”
According to Musk’s best guess, our personalities might be 80 percent nature and 20 percent nurture. Whatever that ratio actually is, if you want to understand the future that Musk is building, it’s essential to understand the past that built him, including his fears of human extinction and being alone.
For the first eight or so years of his life, Musk lived with his mother, Maye, a dietitian and model, and his father, Errol, an engineer, in Pretoria, South Africa. He rarely saw either of them.
“I didn’t really have a primary nanny or anything,” Musk recalls. “I just had a housekeeper who was there to make sure I didn’t break anything. She wasn’t, like, watching me. I was off making explosives and reading books and building rockets and doing things that could have gotten me killed. I’m shocked that I have all my fingers.” He raises his hands and examines them, then lowers his digits. “I was raised by books. Books, and then my parents.”
Some of those books help explain the world Musk is building, particularly Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. The books are centered around the work of a visionary named Hari Seldon, who has invented a scientific method of predicting the future based on crowd behavior. He sees a 30,000-year Dark Ages waiting ahead for humankind, and creates a plan that involves sending scientific colonies to distant planets to help civilization mitigate this unavoidable cataclysm.
“Asimov certainly was influential because he was seriously paralleling Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but he applied that to a sort of modern galactic empire,” Musk explains. “The lesson I drew from that is you should try to take the set of actions that are likely to prolong civilization, minimize the probability of a dark age and reduce the length of a dark age if there is one.”
Musk was around 10 at this time, and plunged in his own personal dark age. He’d recently made a move that would change his life. It was a wrong decision that came from the right place.
When his parents split up two years before, he and his younger siblings — Kimbal and Tosca — stayed with their mom. But, Musk recounts, “I felt sorry for my father, because my mother had all three kids. He seemed very sad and lonely by himself. So I thought, ‘I can be company.'” He pauses while a movie’s worth of images seem to flicker through his mind.
“Yeah, I was sad for my father. But I didn’t really understand at the time what kind of person he was.”
He lets out a long, sad sigh, then says flatly about moving in with Dad, “It was not a good idea.”
According to Elon, Errol has an extremely high IQ — “brilliant at engineering, brilliant” — and was supposedly the youngest person to get a professional engineer’s qualification in South Africa. When Elon came to live with him in Lone Hill, a suburb of Johannesburg, Errol was, by his own account, making money in the often dangerous worlds of construction and emerald mining — at times so much that he claims he couldn’t close his safe.
“I’m naturally good at engineering that’s because I inherited it from my father,” Musk says. “What’s very difficult for others is easy for me. For a while, I thought things were so obvious that everyone must know this.”
Like what kinds of things?
“Well, like how the wiring in a house works. And a circuit breaker, and alternating current and direct current, what amps and volts were, how to mix a fuel and oxidizers to create an explosive. I thought everyone knew this.”
But there was another side to Musk’s father that was just as important to making Elon who he is. “He was such a terrible human being,” Musk shares. “You have no idea.” His voice trembles, and he discusses a few of those things, but doesn’t go into specifics. “My dad will have a carefully thought-out plan of evil,” he says. “He will plan evil.”
Besides emotional abuse, did that include physical abuse?
“My dad was not physically violent with me. He was only physically violent when I was very young.” (Errol countered via email that he only “smacked” Elon once, “on the bottom.”)
Elon’s eyes turn red as he continues discussing his dad. “You have no idea about how bad. Almost every crime you can possibly think of, he has done. Almost every evil thing you could possibly think of, he has done. Um…”
There is clearly something Musk wants to share, but he can’t bring himself to utter the words, at least not on the record. “It’s so terrible, you can’t believe it.”
The tears run silently down his face. “I can’t remember the last time I cried.” He turns to Teller to confirm this. “You’ve never seen me cry.”
“No,” Teller says. “I’ve never seen you cry.”
The flow of tears stops as quickly as it began. And once more, Musk has the cold, impassive, but gentle stone face that is more familiar to the outside world.
Yet it’s now clear that this is not the face of someone without emotions, but the face of someone with a lot of emotions who had been forced to suppress them in order to survive a painful childhood.
When asked about committing crimes, Musk’s father said that he has never intentionally threatened or hurt anyone, or been charged with anything, except … in this one case, he says he shot and killed three out of five or six armed people who broke into his home, and was later cleared of all charges on self-defense.
In his e-mail, Errol wrote: “I’ve been accused of being a Gay, a Misogynist, a Paedophile, a Traitor, a Rat, a Shit (quite often), a Bastard (by many women whose attentions I did not return) and much more. My own (wonderful) mother told me I am ‘ruthless’ and should learn to be more ‘humane.'” But, he concluded, “I love my children and would readily do whatever for them.”
As an adult, Musk, with the same optimism with which he moved in with his father as a child, moved his dad, his father’s then-wife and their children to Malibu. He bought them a house, cars and a boat. But his father, Elon says, hadn’t changed, and Elon severed the relationship.
“In my experience, there is nothing you can do,” he says about finally learning the lesson that his dad will never change. “Nothing, nothing. I wish. I’ve tried everything. I tried threats, rewards, intellectual arguments, emotional arguments, everything to try to change my father for the better, and he… no way, it just got worse.”
Somewhere in this trauma bond is the key to Musk’s worldview — creation against destruction, of being useful versus harmful, of defending the world against evil.
Things at school weren’t much better than life at home. There, Musk was brutally bullied — until he was 15 years old.
“For the longest time, I was the youngest and the smallest kid in the class because my birthday just happens to fall on almost the last day that they will accept you into school, June 28th. And I was a late bloomer. So I was the youngest and the smallest kid in class for years and years. …The gangs at school would hunt me down — literally hunt me down!”
Musk put down the books and started learning to fight back — karate, judo, wrestling. That physical education, combined with a growth spurt that brought him to six feet by age 16, gave him some confidence and, as he puts it, “I started dishing it out as hard as they’d give it to me.”
When he got into a fight with the biggest bully at school and knocked him out with one punch, Musk noticed that the bully never picked on him again. “It taught me a lesson: If you’re fighting a bully, you cannot appease a bully.” Musk speaks the next words forcefully. “You punch the bully in the nose. Bullies are looking for targets that won’t fight back. If you make yourself a hard target and punch the bully in the nose, he’s going to beat the shit out of you, but he’s actually not going to hit you again.”
When he was 17, Musk left college and moved to his mother’s home country, Canada, later obtaining passports for his mother, brother and sister to join him there. His father did not wish him well, Musk recalls. “He said rather contentiously that I’d be back in three months, that I’m never going to make it, that I’m never going to make anything of myself. He called me an idiot all the time. That’s the tip of the iceberg, by the way.”
After Musk became successful, his father even took credit for helping him — to such a degree that it’s listed as fact in Elon’s Wikipedia entry. “One thing he claims is he gave us a whole bunch of money to start, my brother and I, to start up our first company [Zip2, which provided online city guides to newspapers]. This is not true,” Musk says. “He was irrelevant. He paid nothing for college. My brother and I paid for college through scholarships, loans and working two jobs simultaneously. The funding we raised for our first company came from a small group of random angel investors in Silicon Valley.”
Musk’s career history decorates his desk. There’s an item from nearly all of his companies, even a mug for X.com, the early online bank he started, which became PayPal. The sale of Zip2 resulted in a $22 million check made out directly to Musk, which he used in part to start X.com. With the roughly $180 million post-tax amount he made from the sale of PayPal, he started SpaceX with $100 million, put $70 million into Tesla, invested $10 million into Solar City, and saved little for himself.
One of the misunderstandings that rankles Musk most is being pigeonholed and narrowcast, whether as the real-life Tony Stark or the second coming of Steve Jobs. When, at a photo shoot, he was asked to wear a black turtleneck, the trademark garb of Jobs, he bristled. “If I was dying and I had a turtleneck on,” he tells me, “with my last dying breath, I would take the turtleneck off and try to throw it as far away from my body as possible.”
So what is Musk about?
“I try to do useful things,” he explains. “That’s a nice aspiration. And useful means it is of value to the rest of society. Are they useful things that work and make people’s lives better, make the future seem better, and actually are better, too? I think we should try to make the future better.”
When asked to define “better,” Musk elaborates, “It would be better if we mitigated the effects of global warming and had cleaner air in our cities and weren’t drilling for vast amounts of coal, oil and gas in parts of the world that are problematic and will run out anyway.
“And if we were a multiplanetary species, that would reduce the possibility of some single event, man-made or natural, taking out civilization as we know it, as it did the dinosaurs. There have been five mass-extinction events in the fossil record. People have no comprehension of these things. Unless you’re a cockroach or a mushroom — or a sponge — you’re fucked.” He laughs sharply. “It’s insurance of life as we know it, and it makes the future far more inspiring if we are out there among the stars and you could move to another planet if you wanted to.”
This, then, is the ideology of Musk. And though basic, it’s actually very rare. Think of the other names that one associates with innovation this century: They’re people who built operating systems, devices, websites or social-media platforms. Even when it didn’t start out that way, the ideology in most cases soon became: How can I make my company the center of my users’ world? Consequently, social-media sites like Facebook and Twitter use a number of tricks to activate the addictive reward centers of a user’s brain.
If Musk’s employees suggested doing something like this, he’d probably look at them like they were crazy. This type of thinking doesn’t compute. “It’s really inconsistent to not be the way you want the world to be,” he says flatly, “and then through some means of trickery, operate according to one moral code while the rest of the world operates according to a different one. This is obviously not something that works. If everyone’s trying to trick everyone all the time, it’s a lot of noise and confusion. It’s better just to be straightforward and try to do useful things.”
He discusses building a permanent moon base, and further funding SpaceX by creating passenger rockets capable of traveling to any city in the world in less than an hour, a form of transport he calls “Earth-to-Earth.” I ask if there’s anything that he believes works that surprises people.
“If I’m not in love, I can’t be happy,” Musk says. “When I was a child, there was one thing I said: ‘I don’t want to be alone.'”
“I think being precise about the truth works. Truthful and precise. I try to tell people, ‘You don’t have to read between the lines with me. I’m saying the lines!'”
On another occasion, I watch Musk at a weekly SpaceX engineering-team meeting, where eight experts sit around a table in high-backed red chairs, showing Musk a PowerPoint with the latest updates to the Mars spaceship design. And while Musk keeps pace on technical details with some of the most brilliant minds in aerospace, he also adds an element that goes beyond logistics and engineering.
“Make sure it doesn’t look ugly or something,” he advises at one point. Then, later, “The aesthetics of this one are not so great. It looks like a scared lizard.” And, in a characteristically wry moment, “When you land on Mars, you want the list of what you have to worry about to be small enough that you’re not dead.”
Overall, there’s a theme to Musk’s feedback: First, things have to be useful, logical and scientifically possible.
Then he looks to improve efficiency on every level: What are people accepting as an industry standard when there’s room for significant improvement?
From there, Musk pushes for the end product to be aesthetically beautiful, simple, cool, sleek (“He hates seams,” says one staffer) and, as Musk puts it at one point in the meeting, “awesome.”
Throughout this process, there’s an additional element that very few companies indulge in: personalization. This usually involves Musk adding Easter eggs and personal references to the products, such as making the Tesla sound-system volume go to 11 (in homage to Spinal Tap) or sending a “secret payload” into space in his first Dragon launch that turned out to be a wheel of cheese (in homage to Monty Python).
Beyond all this, most maddening or exciting for Musk’s employees, depending on which one you ask, is the time scale on which he often expects work to be done. For example, one Friday when I was visiting, a few SpaceX staff members were frantically rushing back and forth from the office to the parking lot across the street. It turns out that during a meeting, he asked them how long it would take to remove staff cars from the lot and start digging the first hole for the Boring Company tunnel. The answer: two weeks.
Musk asked why, and when he gathered the necessary information, he concluded, “Let’s get started today and see what’s the biggest hole we can dig between now and Sunday afternoon, running 24 hours a day.” Within three hours, the cars were gone and there was a hole in the ground.
On the other hand, one thing Musk is notorious for is setting ambitious deadlines that he often can’t meet. The Roadster, the Model S and the Model X were all delayed from his original timeline, and now the Model 3 — with its nearly half-a-million-person-long waiting list — is experiencing its own production delays. There are many reasons for this, but Musk summarises: “Better to do something good and be late than bad and be early.” So expect Musk to get it done, just not on time. Because if he can’t do it, he won’t pretend otherwise.
“I expect to lose,” Musk says. He’s in a three-story building in San Francisco that has only recently been furnished. It used to belong to Stripe, the credit-card payment processor, but now belongs to Musk, who’s housing two of his companies there: Neuralink and OpenAI.
These are visions of what Tesla or SpaceX may have looked like when they first began. A small group of excited people working with limited resources to hit a distant, ambitious target. But unlike Tesla and SpaceX, there aren’t anything close to road maps toward these goals, nor are they so clear-cut.
OpenAI is a nonprofit dedicated to minimising the dangers of artificial intelligence, while Neuralink is working on ways to implant technology into our brains to create mind-computer interfaces.
If it sounds like those are contradictory ideas, think again. Neuralink allows our brains to keep up in the intelligence race. The machines can’t outsmart us if we have everything the machines have plus everything we have. At least, that is if you assume that what we have is actually an advantage.
It’s an unusual day at the office: Musk is showing a documentary about artificial intelligence to the Neuralink staff. He stands in front of them as they sit splayed on couches and chairs, and lays out the grim odds of his mission to make AI safe: “Maybe there’s a five to 10 percent chance of success,” he says.
The challenge he’s up against with OpenAI is twofold. First, the problem with building something that’s smarter than you is … that it’s smarter than you. Add to that the fact that AI has no remorse, no morality, no emotions — and humanity may be in deep shit. This is the good son’s second chance against the remorseless father he couldn’t change.
The other challenge is that OpenAI is a nonprofit, and it’s competing with the immense resources of Google’s DeepMind. Musk tells the group he in fact invested in DeepMind with the intention of keeping a watchful eye on Google’s AI development.
“Between Facebook, Google and Amazon — and arguably Apple, but they seem to care about privacy — they have more information about you than you can remember,” he elaborates to me. “There’s a lot of risk in concentration of power. So if AGI [artificial general intelligence] represents an extreme level of power, should that be controlled by a few people at Google with no oversight?”
“Sleep well,” Musk jokes when the movie ends. He then leads a discussion about it, writing down some ideas and bluntly dismissing others. As he’s speaking, he reaches into a bowl, grabs a piece of popcorn, drops it in his mouth and starts coughing.
“We’re talking about threats to humanity,” he mutters, “and I’m going to choke to death on popcorn.”
It is 9 p.m. on a Thursday night, and I’m waiting in the foyer of Musk’s Bel Air home for our final interview. He walks down the stairs a few minutes later, wearing a T-shirt depicting Mickey Mouse in space. A tall blond woman follows him down the stairs.
He is, true to his words, not alone.
The woman, it turns out, is Talulah Riley, his second wife. They met in 2008, and Musk proposed after 10 days together. They married in 2010, then divorced two years later, then remarried the following year, then filed for divorce again, then withdrew the filing, then re-filed for divorce and finally followed through with it.
Musk suggests doing something rare for him: drinking. “My alcohol tolerance is not very high,” he says. “But I tend to be a fuzzy bear when I drink. I go happy fuzzy.”
He pours two glasses of whiskey for us, and the three of us adjourn to his living room, where there’s a mechanical Edison phonograph, an Enigma machine and a short-wave radio from World War I on display.
During the interview, Riley lounges on the couch nearby, half paying attention to the conversation, half paying attention to her phone.
Musk is in a different mood than he was at SpaceX, and that’s something that those who’ve come to know Musk observe. One moment, he may be reciting favorite lines from an animated TV show he just saw, the next he may be curtly giving detailed instructions, the next he may be ignoring you while lost in a thought, the next he may be asking for your advice on a problem, the next he may be breathless with laughter while riffing on a humorous tangent for five minutes, the next he may be acting as if you’ve both never met. And through it all, you learn not to take it personally, because chances are that it has nothing to do with you.
We start off talking, or at least with me trying to talk, about AI, because a few weeks earlier, Musk had tweeted, “Competition for AI superiority at national level most likely cause of WW3 imo.”
But when I ask him about that, Musk gets testy. “I don’t have all the answers. I’m not saying that I have all the fucking answers. Let me be really clear about that. I’m trying to figure out the set of actions I can take that are more likely to result in a good future. If you have suggestions in that regard, please tell me what they are.”
Riley chimes in: “I think just the way it gets couched is that ‘Elon Musk says we’re all gonna die,’ as opposed to ‘Hey, let’s have some regulation.'”
Musk, it soon becomes clear, is not in the mood to talk about his work. Instead, he has some advice he’d like to offer to the world from his personal experience: “I find one learns lessons in the course of life,” he begins with a wry half-smile. “And one lesson I’ve learned is, don’t tweet on Ambien. That’s on the record: Tweeting on Ambien is unwise. You may regret it.”
Musk grabs a coffee-table book published by The Onion and starts leafing through it, laughing hysterically. “In order to understand the essential truth of things,” he theorizes, “I think you can find it in The Onion and occasionally on Reddit.”
Afterward, he asks excitedly, “Have you ever seen Rick and Morty?” And the conversation bounces from that animated show to South Park to The Simpsons to the book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
One of the lines from Hitchhiker’s, Musk says, ended up being Musk Family Rule Number One: “Don’t panic.”
“The boys were quite skittish about all kinds of things,” Riley explains.
“That’s our other rule,” Musk continues. “Safety third. There’s not even a Rule Number Two. But even though there’s nothing in second place, safety is not getting promoted to number two.”
We’re interrupted by Teller, Musk’s chief of staff, who informs him that as we were talking, the Hawthorne City Council ended an hours-long debate with a 4-to-1 vote allowing Musk to burrow his tunnel two miles into the city.
“Good,” Musk says. “Now we can dig past our own property line. Dig like fiends!”
He laughs at the expression, and I understand now that Musk didn’t have me over to talk about his projects and vision. There’s nothing to be gained from talking about the problems of science with someone who doesn’t understand them. At the end of the day, he just wants to unwind and laugh about the world he’s trying to improve.
I leave his home still hearing his chuckles in the doorway, and hoping that when the Mars colony builds its first statues of Musk, they’re not of a stiff man with a tight-lipped expression looking out into space, but of a fuzzy bear.
Top photo, credit: Mark Seliger.
This article features in issue #795 (February, 2018), available now.