Elon Musk: Master of the universe

As a business leader and individual, Musk is an enigmatic contradiction wrapped in the ambition to become Master of the Universe.

Published: 15th July 2018 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 14th July 2018 03:15 PM   |  A+A-

Musk and his team built this mini-submarine to help the rescue effort in Thailand

The billionaire tech entrepreneur’s submarine was not in the end useful in rescuing the trapped Thai boys last week. But his innovative thinking, response speed and business acumen prove Elon Musk is on top of the game. 

“I have no special talent. I am only
passionately curious.” ~ Albert Einstein

As World Cup fever raged across nations, it would have been unthinkable that an unknown, unforeseen team of footballers would win the heart of the world. As the rescue drama of the 12 teenage soccer players and their 25-year-old coach from a cave in Thailand’s Chiang Rai Province unfolded over 18 days, technology’s undisputed billionaire showman Elon Reeve Musk, 47, sent “a tiny, child-size submarine using the liquid oxygen transfer tube of a Falcon rocket as hull,” named Wild Boar, after the kids’ soccer team. He tweeted that “even if not useful here, perhaps it will be in a future situation”. Musk himself entered the caves and posted a video on Instagram with rescuers in one of the flooded caves. Rarely is a billionaire as hands on as Musk. Or a visionary. This approach has made the revolutionary techpreneur, often called the Thomas Edison of our time, the world’s most influential change maker. The New York Times calls him “arguably the most successful and important entrepreneur in the world”.

As an e-commerce pioneer, he engineered a takeover of PayPal. He has changed the space game with plans to colonise Mars and private missions, is experimenting with advantaged neuroscience to make cyborgs out of humans and has revolutionised transport and energy with electric automobiles and the hyperloop. He identifies and hires young talent but is known as a ruthless and brutal boss who sacks employees for making spelling mistakes in emails. He created the world’s first electric car, but ousted the original founder of Tesla to seize control.

The Musk Foundation awards grants to young minds and innovative research in renewable energy, space exploration, childhood diseases and disorders, and education but he would abuse senior executives in public with spouses present for a delay in production; he works 100 hours a week himself. He gave his second wife three engagement rings, but cancelled the credit card of his first wife immediately after filing divorce papers. One of his first buys after becoming a Silicon Valley millionaire was one of only 62 McLaren cars in the world; while investing in Tesla Motors, he wanted a car that would represent a sustainable future but also a luxury brand and not a ‘silly looking Prius’.

All driven people have a dark side. Bloomberg staffer Ashlee Vance, in his book Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, describes Musk as an unforgiving boss who would spit coffee across a boardroom table because it was cold. He would ruthlessly push his employees saying, “I want you to think ahead and think so hard every day that your head hurts. I want your head to hurt every night when you go to bed.” He threatened his suppliers with mutilation. Musk could be a demoralising boss when he chose to be. One day he assigned SpaceX’s ace employee Steve Davis the impossible task to make a $120,000 aeronautic part for $5,000. After nine months the part was made for just $3,900. When Davis sent Musk an email describing the miracle, all Musk had to say was ‘Ok’.

Musk with former wives Justine Wilson and Talulah Riley, and on-and-off girlfriend Amber Heard

What drives this complex genius to be humanity’s pathfinder? Musk watchers believe the conviction that the greater good overrides any one individual’s feelings has led him to create and run a group of interconnected companies with the same goal: save humanity through sustainable energy and outer space habitations through out-of-the-box thinking. He had even suggested nuking Mars to make it habitable. The irony, as an engineer who has worked with him put it, is that Musk wants to save the Earth by getting people to leave it. Life-changing events lead to earth-shaking decisions; in 2000, while on vacation he contracted malaria and almost died.

This near-death experience led him to revive his childhood dream of travelling to Mars. He checked out NASA’s website and found no Mars mission plans. After failing to buy a rocket from Russia to send to Mars, he studied books on rockets. On the way back from Russia, he decided to build the rocket himself using a spreadsheet. This was how Musk established the world’s first private spaceflight company SpaceX that now delivers spacecraft to the International Space Station with $1.6 billion investment from NASA and $1 billion from Google and Fidelity. He has said his company’s founding objective is to enable humanity become a “multiplanet” species. Musk hopes to establish a massive Red Planet colony in Mars with a population of 80,000 in two decades. He said, “I would like to die on Mars.

Just not on impact.” In 2015, Musk said he had taken just two vacations since founding SpaceX. By then, Tesla Motors had changed the automobile industry with an electric car running on a cutting edge battery pack—the Model 3 is cheap at a starting price of $35,000. (‘Motors’ has been dropped recently in a rebranding exercise). The tech tycoon aims to hold a monopoly on sustainable travel: apart from passenger flights and electric cars, he created the super-fast ‘Hyperloop’ transportation system by which solar-powered, high speed passenger pods would be launched through long tubes at about 1,220 km/hour, carrying 16 passengers at $1 per person. Musk had told reporters, “I don’t really care much one way or the other if I have any economic outcome here. But it would be cool to see a new form of transport happen.” Last July, The Boring Company received tentative approval from the US government to build a conceptual “hyperloop” system between New York and Washington.

Elon Musk is obsessed with clean energy. In the documentary film Before the Flood on climate change, of which Martin Scorsese was the executive producer, Leonardo DiCaprio is seen interviewing Musk. “The fossil fuel industry is the biggest industry in the world,” he says. “They have more money and more influence than any other sector. The more that there can be as sort of popular uprising against that, the better, but I think the scientific fact of the matter is we are unavoidably headed towards some level of harm.” (DiCaprio reportedly begged Musk for a free Tesla Roadster but was curtly refused.) Musk knows that energy is the key source of all human endeavours and technology is the only tool to generate a never-ending supply. Apart from electric sedans, the company is concentrating on making advanced battery systems and solar roofs to achieve a zero emission future.

SolarCity Corporation’s services include manufacture and installation of solar panels in the US along with energy storage connected through Tesla’s Powerwall. At a convention in New Orleans in 2015, Musk said, “I don’t think we should disrupt things unless it’s… fundamentally better for society... I’m just a fan of things being better.” As a businessman he keeps creating new markets; after electric cars, he has plans to manufacture heavy-duty electric trucks and large passenger transport vehicles. In March, Musk tweeted a video of a Tesla Model X pulling a 250,000-pound load. Electric supersonic jets that will take off and land vertically are on the drawing board, which will make the runway obsolete, thereby revolutionising airports. If this is to happen, Musk will face the combined opposition of the world’s powerful airplane manufacturing giants such as Boeing and Airbus.

However, Musk’s vision of the future is dystopian, too, predicting that the next step in Darwinian evolution is for the human race to endure and flourish in the upcoming age of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Unlike many respected experts in the field, he believes robots will replace humans in most aspects of life, who will become “house cats” to AI, in his words, resulting in mass unemployment, poverty and unrest. Musk bought Neuralink from Brain-Computer-Interface (BCI) expert, Professor Pedram Mohseni. The company is now enhancing existing BCI technology that directly connects computers to human minds by implanting tiny electrodes into the brain. The brain has over 80 billion neurons of which only a small amount is accessed by current tech, which is limited to functions like helping motor control and communication for brain injury patients.

Musk wants to take BCI into a holistic level, which will allow real time computer-human communication through transfer of thoughts. “He wants to directly tap into the brain to read out thoughts, effectively bypassing low-bandwidth mechanisms such as speaking or texting to convey the thoughts,” Mohseni told The Guardian. Neuroscience is an exciting new frontier tech companies are tapping into: it was reported recently that Facebook neuroscientists have been working on a classified project at a secret location named Building 8. In June 2016, Musk had warned that humans have to become cyborgs if they are to stay relevant in the age of AI. A cyborg (abbreviation for ‘cybernetic organism’) is someone or something whose body is a combination of organic and biomechatronic parts. RoboCop and Frankenstein are famous cyborgs in pop culture and fiction.

Before the cult film Iron Man was made, Robert Downey Jr suggested to director Jon Favreau that they should meet Musk to further define the character of Tony Stark. Musk obviously must have given some jaw dropping inputs, because Favreau included him in a cameo in The Iron Man 2. Science fiction is merely the future waiting to happen for Musk: as a college kid, he was inspired by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and foresaw that the internet, renewable energy and space travel would be influential factors in the further development of mankind. New York University Professor Melissa Schilling’s book Quirky concludes there are similarities between Musk, Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein. She says, “Jobs wanted to revolutionise the way we think with computers. Einstein wanted to find a simple harmonious truth about how the universe works and Musk wants to save our species by weaning us off fossil fuels and establishing a colony on Mars.”

The billions began with $500, when the South Africa born teenager Musk wrote the source code for a Space Invaders-type video game called ‘Blastar’ on an outdated computer, which he sold to a magazine for $500. Musk did not have a happy childhood, reveals Vance in his 2015 book. He initially spent a lonely but somewhat dangerous childhood, making explosives and building rockets. The book describes him as a classic know-it-all with a photographic memory who abrasively enjoyed pointing out flaws. His know-it-all attitude earned him kicks and beatings from schoolmates, who shoved him down a flight of stairs and bashed him against the ground until he passed out. But he learned to fight back studying karate, judo and wrestling. Then he took on the school’s biggest bully and felled him with one punch.

Musk explained his philosophy in an interview, “It taught me a lesson: If you’re fighting a bully, you cannot appease a bully.” Elon had never been the athletic type, instead spending his time reading comic books, and even two books a day. He moved to Canada to avoid compulsory military duty in apartheid-run South Africa and then to the US to study Physics. He got a BA in both Arts and Science. In 1995, brothers Elon and Kimbal Musk started ‘Zip2’ that added commercial muscle to major print publications. Kimbal told an interviewer, “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.”AltaVista bought the company and the Musks became millionaires. Among Musk’s first expensive purchases were a Dassault private jet and a 1,800 sq ft condominium.  

Musk loved the high life success brought him; he and his first wife Justine would party every night with Hollywood stars. They had a team of nannies to care for their children. The day the divorce was filed, Musk blocked Justine’s credit card he had paid for. The relationship ended after bitter wrangling over money. “We were at war for a while, and when you go to war with Elon, it’s pretty brutal,” Vance quotes Justine as saying. Theirs was a college romance and he was impressed by her looks and intellectual edge. She also had a black belt in taekwondo. Musk would go into fits of depression when he learned of her affairs; probably the reason why later he reportedly told her at their wedding that he was the alpha in the relationship. They divorced after six years of marriage and five children.

His relationship with second wife Talulah Riley was as tempestuous: he divorced her once, married her twice and tore up a second set of divorce papers. He told her, “Being with me was choosing the hard path.” She called it “quite the crazy ride”. It was a period when Musk’s life was in turmoil: both SpaceX and Tesla needed funds and were on the verge of going belly up. He had nightmares about selling SpaceX. Musk was borrowing money on a massive scale, spending $4 million a month to keep his projects going. In 2016, Riley filed for a divorce. It was amicable. “We still see each other all the time and take care of each other,” she told People magazine. In 2017, the famously private Musk gave his first person interview to Rolling Stone.

He told reporter Neil Strauss, “If I’m not in love, if I’m not with a long-term companion, I cannot be happy. I will never be happy without having someone. Going to sleep alone kills me.” Now that Musk is a legend in his own right, he can afford to take time off. In 2017, he was seen vacationing with on-and-off girlfriend Amber Heard. In 2014, Musk had told reporters, “The first time I took a week off, the Orbital Sciences rocket exploded and Richard Branson’s rocket exploded. In that same week, the second time I took a week off, my rocket exploded. The lesson here is don’t take a week off.” Taking off is no longer the problem when Mars is the destination and galaxy his playground.


Unconventionally yours

Known for his mind-bending beliefs about humanity and the universe, Elon Musk is certainly not shy about sharing his outrageous views

Mars would have a direct democracy government system
He believes that colonies on Mars would thrive with a direct democracy system. “It should probably be easier to remove a law than to create one. Laws have infinite life unless they’re taken away,” he said at Vox Media’s Code Conference.

We should nuke Mars to make it habitable for humans
On The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, he announced that to terraform Mars, it would be best to nuke the planet.

“The fast way is to drop thermonuclear weapons over the poles.”

We’re most likely living in an advanced civilisation’s video game
He thinks that we’re probably already living in an advanced simulation.

We should connect our brains directly to the internet
At the Code Conference, Musk discussed “neural lace”—basically a type of brain implant that would grow into the brain—enabling neurons to be programmed and enhanced.

We could eventually become the ‘housepets’ of artificial intelligence
As artificial intelligence continues to advance, he believes we could one day become the ‘housepets’ of
AI if we don’t act upon maintaining our authority.

In the future, it may become illegal for humans to drive cars
“In the distant future, people may outlaw driving cars because it’s too dangerous.
You can’t have a person driving a two-ton death machine.”

Humans are already cyborgs
“You have more power than the president of the United States had 20 years ago,” Musk said at the Code Conference. “You can video-conference with anyone, anywhere. You can send messages to millions of people instantly. Just do incredible things.”

The biggest issue with creating flying cars isn’t building the vehicles themselves
“We could definitely make a flying car—but that’s not the hard part,” he explains. “The hard part is how do you make a flying car that’s super safe and quiet?”

Humans should spread across other planets and star systems
He announced plans to send humans to Mars as soon as 2024, which would beat NASA by a few years. But Mars isn’t the only planet on Musk’s radar. “When I say multi-planet species, that’s what we want to be.” 

(Some of the material have been taken from Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance and The Guardian)


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    Really interesting article to read
    2 years ago reply
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