Elon Musk at SXSW: He’s Not Steve Jobs – in Some Ways, He’s Better

Jonathan Nolan, Elon Musk, and Kimball Musk at SxSW, 2018

AUSTIN – SXSW surprised everyone on Sunday with a presentation by Elon Musk, CEO of both Tesla and SpaceX, among other jobs. Formatted as a fireside chat with Westworld co-creator Jonathan Nolan, questions from the audience drove the conversation in a few different directions.

Jonathan Nolan, Elon Musk, and Kimball Musk at SxSW, 2018
Jonathan Nolan, Elon Musk, and Kimball Musk at SxSW, 2018

The presence of Elon Musk wasn’t the only surprise, especially for me as a long-time Apple watcher. I’d never seen Musk speak in public, though of course I’ve watched some of his product announcements online along with the rest of the world. From those, I had always viewed Elon Musk through the same lens as I viewed Steve Jobs: affable founder, achieved significant success, knew how to talk to people, and understood the technology but didn’t actually do the engineering.

Clearly I was wrong.

Elon Musk on Mars

When asked about something he wished he could do differently, he relayed the story of starting SpaceX and needing a Chief Engineer. They didn’t have the money to hire a good chief engineer, and saw no point in hiring a bad one…so Elon Musk named himself the chief engineer and started work on the project. To this day he says, “At SpaceX all my time is spent on engineering and design. 80-90%”. Someone else manages the business and operations. According to Musk, “If you don’t understand something at a detailed level you can’t make good decisions.”

Similarly surprising for me was his candor and confidence when asked by an audience member, “with regards to the Mars mission, how can we help?” Musk seemed almost surprised by the question, saying, “We’re building the BFR right now to get us to Mars. What we need? Good will. Support.”

Musk wasn’t out there asking for money or help. In fact, it was quite obvious that things are very much on schedule, though he did acknowledge, “sometimes my timelines are optimistic,” and he pledged that he was trying to be better about that. Still, on the heels of that admission he said that short up-and-down flights will happen “in the second half of next year.”

a circuit board headed to Mars, "Made on Earth by Humans"
a circuit board headed to Mars, “Made on Earth by Humans”

One interesting part about Mars is that Musk sees well past the “success” of actually getting there. Once we’re able to get there reliably and regularly, in his mind, that’s when the entrepreneurial opportunities related to colonization really begin, though admittedly dangerous, both financially and physically. If you’re one of the first to go, “there’s a good chance you will die,” Musk says half-jokingly, “but plenty of excitement for those who survive.”

Hearing Musk discuss it, his Mars focus with SpaceX comes cross in a very philanthropic way. And, to him, it all started with visiting NASA’s website and wondering why there was nothing there about a trip to Mars.

Elon Musk on AI and STARLINK

Musk’s concerns about artificial intelligence were also a surprise. It’s rare to hear a business mogul look for more governmental involvement and restriction, and yet Musk says, “Mark my words: AI is far more dangerous than nukes. So why do we have no regulatory oversight? It’s insane.”

Elon Musk isn’t immune to his own Reality Distortion Field, though. When talking about STARLINK, he quickly jokes, “It’s Skynet,” referring to the famed (and currently fictitious!) AI from Terminator that took over the world. He’s bullish on STARLINK’s future, “It’s an internet in the sky. Low latency, high bandwidth internet connectivity throughout the world.” But he says that they’re not putting enough smarts in STARLINK for it to “think” autonomously.

Doesn’t that just mean it’s susceptible to any intelligence – natural or otherwise – that gains access to STARLINK’s controls?

Time will tell!

3 thoughts on “Elon Musk at SXSW: He’s Not Steve Jobs – in Some Ways, He’s Better

  • Purely on the RDF levels, Musk is not even close. Musk has to cast the spell, using MP to get even a early level of RDF working. Steve has RDF on by default, you walk into his zone and you are in. not only is it an order of magnitude more powerful, its zone area is also much greater, as if RDF is not define by space and time.

  • Have to admit Musk is doing amazing things, even if they don’t impact the whole world, like Jobs. Self-driving electric cars might, but we’ll have to wait to see if the dream comes true on that. Getting the US back into space is a big one. Having ceded launch capability to Russia, someone trying to get people to at least the ISS is a massive victory, however far away that actually is.

    I can almost forgive him using the Mars story to fire everyone’s imagination. Just to bring some reality to this, the reason NASA lost all its funding was because there is no way to safely send people to Mars. The problem – muscle atrophy – if they survive the trip there, likely Mars gravity will kill them, and there’s no way they’d ever get back. The story of one-way Mars missions is born out of this dream crushing fact of science.

    There will never be people on Mars using conventional technology. Now, if you believe the military has interstellar craft based on ‘alien technology’, we’re already there. That’s your only hope, I’m afraid.

    As for internet in the sky – until it rains – then it’s no-signal received. Musk knows how to promise and also knows how to partially deliver, to make us believe he can do everything he’s promised, as if it’s just a matter of trying harder… there needs to be more science applied to Musk’s dream building. That said, only those crazy enough to believe they can change the world… as the great man once said.

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