Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
WORLDPOST: What are the key innovations that will change our lives in the decades ahead?
ELON MUSK: There are four apart from the Internet, an astonishing invention by which people can access knowledge from anywhere. There will be the transition to the sustainable production and consumption of energy. Hopefully, the extension of human life to other planets, depending on how rapidly we progress in developing space transport and how we live — if we manage to survive — by then. Reading and writing genetic code. And AI — artificial intelligence.
Our species has the capacity to accomplish all these things. We are already engaged in doing them now.
HIGH-SPEED RAIL, HYPERLOOP AND JERRY BROWN
WORLDPOST: While there have been revolutionary advances in information and bio technologies in recent decades, we still fly — more or less — the same 747s of 40 years ago and take the marginally improved bullet trains the Japanese pioneered in the 1960s.
Why has it been so difficult to move to what you call “the fifth mode” of transportation — the kind of “hyperloop technology” you are promoting?
MUSK: Well, bullet trains are often not better. The problem is that you face strong headwinds.
I was frustrated reading about the high-speed rail project in California — the first proposed in the US — and another one in the UK. To me it seemed like we were taking a step backwards in technology, as if we were going backwards not only from the Concorde to the 747 you mentioned, but to the DC-3.
Japan produced some pretty impressive trains which they deployed in the 1980s. Then China put in place an even more advanced train network. In the advanced economies like California, where we have a lot of money, it seems to me we ought to be thinking what we can do to get beyond that. It is not a matter of one-upmanship, but rather from the standpoint that the future is going to be better.
If you get up in the morning and think the future is going to be better, it is a bright day. Otherwise, it’s not.
So, I started thinking about what might be the fastest way to get from one city to another abiding by the laws of physics, or at least the physics we know today.
After a lot of iterations I came up with the idea of the “hyperloop.” For the hyperloop to work you need to combine a bunch of factors. It is kind of an air hockey table combined with a rail gun combined with a super-sonic Concorde.
It will go very fast in a low-air density environment like the Concorde (the air is thin up there) and is electro-magnetically accelerated, which is where you get the kinetic energy. The suspension mechanism is like an air hockey table.
One of the key innovations is to have a powerful turbo-compressor on the nose of the pod that compresses the air in front of the pod and transfers it to the rear. That prevents high-pressure air from building up on the nose and causing resistance.
Hyperloop illustration by Space X.
This is totally technologically feasible. When engineers look at this idea, the say, “oh yeah, totally possible.” When non-engineers look at it, they say “this is preposterous.”
I’ve talked to California Governor Jerry Brown about this. He got a little mad and called me up. He said, “how come you are saying our bullet train is not good.” I said, “going only 120 miles per hour from LA to San Francisco — people can do that on I-5 in their car.”
He said, “well, it has to go 150 miles out of its way so it can stop in Bakersfield and Fresno.” I said, “well, you are making my point for me. It may be great for people living in those places, but not if you want to get from LA to San Francisco quickly.”
If we could do high-speed rail in California just half a notch above what they’ve done on the Shanghai line in China, and if we had a straight path from LA to San Francisco, as well as the milk run, at least that would be progress.
I’m not saying we have to do the hyperloop or nothing. I’m saying we should just have a bad ass transportation system.
Look, I like Jerry a lot. He’s a good guy. He genuinely cares about things. But I do think we need to raise our sights here and aim higher.
WORLDPOST: Some of the leaders in Singapore want to make it the first “electric city” with all electric cars like the Tesla. Because the Asian leaders there or in China think more long term, they have the capacity to rebuild the foundations of their infrastructure as they construct new megacities. Do you think Asia will be the largest market for electric cars?
MUSK: That is a great idea for Singapore. Hong Kong too. We do expect more sales in Asia than any other part of the world just by virtue of population and economy.
It is a bit more of a top down situation there. If the top political leaders, obviously in Singapore or China, decide to do something, it really happens.
Here in the West people often don’t like listening to their leaders even if they are right.
WORLDPOST: A “multi-planetary civilization” is central to your thinking. When Stephen Hawking talks about this, he does so out of the fear that our species will not develop intelligently enough in time to save this planet, so we better hedge our bets and explore other options.
Is that where you are coming from?
MUSK: I’m more optimistic than Stephen Hawking or Martin Rees, the head of the Royal Society in Britain. He thinks it is quite likely that our civilization will end in this century. I hope he is wrong.
I’m more optimistic about our civilization. And I do stress “multi-planetary.” It’s not like “let’s find another planet, but somewhere else.” I hesitate to use the word “utopian.” But if you imagine the future we want and say, “that would be a good one,” for me you’d want to have a future where there is a space-spanning civilization where our species is out there exploring the stars. That would be great.
My motivation comes from the standpoint that such a civilization would be the best adventure and something really inspiring that would make life more fun.
That motivates me the most. A strong second would be the preservation of consciousness and human civilization as we know it up to this point.
From an evolutionary standpoint, human consciousness has not been around very long. A little light just went on after four and a half billion years. How often does that happen? Maybe it is quite rare. In fact, it would appear to be quite rare. Or, others out there with a consciousness are very good at hiding. If it is such a rare thing, then we should do whatever we can to ensure its long- term survival.
EVOLUTION IS ON A NEW PLANE
WORLDPOST: You have also talked about creating a “greater collective enlightenment” through technology, and of the Internet as “a collective nervous system.”
Some scientists have argued that this global thinking circuit and the planetary reach of the media enable something akin to “horizontal gene transfer” where knowledge is shared across boundaries through cooperation instead of through “vertical gene transfer” that results from competitive differentiation.
Are we on the brink of “an evolution of evolution?”
MUSK: I believe we are, yes. I think we have effectively created a kind of super-organism. It is like when uni-cellular creatures existed without nervous systems, they communicated by osmosis.
Before the Internet and advanced telecommunications, communication was incredibly slow. You would have to literally go from one person to another to communicate; at best one person could carry a note to another. It was literally person to person. So unless one person bumps into another one, you are not going to communicate.
With the telegraph, the telephone and now, especially, the internet, suddenly all the world’s knowledge is instantly available to any person. That is like one cell in your body having access to all the information about the rest of our body.
A huge number of super fast feedback loops — that is what intelligence and consciousness is.
Clearly, evolution is on a new plane.
DEMOGRAPHICS, ROBOTS AND AI
WORLDPOST: What are the main impediments to this fun future that you envision? What might stop us from getting there?
MUSK: Demographics is a real issue. People are not having enough kids in many countries. This is supposed to be solved by immigration. But immigration from where? If Europe, or China for that matter, only produce 50 per cent of the people needed to maintain their populations, how will they survive? Where are we supposed to find the 600 million people to replace the ones that were never born? We would need three Indonesias to move there.
People are going to have to revive the idea of having children as a kind of social duty. If you can, and are so inclined, you should. Otherwise civilization will just die.
The Chinese have just lifted their one child policy, but I doubt it will have an effect. That is not the reason couples are having only one kid. There hasn’t been a one child policy in Europe, in Russia or in Japan. Why are they having only one child?
The correlations are obvious, but the causes of this behavior are less obvious. The birth rate is inversely correlated to wealth, education and religious. The wealthier and more educated you are, the less children you have. Religion, however, is closely correlated to having children. The more religious you are, the more children you have. This is true across countries and within countries.
In the US, the highest birthrate is in Mormon Utah.
In the latter part of this century we are going to see a demographic implosion the likes of which we haven’t before, including with the Black Plague. The math is obvious.
When did China ever experience a 50 per cent reduction in its population? Never. The Black Plague reduced populations by a quarter, but never by half. It is as though half the future population has been killed.
We are going to have to turn this around. Otherwise we have an inverted demographic pyramid. There is one thing that is certain: if the people go away, so will civilization.
WORLDPOST: Won’t technology save us? Eric Schmidt of Google is warning the Chinese that they better get rich before they get automated. Won’t robots, as they are already beginning to in aging Japan, be able to support vastly smaller populations?
MUSK: At this rate, the only thing that will be left will be robots. Three generations with a 50 per replacement rate will get you to 12 per cent of your current population. And most of those 12 per cent will be taking care of their grandparents.
WORLDPOST: Other obstacles to a bright future?
MUSK: Religious extremism. If that grows over time, particularly if it is an anti-science Luddite form, is an obvious threat. I hesitate to mention the other concern: I hope the AI (artificial intelligence) is nice to us.