Elon Musk often reminds me of a quote from TS Eliot, my favorite poet: “Only those who go too far, can possibly find out how far one can go.”
Events of the recent past demonstrate that he often goes too far. But in terms of cars, spaceships, solar panels and Hyperloops, he is likely to be the one who demonstrates how far one can go.
Three cases in point:
1. Robotic Manufacturing. In May 2017, he boasted that the Tesla Model 3 factory would be the most automated in the world with an output of 75,000 vehicles per quarter because of the superior productivity of robots. But at the end of Q1 2018, the factory produced a comparatively limp output of 10,000. The reason, he discovered and declared in an interview was that “humans are underrated.”
Admitting that the miscalculation was his mistake and that people just do some things better than robots, he had Tesla pulled out a major chunk of the automation and replace it with sentient beings. In short, Musk went too far. His company and his reputation are paying a significant price for it, but at the end of the day, the Tesla is probably the most significant improvement in ground transportation since the Model T Ford.
2. SpaceX Rockets. Musk has looked to the future, done some deep thinking about it and it scares the hell out of him. But instead of walking around carrying a sign warning “The End is Near,” he has created an economic opportunity. There may come a time–not as far into the future as any of us would want, that Earth becomes uninhabitable. With that in mind, he created SpaceX which has proven that Silicon Valley technology can expedite space travel faster, better and far more cheaply, with private financing than NASA can do with government backing and traditional contractors. His goal is to build a human colony on Mars, where humans might create an inhabitable environment after destroying the one we have here.
On Sept. 19, he announced one giant leap for humankind when he announced that Yusaku Maezawa has chartered a ride on the SpaceX Big Falcon Rocket. The Japanese billionaire will bring along six-to-eight artists as guests. The flight is scheduled for 2023, but Musk schedules have been known to slip. To me, that is of little matter so much as that Musk, more than any other individual I can think of, is exploring how far we may need to go.
3. Outfoxing Immortal Dictators. So here is Elon Musk, debatably among the foremost pioneers of AI on Earth and in the heavens, warning about the catastrophic consequences of AI that could help trigger the next world war and thus emerge as an “immortal dictator “from which humans can never escape. There are many, particularly in the tech sector, whose response to these comments are that Musk has gone too far and is nothing more than a headline seeking naysayer. In a recent chat I had with a colleague, proof of this is that he was foolish enough to smoke dope during a video interview causing investors to feel they had inhaled to much Musk, a non sequitur which inspired me to write this blog.
In my view, most of the giants of modern times are giants who have gone too far in many ways. Henry Ford was a leading transformer of the past century, who was also a devout fan of Hitler, as was Charles Lindbergh, the first to fly solo nonstop from the US to Europe. As a CEO, Bill Gates went too far in bullying competitors, before he retired to become perhaps the greatest philanthropist of our times.
Great people almost always make dumb mistakes along the way. To find out how far they can go, they need to go over the line. This tendency is one of the very few things I hold in common with the greatest people of modern times.
One other thing: I think Musk is right. AI is something that could cause massive disaster if it goes too far. I think there is a lesson that the rest of us should learn from the changes at the Tesla factory. AI works best when it doesn’t go too far, and it goes too far when it replaces too many people: It should back us up, not push us out.