The Life of Elon Musk
So you have this dream of changing the world? For Elon Musk, this isn't enough. His ambitions are multiplanetary.
Musk's ultimate goal, to spread the seeds of humanity off-Earth, increases the chances that our species will outlive extinction-level events. It also paves the way for downstream generations to go galactic.
He's starting with Mars. With the first crewed mission slated for 2029, SpaceX is gearing up to send 80,000 colonists to the Red Planet by the year 2040.
"I'd like to die on Mars. Just not on impact." - Elon Musk
But colonising another planet isn't cheap. So how did Elon Musk make his money? What exactly did he invent? And how will SpaceX take enough humans to Mars to make a city? Buckle up for the extraordinary, star-gazing life of Elon Musk.
Where Did Elon Musk Grow Up?
Elon was born, or possibly engineered, in South Africa in 1971. His father, Errol, was an electromechanical engineer; his mother, Maye, a model and nutritional scientist. The eldest of three children, Elon grew up with his brother, Kimbal, and sister, Toska, in the suburbs of Pretoria.
When his parents divorced in 1979, Elon lived with his father for two years and threw himself into computer programming. At the age of 12, he made a video game called Blastar and sold it to the magazine PC and Office Technology for $500. He later said it was "a trivial game... but better than Flappy Bird".
Elon has always been a fan of science fiction. He devoured Isaac Asimov's futuristic series, Foundation, and was deeply inspired by its message to prolong and advance civilisation. This kid dreamed big. Unfortunately, his love of humanity was seen as "not cool" by bullies who tortured him on a regular basis, once throwing him down a flight of stairs and beating him unconscious.
Elon also suffered at the hands of his dad, who he later described as "a terrible human being... Almost every evil thing you could possibly think of, he has done." Though much of Errol Musk's deeds are kept under wraps, the 72-year-old has spoken publicly about having a baby with his 30-year-old step-daughter, having cheated on his then wife. Today, Elon and his dad are estranged.
After he finished school, Elon set a goal of escaping his homeland. He spent a year working at a farm and lumber mill in Saskatchewan, before moving to the US to pursue a career in physics, programming, or both.
Elon graduated in 1994 and moved to California. He held two summer internships in Silicon Valley before starting a PhD in Applied Physics and Materials Science at Stanford. But Musk never completed his PhD. In fact, he quit after two days to crack on with saving the world and everything.
Elon's First Company
In 1995, Elon and Kimbal started a software company called Zip2. They developed an online city guide for the newspaper industry, providing interactive maps and yellow pages. This was a decade before the release of Google Maps and came just as the internet made its way into people's homes.
The brothers couldn't afford an apartment at the time, so they hired an office space in Palo Alto where they worked, ate, and slept. They had a single computer between them. The website was up during the day, and they coded and updated it at night.
How X.com Became PayPal
After selling Zip2, Elon Musk immediately invested $10 million into his next start-up company, X.com, which he ran with three other co-founders. The single-letter domain was a savvy acquisition made right before the dot com boom. But what would X.com do?
The company was ambitious. X.com became one of the first online banks whose funds were federally insured. The secure e-payment system attracted 200,000 customers in the first few months. But a power struggle between the founders soon saw Musk pulled as CEO, citing his lack of experience.
In its second year, X.com merged with its biggest competitor, Confinity, the owner of PayPal. Musk returned as CEO under the merger, only to clash with the creator of PayPal, Peter Thiel. As technical issues mounted, Musk was ousted once again and replaced by Thiel, who focused the company's resources on PayPal.
But the venture still ended well for Musk. In 2002, eBay purchased the both platforms for $1.5 billion in stock, and as the largest shareholder, Musk received more than $100 million. With the beauty of hindsight we can see that Elon's software companies were experiments in making money, of which he would need a great deal to go to space. And that's exactly where we go next.
SpaceX and Resuable Rockets
Enter Space Exploration Technologies Corp, or SpaceX, whose name can't be said without inducing unconscious thoughts of low-gravity love-making.
Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of designing, building, and operating reusable space rockets. He saw single-use rockets as a non-starter for a multiplanetary civilisation, and set his mind to dramatically reducing the cost of launching humans into space.
Finally, Elon could do what he had always dreamed of. He starting making space rockets. And that's when the real challenges began.
"Always bear in mind that entropy is not on your side." - Elon Musk
But tenacity prevailed, and a fourth launch at the end of 2008 saw Falcon 1 make a successful round-trip to orbit, some 480km above Earth. Confidence was restored. SpaceX began developing larger orbital rockets, and NASA locked down Musk's Dragon spacecraft to start transporting astronauts to the International Space Station.
SpaceX's flagship vehicle, the Starship, made its first autonomous launch in December 2020. It reached an altitude of 12.5km and returned to Earth only to crash on landing. Such "rapid unplanned disassembly" is par for the course in rocket science.
SpaceX endured the heartache of three more failed landings before the Starship SN15 delivered the goods in May 2021. The spacecraft flew to an altitude of 10km and landed successfully at the South Texas test site.
In early 2022, the Starship is scheduled to make its first orbital flight, which Musk admits could well go wrong seeing as there's a lot of new ground to break. But he's confident of a successful orbital mission sometime in 2022 as part of a schedule of dozens more test flights. Starship will then be on track to start moving real payloads in 2023.
In 2024, the Starship will take people to the Moon as part of NASA's Artemis program, set to build a base camp on the surface and the Gateway depot in lunar orbit. The Moon project is built with three goals: scientific discovery, economic payoff, and inspiration for the next generation of astronauts.
That's a wild thought. And while we're getting our heads around a dozen astronauts poking around on Mars, Musk is planning to seed the alien planet with a permanent, self-sustaining population—a city, even.
"Excluding organic growth [he's talking babies on Mars], if you could take 100 people at a time, you would need 10,000 trips to get to a million people." - Elon Musk
That excludes cargo to support those people. If you add in cargo, Musk says you're looking at 100,000 trips to Mars to set up your million-person city.
But that goal is pretty far away in real terms. In his biography, Musk forecast that 80,000 colonists will bed down on Mars over the next 20 years. I don't know who these people are, or if the lifestyle could ever live up to the glory. But most of them are already alive, looking up the stars, wondering.
Tesla and Self-Driving Cars
In 2004, Musk invested $6.5 million in a young car company called Tesla. Musk took a lead role in the architecture of its electric vehicles to create a company worth more than $1 trillion today. The EV line-up includes the Tesla Roadster (2008), Model S (2012), Model X (2015), Model 3 (2017), Tesla Semi (2017), Model Y (2020), and the Cybertruck (due 2022).
To speed up the global transition to electric cars, Tesla sells its electric powertrain components and has opened up the patents to other car manufacturers. The goal is to break our addiction with petrol-guzzling autos, with Musk strongly in favour of a tax on carbon dioxide emissions.
Then there's the autonomous vehicle technology, designed to improve safety and efficiency on roads.
"Autopilot is a good thing to have in planes, and we should have it in cars." - Elon Musk
Tesla's deep neural network processes real-time data from eight surround cameras, which gives 360-degree visibility up to 250 metres in range. Twelve ultrasonic sensors allow the computer to detect both hard and soft objects. All Tesla vehicles are sold with the hardware for Level 5 autonomy, so they'll eventually be able to drive themselves anywhere, under any conditions, without human supervision.
But we're not there yet. Today, the Tesla Autopilot has achieved Level 2 autonomy—although critics say it's only labelled as such to avoid the regulatory hassles of higher levels. Drivers must stay alert and keep hold of the wheel at all times while the computer drives.
In 2021, Tesla announced Project Dojo, a machine-learning supercomputer built to advance Autopilot faster. Dojo may explain Musk's confidence in achieving Level 5 autonomy in 2022.
The transition to autonomous driving has attracted its share of critics. Yet Musk insists the overarching logic is sound. Human error is involved in 94% of serious crashes, killing 1.3 million people worldwide every year. These are violent, sudden deaths, and unlike COVID, nobody is immune.
In terms of efficiency, Elon looks toward a time when all cars drive on autopilot. They'll communicate with each other in real-time for superior safety, at faster speeds, and all but eliminate traffic.
While more companies pile into electric cars and autopilot technology, Tesla has enjoyed a phenomenal boom in its valuation. Trading around $88 at the start of 2020, Tesla stock peaked at $1,022 in 2021, delivering a 1,000%+ return for investors.
Neuralink and Brain-Machine Interfaces
In 2016, Elon Musk teamed up with eight experts in neuroscience, biochemistry, and robotics to create Neuralink. The company joined the race to develop next generation brain implants that will deliver therapeutic and, ultimately, cognitive and recreational enhancements.
"I could have a Neuralink right now and you wouldn’t know." - Elon Musk
If neurons are brain cells that communicate in tiny bursts of electricity, then neural implants are artificial neurons that sit within the brain and join the conversation. The ongoing challenge is to make these implants smaller in size yet larger in scope to dramatically alter the experience of being human.
Some existing medical brain implants use deep brain stimulation to send electrical impulses to injured parts of the brain. DBS can reduce the symptoms of epilepsy, tremour, tinnitus, and neuropathic pain. Other implants are functionally limited to the surface of the brain, with a hundred or less relatively bulky electrodes listening to neurons.
Neuralink improved the scope of this technology with its Link, a brain-machine interface (BMI) with 3,072 electrodes that's proven to work in pigs. Pigs! They're basically human.
When it goes into actual human brains, the Link will create two-way communication channels that allow users to control their digital devices with their minds.
The long term goal of Neuralink is to offer the Link to everyone, ultimately creating a human-AI symbiosis.
Why? Artificial intelligence is accelerating. And when it surpasses human intelligence, it won't even need our input to evolve. It will run our stock markets, our social calendars, and our doctor appointments. It will tell us what to study, who to marry, and when to have babies.
And there's no knowing what the AI will want for itself. So rather than compete with this powerful new synthetic lifeform, we actually need to merge with it. Today's Neuralink is a serious starting point for a high-bandwidth BMI that will allow us to control AI before it controls us.
"We can actually go along for the ride... and we can effectively have the option of merging with AI." - Elon Musk
Read my full Neuralink explainer about the potential benefits, risks, and societal impacts of this wild technology.
Elon Musk Outside of Work
As a self-confessed workaholic known to push 120-hour work weeks, Musk doesn't really do spare time. But has has squeezed in a number of relationships and had more kids than most.
Elon met his first wife, Justine Wilson, while at university in Canada. They married in 2000. That same year, he took a trip home to South Africa, contracted malaria, and almost died. Two years later, the couple had their first child, Nevada, only to suffer the profound tragedy of losing him to SIDS at 10 weeks old. They went on to use IVF to conceive twins and then triplets, who Musk has described as "the love of my life".
Elon and Justine divorced after eight years and he went on to have an on-off relationship with the actress Talulah Riley, marrying and divorcing twice between 2010 and 2016. That same year he dated Amber Heard, fresh out of her battered relationship with Johnny Depp.
In 2018, Musk settled down with the singer Grimes and they had a son named X. They went on to have a daughter named Y who was carried via surrogacy. By 2022, their work split them between Texas and LA, and Musk declared himself single.
While seven kids sounds like overdrive for most of us, Musk assures us one of the biggest threats to civilisation is underpopulation. He says that with birth rates declining all over the world, we aren't making enough people to labour and innovate in future. Without action, the catastrophe will manifest in the generational blink of an eye.
"Please look at the numbers—if people don't have more children, civilisation is going to crumble, mark my words." - Elon Musk
Beyond family planning, Musk has strong views on climate change, universal basic income, the existence of aliens, the dangers of artificial intelligence, and the likelihood that we're all living in a digital simulation.
"The strongest argument for us probably being in a simulation I think is the following: 40 years ago we had Pong—two rectangles and a dot. That's where we were. Now 40 years later we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it's getting better every year. And soon we'll have virtual reality, we'll have augmented reality. If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, just indistinguishable." - Elon Musk
He's referring to the Simulation Argument, a case put forward by the philosopher Nick Bostrom. It hangs on the idea that if such advanced simulation technology is possible, then we're already a part of it. Mathematically, the chance that we're living in the real world vs one of countless simulations is next to zero. Read Superintelligence for more terrifying ideas from Bostrom.
With COVID-19 plunging an additional 97 million people into poverty, billionaires take ever more criticism for their surplus wealth. But Musk is keen to demonstrate that his resources are directed at humanity.
Between Tesla saving lives on the road and reducing man-made climate change, SpaceX safeguarding our species on another planet, and Neuralink side-stepping AI domination, I reckon Elon Musk's long-game is pretty admirable.