“I feel fairly confident, in about six years from now,” SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk answered when asked to give a realistic timeline of when humans could travel to Mars. “If we get lucky, maybe four years. We want to try to send an uncrewed vehicle to Mars in two years.” Musk reiterated that he wanted to develop technologies that make it possible for humans to make life multi-planetary.
Musk was in Berlin, Germany, to receive the Axel Springer Award on 1 December. Named after one of Germany’s largest media companies, the Axel Springer Award is in its fifth year. Previous recipients of the award include US scientist and author of ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ Shoshana Zuboff (2019), Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (2018), World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee (2017), and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (2016). Looking at the relatively short list of winners, it almost feels like the award recognizes not just Big Tech icons but also those who are critical of policies adopted by these very same Big Tech companies.
As part of the award ceremony, Musk was in conversation with Axel Springer CEO Mathias Doepfner and spoke at length about his ambitions to put humans on Mars.
“I am optimistic about the future on Earth, but it is important to have life insurance for humanity,” said Musk, calling his Mars ambition not a Plan B for humanity but just something exciting and inspiring for society to look forward to. Musk’s SpaceX has demonstrated its excellence when it comes to its space ambitions. After sending two astronauts to the International Space Station earlier this year, NASA has now certified SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon human spaceflight system for crew missions to and from the ISS.
Musk seemed to be in a mood to give timelines to some of his projects. Travel to Mars – in six years; Fully autonomous cars – in ten years; Electric vehicles – 70-80 percent of all cars would be electrified in ten years, and so on.
Not interested in a hostile takeover
Tesla’s market cap (over $500 bn) is far greater than that of German carmakers such as Volkswagen, BMW, Audi, and others, despite selling a fraction of the number of cars being sold by incumbents. On being asked if he would consider buying a German carmaker, Musk didn’t respond with an outright “no.” While he stressed the fact that he wouldn’t want to indulge in any hostile takeover of any car maker, Tesla would be open to discussions if any car makers approached them with the right proposal.
Talks of acquiring car brands aside, Musk definitely wants a larger share of the European market. Ever since he announced the opening of Gigafactory 4 near Berlin, he has received rockstar-level receptions in the country not just by Tesla fans but also by state authorities. Gigafactory 4, also called Giga Berlin, is expected to commence operations in July 2021, making batteries, battery packs, and powertrains in addition to assembling the Tesla Model Y. In a land that boasts of big auto names such as BMW, Volkswagen, Audi, Mercedes and more, Musk claims that Giga Berlin will see a capacity of 500,000 cars by the end of 2022.
But Giga Berlin, despite its fast pace of construction, has its fair share of opponents. The land on which the factory is being constructed has yet to receive environmental clearances, and over 400 objections have been presented to the state’s environment agency.
RNA Micro factories and Neuralink
On his last visit to the under-construction Gigafactory in October, Musk even stopped by at CureVac, the south-Germany based biopharmaceutical company working on a COVID-19 vaccine. This is the same company that former US President Donald Trump wanted to buy to make vaccines exclusively for the US.
A subsidiary of Tesla is manufacturing RNA micro-factories — also known as portable molecular RNA printers — for Curevac to aid it in its vaccine production. According to Musk, synthetic RNA and DNA can turn the search for curing diseases into a “software problem.” Musk even went to the extent of saying synthetic RNA and DNA could even help in slowing down aging in the future.
Back in September, Musk demonstrated what he called “a Fitbit for your skull” – basically an experimental prototype of a neural implant in the brains of three pigs to monitor their brain activity. This was the first demo of a company Musk co-founded in 2016, Neuralink.
Speaking about the short term goals of Neuralink, Musk said, “In the short to mid-term, Neuralink is just going to help cure brain and spine injuries. In fact, our first implanted products would be for people with quadriplegia, allowing them to control a computer or a phone, just by using their mind.” Musk did not provide any timeline for this innovation.
Digital super-intelligence more dangerous than a nuclear bomb
Musk also expressed his concerns about artificial general intelligence, calling for government oversight in AI developments to ensure human safety is taken care of. “Digital superintelligence has the potential to be more dangerous than a nuclear bomb.”
One noticed a sense of caution when Musk was questioned about AI and how China views it. Musk noted that it wasn’t fair to claim that China would throw caution to the wind and said that from the discussions he had with the Chinese authorities, they seemed concerned with AI as well. “They are more likely to have more, stronger oversight than other countries, I feel,” said Musk. Tesla’s Gigafactory 3 is located in Shanghai, China.
On being asked about the biggest problems facing the world, Musk mentioned AGI and ‘population collapse’. According to Musk, lower birth rates would lead to a situation where the average ages were higher and that “the youth are de-facto enslaved, taking care of the old population.”
Speaking on how he would assess the success of Tesla and SpaceX, Musk said, “If you look back from the future and say what’s the fundamental good of Tesla, I’d say you should probably assess us by understanding how many years Tesla accelerated the advent of sustainable energy. For SpaceX, it would be, to what degree did we improve the probability of humanity being a space-faring civilization.”