‘AI poses a far greater threat than nuclear warheads’

SXSW 2018: The Tesla and SpaceX founder also talks Mars bars and tunnels

In a surprise appearance at SXSW Interactive 2018, renaissance man Elon Musk talked space, electric cars, how he is reinventing tunnels – because no one else will –and how opposition to his dystopian views on AI is rooted in smart people's discomfort with the idea that machines could ever be more intelligent than them.

The Irish Times received an email late on Saturday night with an invitation from SXSW to register for entry to an unscheduled interview the following morning with everyone’s favorite billionaire, Elon Musk. ‘Cancel all my scheduled appointments,’ this reporter said to no one ever.

Regardless, this was not an opportunity to be missed. The South African-born Canadian American engineer and entrepreneur is widely credited for resurrecting mankind’s will for space exploration, while simultaneously taking the electric car out of the automobile industry wilderness and making his brand of Tesla vehicles good enough so as to finally compete with conventional, petrol-powered cars.

When first introduced, Mr Musk danced onto the stage to “My Little Buttercup” from the soundtrack to comedy classic, The Three Amigos.


All questions were fielded by audience members, sent as live tweets to the man responsible for interviewing Musk, film director Jonathan Nolan, a long time friend and admirer of the founder and CEO of SpaceX.


The first question to appear on the huge screen illustrated the support Mr Musk clearly has from many in the public for his endeavors into space: ‘Mars. How can we help?’, it read.

He began by encouraging the public to maintain their continued support for what he and his team at SpaceX were trying to do. But making intergalactic space travel a reality isn’t something most of us can really ‘help’ with. Mr Musk used this opportunity to lay out the current challenges facing any mission to the moon.

“The fundamental issue is cost of access to space,” he said. “Rockets are super expensive and are spent after one mission. Reusability, therefore, is the biggest obstacle we must overcome to reduce the cost of space travel.”

The whole world watched in awe last month as SpaceX successfully launched a cherry-red Tesla Roadster embedded in the capsule of a payload rocket. It was quite a spectacle to see the ‘astronaut’ mannequin appearing to calmly drive the car with one arm hanging out the side as it floated through space.

The real achievement, however, took place back down on earth when two out of the three booster rockets used in the original launch landed in tandem right on target. The mission, codenamed Big Fu*cking rocket (BFR) was a well needed boost, all puns intended, for Mr Musk and his team.

We had seen three consecutive failures of the Falcon rocket mission in 2008 alone,” he said. In the same year, his electric car company, Tesla almost went bankrupt and Musk got divorced.

Things have turned around for him since 2008, one of the “most difficult” of his life and now intergalactic space travel is back on track. “When we can build a reliable, reusable rocket, we’ll have a point of proof,” he says. “Many companies just don’t think it’s possible but if we prove them wrong, they’ll up their game and start building interplanetary transportation of their own.”

Dad jokes

Once we can transport people and materials into the solar system, a tremendous amount of entrepreneurial resources will then be needed. “Mars will need iron foundries, pizza joints, nite clubs and bars – Mars bars!” he laughs. All the other dads in the room laughed too.

While his penchant for 'dad jokes' isn't all that impressive, Mr Musk's willingness to disrupt major industries through sustainable, affordable alternatives is what makes this tech billionaire stand out from peers like Amazon's Jeff Bezos or Facebook's Mark Zuckerburg.

In the energy industry he has been pushing domestic solar power use aggressively in the consumer market through his company, Solar City, and most recently, he has decided to challenge the status quo holding back major infrastructural projects. The oddly-named Boring Project stemmed from Mr Musk's frustration at the failure of tunnels as a means for efficient transportation etc. "We put the 'O' in Boring," he joked to a puzzled audience who laughed, despite not getting it, hanging on as they were to his every word.

“I had been talking about tunnels for years and years and the opportunities they provided for transportation in particular. I was saying ‘build tunnels, please someone build tunnels’. After years of begging people, there were still no tunnels. So I decided to start building them myself.”

The Boring Project has a long way to dig before it becomes the latest reason Mr Musk is brought up at the dinner table as his focus remains on advancing space travel and bringing more electric cars to market.


There is one other technological area he is known for, but for very different reasons. Mr Musk is one of the most high profile sceptics of AI technology and the dangers it poses to society if left unchecked.

“Several AI experts think they know more than they do,” he says. “In general people are smarter than we think they are. But smart people who know they’re smart have a tendency to define themselves by their intelligence meaning they don’t like the idea that machines could ever be smarter than them, which is a fundamentally flawed position.

“AI advancing rapidly and is capable of so much more to come. I’m not normally an advocate of regulation, but there needs to be a public party with insight and oversight to confirm everyone is developing AI safely. It poses a far greater threat than nuclear arms and yet no one would ever suggest anyone should be allowed to build a nuclear warhead.”

SXSW Interactive continues until Tuesday 13th March.

John Holden

John Holden

John Holden is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in science, technology and innovation