Walter Isaacson (New Orleans, 1952) greets smiling, relaxed. Is he finally resting?, one thinks after knowing that he, former CNN executive, long-time journalist, writer of best-selling biographies – that of Steve Jobs is a good example – has spent two years, two years!, at the side of the always controversial Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX, Twitter and more) to profile him in his new book. Today, technology rules and Musk, “for better and for worse,” he says, is, here, the “most important private figure on the planet.” Despite “his chaos.”
He recites this phrase from Musk in his book: “If I don’t succeed, humanity will die.” Does he want to be recognized as a great innovator or a great revolutionary leader?
I think ever since he read comics as a kid, he’s had a complex of almost being a superhero. And he makes a joke of it, because he says: when you read comics the heroes try to save the world by wearing their underpants outside, but at least they try to save the world. He has a great image of himself as someone who can take humans to Mars and the era of electric vehicles and make artificial intelligence safe.
Do you ever doubt?
One of his superpowers, but also one of the things that makes him so controversial, is that when he believes in a mission, he doesn’t hesitate, and he doesn’t have many people around who can tell him no. However, he can process information and change his mind. For example: For the past four years he has insisted that Tesla’s next car will be a robotaxi, autonomous, without a steering wheel. The people around him told him: “It’s ridiculous.” Finally, a few months ago, he decided: “Okay, we will make the next generation car a robotaxi, but also a normal one with a steering wheel. It will be very economical to do it on the same platform.” He so he changes his mind.
After two years of living close to it, can you say it’s as chaotic as it seems on Twitter?
His life is not as chaotic as you think, but even more chaotic than you think. There are many Elon Musks. There are times when he is charming and funny and others when he is totally absurd, childish and impetuous and others when he is in engineer mode and can focus almost fanatically on a problem. Then there are also times when he comes into demon mode.
And he says that comes from his childhood.
He had a very violent childhood. His father was psychologically hard on him.
And his father told him that this is reflected in his autocratic behavior. Is that so?
Since he was little he learned to love the dramatic. One of his partners, in fact, told me that she associates drama with love and if things don’t happen too dramatically, she pushes them away. His mother told me that Elon is in danger of becoming his father, and he was in very dark moods. You see that in him. When things are calm and going well, he almost seems to want to cause drama.
For SpaceX he uses ideas taken from the Karate Kid movies, and laughs about it
There are many Elon Musks, but is there one that surprises and surprises?
He has silly, immature and funny moments, but he turns them into something useful, like the stick arms on the rocket launch tower to catch them and reuse them immediately: it’s an idea straight out of the Karate Kid movies and he laughs about it . It’s the weird things about Musk that I find fascinating.
He explains that Musk likes to read about military history, World War I and Napoleon, seeking corporate leadership advice. Only corporate?
That’s why when asked about his management techniques, he believes that designers and engineers should have their desks right next to the assembly line, so they can see every little detail. He believes that building a product, such as a rocket or an electric vehicle, is difficult, but what is really important is finding the manufacturing process and the factories that will make those vehicles or products in large quantities. And the manufacturing techniques for it have certain rules. Number one: question every requirement. The second: leave only what is essential.
Musk has turned to the right in part because of the change seen in his daughter Jenna
We know that he does not like unions, he does like long work hours as long as necessary (even in times of covid), or the privatization of NASA and other key public industries… He is even defined as the latest incarnation of capitalism . Is he aware of it?
Yes of course. Watch his oldest son, whom he named Xavier after his favorite character in the X-Man comics, transition and become Jenna, his daughter, and become Marxist, anti-capitalist, very anti-rich, change his last name. and refuses to have anything to do with him. That’s part of the drama in his personal life that I think has an effect on his afterlife and the reason she has moved politically to the right.
And does it drive that image of him?
He is very tough and wants people to work very hard. One of his rules is: ‘I don’t expect people to do things I wouldn’t do’, so sometimes he lives in the factory and sleeps under his desk because he also believes that very focused private companies can do things more faster than the Government. For example, he has been criticized for believing that space travel should be more privatized. But NASA had not been able to put an astronaut into orbit for twelve years. The same goes for Starlink, the satellites. He placed almost 4,000 and created an internet communication system in low orbit. Well, the publicly funded satellites were destroyed by the Russians when they invaded Ukraine and so were those from Viasat and other companies, so theirs was the only one good enough not to be destroyed. Does that give you too much power? Yeah.
And Musk even turned off his satellites to prevent a Ukrainian attack against the Russian fleet in Crimea for fear of a ‘mini Pearl Harbor’ that would lead to a nuclear response from Putin. Does this confirm his now powerful position even in what he never thought of, such as war?
The situation in Crimea was the best example of the power it now has over what happens in the world. It bothered even him and he made a deal with the US military to sell them a military version of Starlink, Starshield, which they would control in his place.
He runs Tesla, SpaceX, and now Twitter, an area where there are concerns about his stance on freedom of expression, its effects on political polarization, etc. Are you really interested in politics?
He has become more interested in politics in the last three years and has leaned to the right, contrary to what he calls the progressive and woke mentality. What does that mean? What is his political idea? Well, it’s like asking yourself ‘what time is it?’, because it changes so much. But he knows what he thinks it means, and he took Twitter and put his thumb on the scale to allow more conservative and right-wing voices on the platform. Although I don’t think he has political ambitions and will never run for office.
Its uncomfortable role in the Ukrainian war is an example of its global power
Reading him leads us to conclude that, for Musk, the end always justifies the means. For example, he explains how he unplugged Twitter’s central servers with a knife and without prior warning despite its danger. Should we therefore fear it?
Musk focuses his mind on big missions, on the end, on how to get us to electric vehicles, to Mars, or to ensure that artificial intelligence is safe. Driven by a mission, he sometimes breaks the rules, sometimes like a kid in school punching another in the face, and sometimes he can be dangerous and that’s why it’s good that we have legislators and regulators. Elon Musk is not someone who generally seeks balance and that can make him seem problematic. On the other hand, we need to make sure he can figure out how to advance electric vehicles or space travel. He must maintain a balance.
Musk started OpenAI with Sam Altman but he is out today. Once it is assured that artificial intelligence will be the future of technology… It is surprising. Has he ever justified it in private?
He split from Sam Altman and OpenAI because he felt it should be more open and faster in order to protect the human species from uncontrolled robots, and so he founded his own company, called xAI, which will make artificial intelligence robots that will compete with ChatGPT, but also self-driving cars and other real-world applications. The most interesting of all is Neuralink, where he implants chips in the human brain that will connect directly with computers, complementing each other, although always tied to our intention.
The threat of uncontrolled robots worries Musk
Does Musk fear the steps that China takes in this as the White House seems to fear?
He believes that China could overtake us in artificial intelligence, but also that the best way to avoid it is not to fight with China but to go faster with our own technology. He feels the United States has been too confrontational with Beijing and that our economies are connected. Furthermore, he believes that innovation comes from questioning authority, and that in China most people do not question it but learn to accept it. That’s why he sees Europe and the United States as naturally more innovative, because young people know how to question authority and rules.
Speaking of authority, Musk, along with Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg or Google’s Sergei Brin and Larry Page, lead many of the key industries of an almost 100% digital society. When talking to each other, are they aware of their power and the consequences of their decisions?
No, but as we strive to ensure that we are at the forefront of technology, sometimes the people who invent the technology, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, are not necessarily the best ones to control that technology.
In the heart of Silicon Valley
Elon Musk’s shadow for two years
Walter Isaacson’s reputation precedes him. It is not the first time that he has stepped into biographical territory, although with Elon Musk he wanted everything different. “When writing this book I told Musk that I wanted to be by his side for two full years. He wanted to go to all the meetings. I wanted to walk through the factories with him. I wanted to eat with him. I wanted to sit and listen,” he explains.
Said and done, as Musk himself announced on Twitter directly. “He takes things to the limit,” Isaacson adds.
The interviews are there, with him and his partners, family and more, but also what it means to be his shadow month after month between rockets, electric cars, work meetings and chats with Bill Gates, several houses, several families…
In the end he is left with a portrait full of black and white, with few grays. Of course, after previously publishing works on Albert Einstein or Leonardo Da Vinci, Henry Kissinger and the scientist Jennifer Doudna or a best seller About Steve Jobs, he concludes: “There are three great innovators in current times. One was Jobs, who helped introduce us to the digital world along with Bill Gates and others. Second is Doudna, which brought us into the era of editing our own DNA. “Musk is on par with the other two by taking us into the era of space adventures, sustainable energy, electric vehicles, artificial intelligence.”
Despite everything, always add.
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