Elon Musk is CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, has plans to colonize Mars, and thinks AI may turn humans into its pets. But beyond the hype and his enormous net worth and Twitter presence, here's how Musk's companies are actually taking on ... virtually every industry.
Elon Musk thinks and acts on a larger, more cosmic scale than we’re accustomed to from entrepreneurs. Elon Musk has become a household name synonymous with the future.
Whether he’s working on electric vehicles (Tesla) or sending rockets into space (SpaceX), his larger-than-life reputation attracts its fair share of hero-worship. Musk can get a hundred breathless reporters to write about him and his companies with little more than a concept drawing and a tweet.
His main projects take on almost every major industry and global problem conceivable, and imagine a disruptive fundamental rewiring of that space or sector.
Whether he can deliver on his vast promises is often beside the point. And Musk himself is more than happy to feed into this hype machine.
We’ve decided to take a different kind of look into the Musk ecosystem.
Rather than assess Elon Musk and his companies on promises and hype, we wanted to look at the ways in which his companies are or are not transforming the industries in which they live — with numbers, hard evidence, and concrete demonstrations of disruption.
To do this, we took a deep dive into 8 different industries where Musk and his companies operate to understand how they have begun to change:
- Energy: Read on to learn about how, according to a utilities lobbying group, Musk’s efforts with Tesla and SolarCity could “lay waste to US power utilities and burn the utility business model.”
- Automotive: Musk wants Teslas to not just be affordable — he wants them to do something strange: make money for their owners. They’d do this through next-generation AI and self-driving technology. We investigate how he’s making it happen.
- Telecommunications: While few realize it, Musk’s work in space could revolutionize how we get online, and provide fast, affordable internet for the 4+ billion without access today.
- Transportation: We dig into how the Hyperloop, Musk’s proposed “fifth mode of transportation” that’s a “cross between a Concorde and an air hockey table,” plans to cut down the 6-hour trip from DC to New York to 30 minutes
- Infrastructure/Tunneling: We look at how Musk’s Boring Company is trying to cut costs in the notoriously expensive tunneling industry, where a mile of tunnel costs $1B to dig and each additional inch in diameter costs millions more.
- Aerospace/Airlines: Find out how SpaceX plans to build a “freeway” to Mars by reducing the cost of flying a space shuttle to a fraction of what it is today, and to harness rocket technology for earth travel as well.
- AI: We investigate why Musk, who is certain that the race for AI superiority is the “most likely cause” of WWIII, is investing so much into building better AI.
- Healthcare: We dig into the high-bandwidth, minimally-invasive brain machine interfaces that Neuralink is developing to create futuristic humans.
Elon Musk’s Companies
Elon Musk is the CEO, founder, inventor, or adviser for some of the world’s most-hyped companies, including:
- The Boring Company
- Future of Life Institute
Read on for a deep dive into how Elon Musk and his companies are transforming vital industries.
First with SolarCity and now with Tesla, eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels and instead drawing energy from the “giant fusion reactor in the sky” (aka the sun) has been one of Musk’s priorities for more than a decade.
SolarCity, his first attempt to make solar power mainstream and ubiquitous, was at the forefront of the early 2000’s “solar gold rush.” In some ways it was a failure, but it remains important to understand its trajectory to understand how Musk and Tesla plan to take renewable energy.
SolarCity grew to become the country’s largest provider of residential solar, then suffered some very public financial problems before being purchased Tesla for $2B.
That 2016 acquisition was controversial, with many observers calling it a thinly veiled bailout. And yet Tesla’s continuation of SolarCity’s work has helped make a stronger case for solar than SolarCity was ever able to make on its own.
Elon Musk originally suggested the concept for the company that became SolarCity to his cousins, Peter and Lyndon Rive, in 2004.
The concept for SolarCity emerged out of a simple realization: the clock was running low on fossil fuels. The need for a replacement was emerging fast. “If they started now,” as Men’s Journal reports Musk telling Lyndon in 2004, “They might rule the market.”
Evidence that other forms of energy production were vulnerable was abundant in 2004.
Coal production had been in a plateau since the late 1990s, as had electricity generation from nuclear. And while some predicted a “nuclear renaissance” in the early 2000s, as of 2004, that had not arrived either.
Electricity generation from nuclear power has remained fairly steady since 2000 — though growth has all but stopped.
As of 2004, a majority of the generators of nuclear and coal-based power in the United States were also starting to reach end-of-life status. They would soon need either expensive upgrades or maintenance, or to be refashioned into generators for alternate sources of energy.
The average nuclear or coal installation lasts about 40 years. Today, about 250 gigawatts of our total energy consumption comes from generators that are in imminent need of upgrade or maintenance or replacement.
At the same time, solar was looking like an attractive alternative. Prices on solar power had been dropping for decades, going from $76.67/watt in 1977 to just a few dollars/watt in 2004.
The Swanson Effect observes that the price of building photo-voltaic cells for use in solar power generation tends to fall by about 20% every time the volume of solar panels produced doubles.
The price of installing solar panels on roofs decreased as well — and has continued to do so in the ensuing years.
A SHIFT IN STOCK
Musk and SolarCity took on the last-mile challenge of making solar truly accessible and mainstream.
By 2013, it was the leading installer of solar systems in residential buildings in the United States.
Its key innovation, though, was less on the technology side and more on the accounting side. Before SolarCity, the cost for getting a solar roof installed was between $30,000 and $50,000 upfront. SolarCity pioneered the “solar lease” strategy, which allows homeowners to get their roofs installed for free and pay back the installation costs over time. GTM Research reports that solar leases made up 72% of new solar installations as of 2014.
February 2014 was SolarCity’s stock price peak. But cancellation rates on SolarCity contracts soon spiked to 45% or more, according to Fast Company.
Some critics pointed to SolarCity’s aggressive sales tactics as the culprit. SolarCity salespeople would book installations using savings promises that critics say “bent the truth” on the numbers. Customers, once they realized they wouldn’t be saving as much as they had been promised, cancelled their installations in droves.
All the while, the SolarCity sales team was growing by hundreds of people a week, and they were incentivized to book installations. Revenue, however, was not increasing at nearly the same rate.
Towards the end of 2015, SolarCity promised investors it would right the ship — by reducing its growth rate. Wall Street wearied. After SolarCity announced a particularly bad quarter in February 2016, its stock price dropped by a third.
“This is a company that I regard in a first-class crisis that acts as if everything is fine,” TV anchor Jim Cramer said afterwards. “You know I’m an aficionado of conference calls. You may have found the bottom. Yes, [this is] the worst conference call of 2016.”
TESLA BUYS SOLARCITY
In February 2016, Musk proposed that Tesla buy SolarCity. Tesla was developing the technology to help people charge their Teslas at home and on the road. These so-called Powerwall batteries were being installed in homes and connected to solar generators by third parties. After the deal was approved, SolarCity’s business became organized under the Tesla “Solar Roof” product offering — allowing Tesla to provide end-to-end residential solar energy rather than just the battery.
With a one-story ranch house in California, it’s estimated that Solar Roof customers would save $41,800 over the course of thirty years. That doesn’t factor in state and local tax credits and other types of subsidies and incentives, or the potential property value increase from having a Solar Roof installed.
The Solar Roof, in many instances, saves consumers a net amount of money over time, paying itself back in full and more.
If customers can install systems which make them virtually self-reliant when it comes to energy, what is the role of utilities companies?
“Solar power and other distributed renewable energy technologies could lay waste to U.S. power utilities and burn the utility business model” – Grist Magazine
At a 2017 National Governors Association meeting in Rhode Island, Elon Musk announced that — with solar technology from SolarCity and battery technology from Tesla Powerwall — a 100 square mile patch of land could provide enough power to supply the entire United States.
The first Solar Roof preorders took place in May 2017. They almost immediately sold out “well into 2018” and Tesla announced it would begin installations in the summer. In August, the first installations did take place — at the homes of a few Tesla employees.
Tesla’s factory in Buffalo, “Gigafactory 2,” has had numerous production delays getting the Solar Roofs out to their preordering customers. Tesla brought Panasonic in to help make up some of the shortfall, which in December announced that it’s “getting ready” to start producing the cells needed for the Solar Roof.
The first non-employee installations began in Spring 2018.
The first Solar Roof running
Early results suggest mixed success. Amanda Tobler’s Solar Roof was one of the first to get hooked up to a local energy provider and to start producing electricity for her family. The full roof cost about $50K (including federal tax credits) for about 2K square feet of roofing, of which 40% were solar tiles.
In the summer, the solar panels started producing higher amounts of electricity, getting to the point where, even with A/C use and two electric vehicles charging, Tobler was pumping electricity back into the grid, according to her Twitter account.
In just one week, the solar roof produced 394 kWh of electricity, far more than the average US residential electricity use of ~225 kWh/week.
During this phase, her family used just 2.9kWh from the grid but gave back 101 kWh to other Californians.
Though the technology is promising, Tesla has not been able to roll out the tiles to many buyers. In Tesla’s Q2’18 earnings call, Musk stated that the company “now [had] several hundred homes with the Solar Roof on them,” though the company later clarified that he included roofs that are scheduled for installment or partially installed. However, in May’18, only 12 roofs had been installed and connected to the grid, according to Reuters.
The Tesla Solar Roof has not been the only product to see roll-out struggles, slowdowns, and production problems — so has the Tesla Model 3.
The Model 3’s troubles are just the latest chapter in the Tesla roller coaster ride.
First started in 2003, Tesla was Musk’s second project post-PayPal, and still one of his most ambitious.
Tesla is a car company working to make the traditional car company a thing of the past. It envisions a future of self-driving cars, where the majority of people travel by autonomous Tesla vehicles. It’s also a future where car owners frictionlessly rent out their vehicles to serve as self-driving cabs while they’re not using them.
Production problems have plagued the California-based company, however, causing delivery delays and concerning many Tesla shareholders. The enormity of the hype around Tesla has made the company an attractive target for short sellers, though short sellers were punished more in 2017 than for any other company when they lost $3.7 billion betting against the carmaker.
But Musk’s antics may be catching up with him. In 2018 YTD (as of 9/24/18), Tesla’s stock price has declined about 6%. Even so, many believe that Musk can deliver on his vision, or at least a hefty fraction of it, despite the “production hell” the Model 3 has experienced recently. Musk articulated his vision in a 2016 “Master Plan” post on the Tesla blog:
- Create a low volume car, which would necessarily be expensive
- Use that money to develop a medium volume car at a lower price
- Use that money to create an affordable, high volume car
- Create stunning solar roofs with seamlessly integrated battery storage
- Expand the electric vehicle product line to address all major segments
- Develop a self-driving capability that is 10X safer than manual via massive fleet learning
- Enable your car to make money for you when you aren’t using it
The plan began as promised, with the creation of an expensive, low volume sports car: the original Tesla Roadster.
Musk financed the Roadster’s creation with money he made from starting PayPal. The Roadster was the first domino of the Master Plan, a “catalyst to accelerate the day of electric vehicles.”
Then came the Tesla Model S. It won 2013 “Car of the Year” awards from both Motor Trend and Automobile Magazine. In 2015, it won “Car of the Century” from Car & Driver. It went on to become the best-selling electric vehicle worldwide in both 2015 and 2016 (among models that plug in). But at about $70,000, it still wasn’t the affordable mass market car Musk wanted to build.
Betting on electric vehicles becoming mass market always made sense. Great Britain and France voted to ban diesel and gasoline auto sales starting in the year 2040. China has made it a point that 20% of cars sold in the country should run on some alternative source of fuel by 2025. GM plans to have 20 electric vehicle models on the road by 2023. Volvo has decided to get rid of traditional fuel-powered cars entirely by 2019.
Bloomberg’s growth forecast for electric vehicles over the next several decades.
In this landscape, owning the electric vehicle market begins to look a lot more like one day owning the entire automobile industry.
Today, according to the Department of Labor, Americans pay something like $2,000 a year in gasoline and “motor oil expenses” alone. Freight companies pay as much as $200,000 a year to fuel up each semi. Electric vehicles, though still relying on the grid for energy, could help to reduce that economic burden.
The Tesla Semi will reportedly save drivers up to $200,000 a year on fuel costs.
Then there’s the AI component of Tesla EVs. In 2016, Tesla announced that it would outfit Tesla vehicles with the constituent elements of a machine learning self-driving car program:
- Eight cameras
- Twelve ultrasonic sensors
- A forward-facing radar
- A computer
As car owners drive their Teslas around, these sensors work together to create a lifelike model of the surrounding environment. Those models are uploaded to Tesla, where they’re studied and compared with millions of hours of footage compiled from other Tesla vehicles.
The resulting “Autopilot” technology has already been rolled out to Tesla vehicles, though a driver can’t fall asleep while their Tesla drives for them — yet. Musk anticipates that functionality will be ready around 2019.
This self-driving functionality also includes the ability to control the car via smartphone, as in this example below. A user has his car pick him up under an overhang during a rainstorm through his iPhone.
Autopilot and the summoning technology are available in all three Tesla Model (S, X, and 3).
Within 48 hours of announcing the Model 3 in March 2016, the car — Tesla’s first true mass market electric vehicle — had almost a 250K preorders. That amounted to over $10 billion in potential sales. But production problems would plague the roll out.
Musk promised 1,500 Model 3 units in the third quarter of 2017, up to 20,000 per month by December.
In reality, only 260 units were produced in the third quarter.
In November 2017, the date for hitting 5,000 Model 3 units a week in production was moved from December to March 2018. Production issues for the Model 3 have continued to plague Tesla throughout 2018. By the end of Q2’18, the total number of Model 3s produced stood at 41,030.
The goal of 5,000 cars/week was finally reached in the last week of June, when production for the Model 3 hit 5,031. To help hit the 5,000 goal, Musk:
- Had the team build a tent in two weeks to house an entirely new assembly line
- Was at the facility “24/7” and working 120-hour work weeks to help solve production bottlenecks
- Called employees from other business functions to try and speed up production
Inside the Tesla tent
The goal of 5,000 new Model 3 units/week was hit once, though Bloomberg predicts production has now fallen to 3,000 cars/week with about 90K total units produced by September 2018.
Meanwhile, Musk has been on Twitter, announcing that Tesla would soon develop “intelligent windscreen wipers,” a “disco mode” for its interior lights, and a pickup truck.
Some analysts have advised Musk to stop “over-promising and under-delivering.” But while Tesla’s stock price hadn’t flourished amidst the Model 3’s production problems, it still finished 2017 about 50% higher than it started. However, Musk’s recent tweets about taking the company private among other poor publicity have caused the stock to drop about 20% since highs in August.
Even setting aside the Model 3’s problems, there is a chance that the Tesla machine learning program won’t be successful. There’s a chance the auto dealer lobby will be able to legislate Tesla out of business (Tesla bypasses traditional dealer networks that are supported by legislation in some areas), or that Tesla’s factories will never produce at required levels.
And another existential threat which Musk is already addressing head-on — data.
Every Tesla car on the road communicates back to the company via the AT&T LTE network. Each one sends and receives several gigabytes of data every month, from software updates to driver data. Usually, Musk pursues the “full-stack” approach — such reliance on another company is a danger to the company.
That’s a big part of the thinking behind Starlink, his plan to leverage SpaceX into providing cheap, fast internet for all.
For all the talk of Musk’s innovation, his average project seems to revolve around a set formula — find an old idea that failed because of lackluster technology, and attack it with some of the world’s best engineers.
That’s exactly how Musk and SpaceX are going after the satellite internet industry.
The idea of beaming the internet down from satellites is an old one. Teledesic was founded in the early ’90s to build a constellation of satellites that could provide a wide network of broadband internet. It, and a few other similar companies, failed and went bankrupt given the logistical challenge of getting so many satellites into space and maintaining low latency connections.
Elon Musk first talked publicly about satellite internet in early 2015. In November 2016, SpaceX filed an application with the FCC requesting to launch more than 11,000 broadband satellites over the course of six years and “provide robust broadband services on a full and continuous global basis.”
By the mid-2020s, this new satellite-driven internet service, Starlink, has the potential to become the world’s largest telecommunications provider on Earth — potentially a $1 trillion prize.
SpaceX plans to deliver global broadband internet from orbit, creating a mesh network that could cover the entire globe.
A few months later, SpaceX flew a used rocket into space for the first time. It was a big step in the SpaceX “Master Plan,” part of which is to reuse rockets so that a spacecraft can land and go back into space within hours of releasing its payloads.
It is a technology which, when combined with SpaceX’s broadband aspirations, has the potential to massively disrupt the way telecommunications companies do business.
SpaceX has already brought the cost of a satellite launch down to ~$300 million under what it costs to fly one with Boeing or Lockheed — about $85-95 million compared to $420 million. Its first reusable rocket launch, the Falcon 9, cost less than half of its original launch. There are still various pieces of the puzzle that SpaceX is working on to make rockets fully reusable, a project which Musk projects will be done by late 2018. There’s only one aspect of launching that can’t be reused — the fuel — which costs about $250,000 per mission.
A unit cost of under a million dollars per mission would make it possible to launch thousands of internet satellites with ease. And those satellites, once in space, would blanket the entire Earth — including areas without internet currently — with persistent gigabit, low latency broadband.
Most of the world still doesn’t have access even to a land-locked gigabit internet connection.
There have been a number of prominent satellite internet company flame-outs in the last few decades — Iridium and Teledesic to name two. The Starlink project differs in some significant ways:
- Cost: As discussed above, SpaceX has brought (and continues to bring) the cost of launching a satellite down to a fraction of what it once was
- Speed: Traditional satellite internet caps out at about 25 Mbps, while SpaceX’s could reach 1 Gigabit
- Latency: The amount of time it takes for a data packet to travel between Earth and a satellite — current providers post about 600+ milliseconds (ms) latency, while SpaceX is aiming at about 30ms, a significant improvement
SpaceX put the first two Starlink satellites — Tintin A and B — into orbit on February 2018. As the company drives down the cost of launch, and launches more of its satellites into space, SpaceX has a higher chance of winning versus the current system of land-based broadband networks.
SpaceX received the go-ahead from the FCC in March 2018 to launch 4,425 broadband satellites.
SpaceX wasn’t the only company recently approved to build constellations by the FCC, but they were by far the largest.
The approval does come with two new challenges for SpaceX:
- The FCC requires that half of the satellites be launched within six years, by March 2024 — SpaceX had only planned on launching one-third, or 1,600, by that time. Since the FCC is reserving a band of telecommunications spectrum for the Starlink system, it wants SpaceX to fully deploy the satellites as soon as possible.
- SpaceX also has to provide an updated “de-orbit plan.” This shows how SpaceX is going to deal with all of the space debris from more than 4,000 satellites once they start to deteriorate. With more than 500,000 pieces of space debris already in orbit around the earth as of 2013, the FCC wants to make sure SpaceX isn’t contributing further.
If Starlink took hold, it would revamp satellite internet, which has been relatively stagnant for decades. And it’s not the only “old idea” that Musk and his companies are working on restoring.
One of the oldest ideas in transportation, for example, is transportation by vacuum tube. In 1812, an Englishman named George Medhurst was the first to propose building tunnels underground and shooting passengers through them pneumatically, in pods.
In 2012, Elon Musk was one of the first to convince people that he might be able to bring that vision to reality.
Musk first started talking publicly about the Hyperloop in 2012, at a PandoDaily event in Santa Monica.
This “fifth mode of transport” (after cars, planes, trains and boats) would be a “cross between a Concorde and a railgun and an air hockey table.” Riders would travel in a low-pressure tube, inside pod-like capsules supported by air and powered by a “magnetic linear accelerator.”
Musk’s original model of a Hyperloop pod from SpaceX’s 2013 whitepaper on the topic.
In a whitepaper, he worked with the SpaceX and Tesla teams to test the idea’s feasibility and understand its economics. They found that a “pod” would be able to travel a distance of 30 miles in just 2.5 minutes, cutting a six hour trip to just 30 minutes. And it would only need to cost about $20 USD each way to sustain itself.
It would be cheaper than the high-speed rail California was planning to implement at the time.
Combine pressurized pods with a depressurized tunnel, and you get a form of transportation that’s much faster than any mode conceived before.
As far as speed, the Hyperloop would be the fastest mode of transportation in existence, on average. Commercial airlines are second, traveling at an average speed of 575 mph. The Hyperloop would travel at about 600 mph, or about 3x as fast as the Shinkansen (bullet) train in Japan.
The Hyperloop could have a major impact on a few different industries. For one, the $660B airline industry. With the exception of travel over oceans, the Hyperloop could transport passengers faster and for less money than an airplane.
That speed could alter where and how Americans live, dramatically changing both residential and commercial real estate. One could easily work in Manhattan and live a six-hour drive away, in Burlington, Vermont — with a 30-minute Hyperloop commute.
And it could revolutionize freight shipping. Almost half of all American import goods flow through the ports at Los Angeles and Long Beach. 14,000 truck drivers bring those goods to warehouses and rail yards all across Southern California, according to SCPR. They move about 11,000 containers a day and burn about 68 million gallons of fuel every year, according to PWC.
While you would still need trucks and their human drivers for last-mile delivery, a Hyperloop-like system could transport goods an order of magnitude faster at much lower expense (with far less pollution).
Of course, the Hyperloop has its critics. One major criticism — where will the train go? Achieving the right-of-way necessary to build a train above-ground and the cost of construction has doomed high-speed rail projects for decades. And tunneling technology isn’t there yet.
One day, when Musk was sitting in traffic outside LA, he tweeted out a complaint that became the impetus for the company that would attack this problem head-on.
Traffic is driving me nuts. Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging…
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 17, 2016
And so started The Boring Company.
Construction is a vital field, one that the US is currently not a world leader in. When it comes to spending on construction projects, in 2012, the US only just outspent Greece as a proportion of GDP. It ranked #143 in construction spending, or 13% of GDP, one of the lowest globally. When you look at the largest infrastructure projects currently running, Asia and Europe are the big spenders.
US construction development has plateaued. With The Boring Company, Musk wants to improve the tech behind tunnels and bringing infrastructure capabilities back to the US.
The Boring Company has four active projects. The first is the test tunnel at SpaceX in Hawthorne, California, built solely for R&D.
The problem with tunneling is cost.
The cost of tunneling is approximately $1B/mile. Musk considers that this needs to fall by an order of magnitude to $100M/mile for tunneling to be economically viable.
Reducing cost comes down to two things: size and speed.
The cost of a tunnel is proportional to the cross-sectional area of the tunnel. The wider the tunnel you want, the more you have to pay for it. The NYC Second Avenue Subway tunnel is 23.5 feet wide. A one-lane road tunnel has to be 28 feet. The two-lane A-86 West tunnel in Paris, completed in 2011, is 38 feet wide.
The Boring Company intends to build tunnels of just 14 feet. This is half the diameter of the current required road tunnel, and leads to approximately one-fourth of the cross-sectional area.
Doubling the diameter quadruples the cross-sectional area and quadruples the cost. Reducing the diameter can save millions of dollars.
The Boring Company can drill smaller tunnels because cars won’t drive through — for example, via an inner-city tunnel in LA to relieve the city’s traffic congestion.
Each car in the tunnel will be transported on an electric skate, catapulting it through the tunnel network at 125 mph, rather than driving through it. Musk believes that you could cut the travel time from northern LA to LAX from 30-45 minutes to just six minutes.
The ultimate idea is that Tesla owners can drive around on the surface, find an entrance elevator, and head down into the tunnel. The company is also looking for ways to connect homes directly to the tunnel — in September 2018, the company got approval to build a test garage that links directly with the tunnel system.
The tunnels can be much smaller than traditional tunnels as these will be electric cars on electric skates. No internal combustion engines on site. If you look at the cross-section of the A-86 West tunnel, you can see why this makes a difference.
With all the fumes from the combustion engines, the majority of the space in the tunnel is needed for ventilation. Additionally, tunnels add extra space for larger vehicles and emergency vehicles. By only allowing specific electric vehicles in, these problems are negated.
Musk is also looking to further reduce the impacts of The Boring Company through one of its main assets: dirt.
Boring Bricks will reuse the dirt from tunneling — each one will cost 10 cents or will be free for affordable housing projects.
Recycling waste into building materials could reduce emissions derived from traditional concrete builds, furthering Musk’s vision for a cleaner planet.
The other factor in the high cost of building tunnels is speed. Tunnel boring machines (TBMs), used to drill holes for tunnels, are excruciatingly slow. The Boring Company has a pet snail, Gary, who can currently outpace its machines, moving 14X faster. “Victory is beating the snail,” says Musk. However, the company believes that TBM power can be increased without damaging the equipment, and power output could be tripled with the right power source and thermal management.
The third Boring Company project is a tunnel from Washington, D.C. to NYC. This is a journey that currently takes over four hours to drive. The company is currently planning to go as far as downtown Baltimore, with the eventual goal of making it to NYC.
By tunneling, you can go high speed the whole way. Coupling a Boring Company tunnel with a Hyperloop train, Musk thinks this journey to NY could be made in just 29 minutes. This turns the entire mid-Atlantic region into a massive metropolis.
The Boring Company has recently had a fourth project approved, providing mass transit from downtown Chicago to O’Hare International Airport. Currently, if someone wants to get from downtown to the airport, there are two options — the “L” train (40 minutes), or driving (50-60 minutes).
With the proposed Boring Company tunnel, this travel time will allegedly shorten to 12 minutes. Since The Boring Company will pay for the entire project, Chicago has approved the project. In return, TBC will get all transit and advertisement fees. Unlike the LA project, this tunnel will not transport individual cars, but instead use EV shuttles. Each vehicle will hold 16 people and will depart downtown every 30 seconds. In theory, that is over 46,000 people per day.
For Musk, The Boring Company is little more than a hobby, taking just “2-3 percent” of his time. He bought the TBMs secondhand, and staffs the company with interns. But that shouldn’t downplay the importance of The Boring Company to his other projects.
The first is Tesla. The cost projections for the inner city tunnels are low because they will be exclusively for electric vehicles, reducing the need for ventilation and boosting speed. This will alleviate traffic congestion on the surface streets, transferring traffic underground. When the first tunnels hit capacity, the company plans to add more, creating a network of tunnels under each city. Musk expects more traffic from autonomous, electric vehicles as driving costs plummet due to cost sharing.
The second is also obvious: Hyperloop. These tunnels will have to be larger, but with the advancements learned through the smaller tunneling projects, The Boring Company can increase efficiency in these tunnels as well.
The third is a bit less obvious: SpaceX.
Musk aims to put 1M people on Mars, and tunnels are central to this vision. With a harsh atmosphere, humans may need to live underground. If Musk is going to build a colony on Mars, building a network of tunnels is essential.
On December 15, 2017, SpaceX CRS-13 launched from Cape Canaveral on a resupply mission to the International Space Station. This was the 13th resupply mission on SpaceX’s NASA contract, and the 45th launch of a Falcon 9 rocket to date.
With 18 flights in 2017 alone, even landing a rocket on a moving boat is now routine. But this mission was different. It was the first to exemplify the core feature of SpaceX and how it plans to get us to Mars — it was an entirely reused rocket. The Falcon 9 Full Thrust first stage had previously flown as part of CRS-11 in June. The Dragon capsule had first flown as part of CRS-6 in 2015. This was the first time an entire spacecraft had used flying components.
For Elon Musk, this is the only way space travel makes sense. If rockets become reusable, then space can become the next air travel — a way to span great distances, open to all.
It comes down to the cost-to-weight ratio. The cheaper it is to put tons of equipment into space, the easier it is to launch. If you have to build an entirely new spacecraft each time, however, costs stay sky-high.
At the top end of the price spectrum are the “expendable launch systems,” such as Arianespace’s Vega launcher and Boeing/Lockheed Martin Atlas V (manufactured by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between the two companies). These are big rockets that can put a lot into orbit, but cannot be reused. The Space Shuttle (NASA) sits in the middle of the cost range. The shuttle was designed to be cheap and reusable, but the cost of the solid rocket boosters and main fuel tank that were expendable added to the cost and ultimately restricted the value of the program.
At the bottom of the spectrum sit SpaceX’s Falcon rockets, which have already shown a 3X-5X decrease in cost for getting a spacecraft into the sky. Even so, it needs to get lower.
Musk wants SpaceX to put 1M people on Mars. To do that, he says we need to “improve cost per ton by 5M percent.”
From Musk’s perspective, leaving humanity as a single planet species is crazy, a surefire path to extinction. The further we explore and get away from Earth, the more anti-fragile we become and the less susceptible we are to superhuman AI or the destruction of Earth’s natural resources.
Mars isn’t exactly hospitable, but it is the best of the local options.
The Martian day is similar in length, the temperature range is roughly the same, and the amount of land is almost identical. There is water under the surface and an abundance of important elements in the land and air.
Getting to that “5 million percent” cost improvement requires not just reusable rockets. That is just the first of four components that are needed to get to Mars economically:
- Reuse of all rocket technology. This is what SpaceX has been focused on so far. CRS-13 shows that this is already a reality.
- Refill the rockets in orbit. So much fuel will be needed for a trip to Mars, the rockets will likely need to refuel in orbit.
- The ability to produce propellant on Mars. If we can’t even launch with the fuel to get there, it definitely isn’t cost effective to take the fuel to get back as well. The first thing the new colonists will need to do is build a gas station.
- The ability to produce the right propellant. All of this is predicated on being able to make the right fuel on Mars.
The SpaceX vehicles will use Methalox, a combination of methane and oxygen. To make the methane, SpaceX will collect CO2 from Mars atmosphere (96% of the atmosphere is CO2) and mine water from the surface. Through this, the company can produce all the fuel its needs for the return trip.
The SpaceX plan for creating essentially a space highway between Earth and Mars includes finding a way to generate enough fuel to sustain a return trip on the Red Planet itself.
The vehicle won’t be the Falcon/Dragon combination currently in use. Instead, SpaceX is developing the BFR — the Big Falcon Rocket. Whereas the Falcon 9 can take 22,900 kg to lower earth orbit (LEO), the BFR will be capable of taking 500,000 kgs to LEO. With the Raptor engines the company is currently building, the trip to Mars will take just 80 days.
The Tintin-inspired BFR will be 118 meters tall — Falcon Heavy stands at 70 meters — and will have a diameter of 9 meters. Before it takes anyone to Mars, it plans to bring Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa close to the moon. In September 2018, Musk announced that the Japanese billionaire and his 6-8 artist guests will be the first humans to see the moon up close since the Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972.
Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa paid an undisclosed sum to go to the moon in the BFR.
Initially slated for 2019, SpaceX has pushed back the trip to concentrate on developing the more powerful BFR, with a new launch schedule:
- An unmanned Crew Dragon test will take place in December 2018
- A manned flight carrying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley plans to fly in April 2019
- Maezawa’s moon shot as early as 2023
- Manned Mars trips from 2024 onward
Before BFR is built, the other Falcon rockets are still operating. This is part of Musk’s overall strategy that you see throughout his companies: build something really helpful to use now that finances the crazy stuff of the future.
Switching to reusable rockets reduces the cost of bringing objects into LEO. It is also opening up space exploration to commercial realities. A great point of comparison for the commercial feasibility of SpaceX’s plans is air travel. If Boeing had to write off each 737 after just one flight, a trip from LA to Las Vegas would cost something like $500,000 per person. Because we don’t crash or trash every plane after it’s been used once, Boeing can charge just $43.
This is the kind of cost structure Musk wants to bring to space flight. It’s not going to cost $43 to get to Mars, but it is planned to go from impossible to $300-500K. Expensive, but doable.
When we start to lower the cost of orbital spacecraft, the company comes into the economic reality of not just inter-planetary travel, but intra-planetary travel. As well as using BFR to get from Earth to Mars, Musk also sees a viable business in using BFR to travel from Sydney to Singapore a lot quicker than traditional aircraft.
A space flight route, even sub-orbital, around the globe could be significantly faster than a regular flight. Musk contends that with such a flight trajectory, you can reach anywhere on earth in under an hour. The economics then follow that of commercial flight — originally something only open to the rich, as more people take advantage, the price will come down until a spaceflight trip from London to Hong Kong is similarly priced to a regular flight.
That question of our long-term future is one that Musk takes seriously. Between climate change, nuclear war, and various other types of man-made disaster, few threats loom larger in Musk’s imagination as a problem for the long-term viability of the human race than artificial intelligence.
In September 2017, Musk announced that he believed AI and the competition for superiority would be the most likely cause of World War III. Of all the people to doomsay about AI, of course, Musk has strong credibility — his company OpenAI had just accomplished, one month prior, something no other AI company had ever done before.
7. Artificial Intelligence
In August 2017, during Valve’s Dota 2 tournament, a new top player emerged in the world of online gaming. Over the course of a week, this player beat a string of other top players, including world champions, in one of the toughest online games. And the player had only been playing for six months.
OpenAI first ever to defeat world's best players in competitive eSports. Vastly more complex than traditional board games like chess & Go.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 12, 2017
This tweet paints Musk and his non-profit AI research company, OpenAI, as following in the footsteps of Google with AlphaGo and Facebook’s DarkForest. But for Musk and OpenAI, this isn’t about playing games. As far as he sees it, if AI research continues down its current path, humanity has no future.
AI is now a core component of tech. It is prevalent not only in the obvious places — Siri’s natural language processing, Google’s RankBrain— but in almost all tech sectors.
AI research is progressing at a significant rate, and Musk sees this as an existential threat to humanity. Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and all the companies in our AI 100 (featured above) are each contributing to the upside of AI: higher efficiency, higher productivity, less work for humans, and, ideally, a higher quality of life for humans.
But the race for these upsides is also a race towards a massive potential downside — a super-intelligent general artificial intelligence that is vastly smarter than humans and sees no use in keeping them around.
The purpose of OpenAI is to strengthen AI research. The above companies working on AI are naturally secretive. There is a commercial imperative: though you can read research papers from the DeepMind or Google Brain teams, the work is behind closed doors.
OpenAI wants to not only perform research, but also “occupy the meta level, such as platforms and infrastructure that enable faster research for everyone.” To accomplish this, the company has two core components:
- Research: The foundation has attracted some of the best researchers in the field, promising them the opportunity to work on some of the biggest problems in AI. The group regularly publishes its own research into AI and machine learning. In addition, the team publishes broader ideas on its own site.
- Systems: The team is building platforms to help other AI researchers understand the machines it is building better. For example, the team has built an AI Gym, “a toolkit for developing and comparing reinforcement learning algorithms.”
The overall concept of OpenAI is to bring high-quality AI research into the open with no commercial restraints. As the company says in its introductory blog post, “Since our research is free from financial obligations, we can better focus on a positive human impact.”
Is a super-intelligent AI a real problem? It sounds too sci-fi, even for Musk. Imagining colonies on Mars or self-driving cars is fairly easy. Imagining an AI-induced apocalypse isn’t. Machine learning leader Andrew Ng said, “worrying about superhuman AI is like worrying about overpopulation on Mars”.
But that is kind of Musk’s point. No one is thinking about this. Instead, they are all too focused on the commercial possibilities of AI. They can’t see the potential problems.
Those problems are two-fold:
- An AI will unintentionally do harmful things
- An AI will intentionally do harmful things
The first could be a problem even with current narrow AI. Say we build an AI cleaning bot. All this bot wants to do is make sure the world is as clean as can be. If the bot just wants to make sure everything is clean, it has a few options. The first option is to clean up all the mess. This is the outcome we want and that the AI developer is expecting.
But that isn’t the only option. Another possibility is that it will try and stop the mess occurring in the first place. Humans cause mess. “If there are no humans, there is no mess, so let’s get rid of all humans” increases the AI’s utility function and is a perfectly legitimate solution to the AI’s problem.
This AI safety research is the main focus of OpenAI. In 2016, the company co-authored a research paper into these issues titled Concrete Problems in AI Safety. The paper identified five areas of research that AI researchers need to strongly consider as they push forward with any type of AI:
- Avoid negative side effects. How can we make sure that the AI won’t follow its programming too exactly, so that it will do anything to perform its function? For the cleaning robot, this could be destroying the room in an effort to clean faster.
- Avoid reward hacking. If the AI uses a reward function to determine the right course of action, how can we make sure it doesn’t just try and maximize that reward function without performing the action? For the cleaning AI, this could include switching off its visual system so it can’t see the mess.
- Scalable oversight. How can we make sure than an AI can train safely even when training examples are infrequent? The cleaning robot would know that it has to clean up coffee cups, but how does it learn not to “clean up” the cellphone that’s been left overnight on the desk?
- Safe exploration. Can the AI explore possible outcomes and train without serious repercussions — say, learning how to mop the floor without trying to mop an electrical outlet?
- Robustness to distributional shift. As the data or environment changes, can the AI continue to perform optimally, or at least define its ambiguity and “fail gracefully”? Can the cleaning AI try to clean a factory floor if it learned to clean in an office?
There are already attacks to test the limits of AI. Robustness is a particular concern for narrow AI. How well do they work when you test them outside of their comfort zone. As of today, not well. Image recognition machine learning algorithms often misclassify adversarial examples — images that have specific noise injected into them.
This is a benign example. It’s not hard to imagine a malicious implementation of this kind of hack, however. Imagine an adversarial attack on the AI in your self-driving car that changes “stop sign” into “green light” in its programming. Not only would it be potentially more deadly than something like cutting the brake lines in someone’s car, it would be a virtual attack and therefore (hypothetically) highly scalable.
The core problem with AI safety comes down to one simple question: How can we make sure the AI wants what we want? OpenAI is trying to lead research in this field, and it is not working alone. The concrete problems paper included researchers from Google Brain, Stanford, and UC Berkeley alongside OpenAI.
But with the non-concrete problems of a super-intelligent general artificial intelligence, OpenAI is on its own.
The core behind this worry is the learning rate for AI. The bot that won Dota2 is a prime example of this. From when it was switched on in April, it steadily increased its ability with each iteration.
This graph measures OpenAI’s best bot’s TrueSkill rating — similar to an ELO rating in chess — which is a summary of the bot’s win ratios against the other OpenAI bots it trained against.
What took humans years took an AI months. DeepMind’s recent success with its AlphaZero chess AI took this a step further. It learned how to beat the best chess computers in hours.
Starting from random play, and given no domain knowledge except the game rules, AlphaZero achieved within 24 hours a superhuman level of play in the games of chess and shogi (Japanese chess) as well as Go, and convincingly defeated a world-champion program in each case.
AI learns through reinforcement. The AI plays thousands of games, learning incrementally from each one. AlphaZero ran simultaneously on 5,000 tensor processing units, specially-built processing units designed to run machine learning algorithms using Google’s TensorFlow framework. The learnings from each are combined to produce “a superhuman level of play.”
These are still narrow AI implementations. But an artificial general intelligence, an AGI, could use these techniques to bootstrap itself.
AI is already learning to develop itself.
“A few months ago, we introduced our AutoML project, an approach that automates the design of machine learning models. … [we] found that AutoML can design small neural networks that perform on par with neural networks designed by human experts.” -Google Research Blog
An AGI could test millions of newer, better AGIs, picking the best parameters from each, combining them and immediately becoming smarter. That smarter AGI then starts the process anew. This is the law of accelerating returns. The future is approaching quicker. AI that learns quicker is being developed quicker.
Musk’s point is that we are the emperor at the chessboard. We won’t realize our mistake until it’s over. Within seconds, the AI vastly transcends our abilities.
However, in a Dota 2 rematch in August 2018, it was the humans who came out victorious. In a best-of-three match, “OpenAI Five” lost two games against the top rated human players.
These teams — paiN and Chinese Superstar Team — were superior to other teams the AI had played previously and highlighted some of the limitations of AI. In the analysis of the games, there were two opportunities for better strategy by the AI:
- More risky play. During the game, the commentators pointed out that OpenAI preferred “to win by 1 point with 90% certainty, than win by 50 points with a 51% certainty.” These programs make moves that will result in a steady aggregation of points, but sometimes they miss the opportunity for a move that a human will take.
- Long-term strategy. OpenAI Five played well in the initial minutes of the games but then started to fail. Long-term memory is something that AI programs have yet to master.
These two fundamental problems fight against each other. AI can’t take risks to win quickly but can’t think long-term enough to win slowly. These aren’t just issues with AI gaming — they are the fundamental problems of AI overall. Humans can take an action now knowing the reward is hours, months, even years away, while AI can’t (yet).
With OpenAI, the plan is to make the public sufficiently aware of the threat that AI could represent so that it will be regulated and controlled proactively. OpenAI isn’t, however, the only iron Elon has in this fire. He’s also investing in a hedge against the bet that humanity will save itself from AI in time.
It’s called Neuralink — and the idea is to digitally augment humans before we get replaced.
Most of Musk’s endeavors exist on a big scale: spaceships to Mars, tunnels from DC to New York, electric car-producing factories all across the globe.
Neuralink is an utterly different beast. It’s about the microscopic rather than macroscopic, and the mental rather than the physical world. But because of that, it has to rank as the most challenging, and thus most exciting, of Musk’s current companies.
Neuralink was also unveiled without the fanfare of many of Musk’s other companies. The project was announced in an article in the Wall Street Journal in March of 2017.
“Building a mass-market electric vehicle and colonizing Mars aren’t ambitious enough for Elon Musk. The billionaire entrepreneur now wants to merge computers with human brains to help people keep up with machines.“
Neuralink is Musk’s project to build a brain-machine interface (BMI) that will link human brains directly to computers. BMIs have existed in research for decades. But even though human trials have started, two big problems still exist with current BMIs:
- The bandwidth of the systems is low. We have billions of neurons but BMIs only record a few neurons at any given time. This makes using them for any high-fidelity system difficult. You could move a cursor across a screen with your brain, but you couldn’t play the violin with your mind.
- The invasiveness of the interface is high. The implant requires neurosurgery and a constant, hardwired link into the brain. This means that it is restricted to people with a live-saving need, as the hardwired link increases the chance of brain infection.
These are the two problems Neuralink is setting out to solve in the short-term. The company wants to build a high-bandwidth, minimally-invasive BMI that will be FDA approved so it can start to use in real-life patients within a few years, and everyone else soon after. Musk sees this as the only way the human race will survive given the ongoing encroachment of AI.
As Musk sees it, AI advancement is driven by capitalism. Companies like Amazon need to invest millions into developing its AI because if it doesn’t, Google and Microsoft and Facebook will, and so on. The question is not if this will lead to the creation of an artificial intelligence that can leave regular humans in the dust, the question is when.
“Even in the [most] benign scenario,” Musk says, “We would be pets.” The worst-case scenario would be the complete end of mankind.
One of Musk’s approaches to this problem is OpenAI — working to make sure we proactively regulate artificial intelligence.
With Neuralink, he’s coming at AI from a different angle. The goal is to augment the human level of intelligence and preemptively mesh us with the digital world so we can build ourselves up before an AI can surpass us.
Between here and there, Neuralink has the potential to help people suffering from stroke, neurodegeneration, cancer, spinal cord injuries, amputations, and dozens of other healthcare issues. These conditions afflict millions of people every year and costs the healthcare industry millions to treat. And if the Neuralink project is successful, years of expensive treatment and therapy (and in many cases risky surgeries) could be replaced with a simple microscopic brain implant.
18 months after launch, the company’s website still only consists of a single page highlighting the roles that need to be filled at the company, including machinists, electrical engineers, and software engineers.
The eclectic team the company is trying to build gives a brief glimpse into this multidisciplinary effort needed to understand the brain and engineer a patch for it.
BMIs are brain implants, usually a chip of electrodes a few millimeters square, that are surgically implanted directly into the brain.
The electrodes pick up the electrical activity from brain cells, neurons, and transmit them to a computer. While the brain activity is being recorded, the animal (or human) performs a task such as moving a joystick to guide a cursor around on the screen.
The scientists can then use algorithms to correlate the brain activity to the movement, teaching a computer that when certain neurons fire, the cursor should move left. Then you can turn the joystick off and move the cursor purely through the brain activity. Then you have a BMI.
The driving force behind BMIs in the past decade has been the military. As the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) became widespread in Afghanistan and Iraq, limb loss became more common among soldiers. Body armor improved, meaning soldiers were less likely to die in the blast, but extremities weren’t protected. From 2000 to 2015, approximately 1,600 soldiers had amputations.
Helping these soldiers was the goal of DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics program. Funding was given to research groups around the US with specialties in neuroscience, biomedical engineering, and robotics to develop new implants, new prosthetics, and new understandings of how to control the latter with the former.
Substantial progress was made, with human trials starting and patients capable of both controlling and sensing robotic arms:
The problems Neuralink need to solve include bandwidth and invasiveness. The bandwidth problem can be easily visualized through this graph:
There are about 85B neurons in the human brain. Up to 2013, the record for the most neurons recorded simultaneously from an animal brain was approximately 500. About 2,000 are possible over time from a single implant.
Only a fraction of all possible information is extracted by current BMIs. Millions of neurons are involved in the decision and movement when you move your arm to pick up a cup of coffee. To allow an amputee with a prosthetic limb the same degree of control as they had with their original limb requires the ability to record from significantly more neurons at one time.
Once a human is hooked up to a BMI, a learning phase starts. The person learns how to control the robotic arm with the limited bandwidth. The algorithms learn which neurons are signals and which are noise and get better at processing the information. The two symbiotically adjust until the person incorporates their new “arm.”
The second problem has more variables. The brain is usually cocooned away from the world in a sheath of meninges and sterile fluid. It does not like invasion. Non-invasive BMIs exist, but they have even lower bandwidth as they can’t discern the individual neuronal activity needed for close robotic control.
The Neuralink team is looking for ways to minimize the invasiveness of its BMI while still having high bandwidth. Wireless is an obvious choice, but presents its own problems:
- How do you get power to the device? Wireless radios are power-hungry and processing and sending high-bandwidth information will also require significant power.
- How do you dissipate heat from the device? Chips, radios, and batteries all produce heat. The brain can only heat up by a degree of two before damage occurs.
Additionally, the electrodes themselves cause damage as they are inserted. The brain’s natural defenses literally encapsulate them over time, cutting them off from the rest of the brain and rendering them useless.
These are all the issues that BMI researchers have faced over the past two decades. But the team assembled by Musk at Neuralink includes people who have completely novel ideas to overcome these issues. DJ Seo has developed “neural dust,” tiny silicon sensor nodes that could be spread throughout the cortex. Elsewhere, researchers are developing a “neural mesh” that can be injected into veins and travel up to the brain and record neural activity through blood vessel walls.
Musk himself calls these implants “neural lace” and imagines a mesh sitting over your cortex, acting as a digital layer above your animal limbic system and your human cortical system.
Neuralink is by far the most secretive of Musk’s companies so far. From the single page website to the lack of news, the company is operating like a stealth startup. But during his now infamous podcast with Joe Rogan in September 2018, Musk said:
“I think we’ll have something interesting to announce in a few months … that’s better than anyone thinks is possible. Best case scenario, we effectively merge with AI.”
For now, the main beneficiaries of Neuralink could be the 300K people in the US living with spinal cord injuries, the 5.5M Americans living with Alzheimer’s, and the 2.5M with stroke or traumatic brain injuries. Each could be treated with an implant that restores motor, memory, or other cognitive functions.
Make it Better
Each of Elon Musk’s companies is formulated on an existential bet on our future:
- Tesla: Fossil fuel-powered cars will soon be a relic of the past and electric vehicles will reign supreme — and alternative power will be cheap and accessible
- SpaceX: Being a multi-planetary civilization will be highly preferable to being a single-planet civilization
- OpenAI: A super-intelligent AI would likely be the end of all life on Earth, and we might not even realize we’re building it until it’s too late — so it’s better that we prevent it now
These are some of the biggest bets that anyone can make, let alone an entrepreneur. That’s important to remember when you look at the various industries that Musk and his companies are disrupting.
These companies represent huge possible disruptions, some sized in the trillions of dollars, because their potential payoff is much more than winning a specific vertical or market — its the future of humanity itself.
And yet behind those high stakes and innovations is a relatively “boring” fundamental strategy: rather than invent something entirely new, take something old and make it better.
Across industries, Musk and his companies aren’t disrupting the state of play by inventing new things out of whole cloth — they’re taking ideas that failed, and bringing them back to life.