Wrapped around all four corners of the Austin Convention Center, a line of people waited anxiously for a golden ticket—their chance to get a glimpse of Elon Musk, the “modern-day Ironman.” A last-minute addition to the SXSW conference, Musk was easily the biggest name on the program this year.
A few hours later, hundreds, if not thousands, of people filled into the Austin City Limits Live music hall for an impromptu Q & A led by his friend, Westworld director Jonah Nolan. At the event, Musk answered a range of questions from the audience, offering updates on his new rocket, insight on how to save humankind from World War III, and warnings about the dangers of artificial intelligence. He even revealed how his now-flourishing companies, Tesla and SpaceX, were once on the brink of failure.
Musk told the audience that SpaceX has already started working on the first interplanetary reusable rocket—BFR (aka Big Fucking Rocket)—that he wants to take to Mars. The business magnate said he expects BFR to take short flights early next year, but only after conceding that his timelines haven’t always been accurate, a reference to the delays plaguing new Tesla models. Though it’s expected to be twice as powerful as the Saturn V rocket, the BFR will cost less to operate than early Falcon 9s.
Once the technology arrives, a challenge SpaceX may face is finding enough people to risk a trip to Mars. Joking about creating a campaign for bringing people to the Red Planet, Musk said “it’s difficult, dangerous, and there’s a good chance you’ll die. But there is excitement for those who survive.” For Musk, it’s essential that humans plant a “seed” on another planet in case of World War III.
But Earth may soon have bigger problems than a potentially devastating conflict.
Musk said the risks of AI are more dangerous than nuclear warfare. He hit out at AI experts for thinking they “know more than they do” and discounting a singularity scenario where AI overrun our planet. Musk called AI a “very serious danger to the public,” one that keeps him up at night. The co-founder of OpenAI, a non-profit designed to protect humankind from this emerging technology, Musk campaigned for a public body that has insight and oversight to ensure everyone is building AI safely. Echoing a previous interview with Y Combinator, Musk said figuring out AI is the single most important thing for humans.
Perhaps the most surprising information Musk revealed at the event is that both SpaceX and Tesla survived “by the skin of their teeth.”
Musk said he only had around $30 to $40 million left by 2008 and needed to make a difficult decision: put all the money into one company and let the other die, or split it between the two and risk them both failing.
“If things went a little bit the other way, both companies would be dead,” Musk said. “When you put blood, sweat, and tears into something, it’s like a child. Am I going to let one starve to death? I couldn’t do it, so I split the money between the two. Fortunately, they both pulled through.”
He also said things were coming along nicely with the Boring Company, the tunneling company he designed to build an underground transit system. Musk recently announced that the tunnels would prioritize pedestrians over cars. He also addressed the elephant in the room: the flamethrower his company sold as merch. Musk said people who bought one “will not be sorry, but maybe you will. It won’t be boring.”
Oh, and then this happened:
— Phillip Tracy (@Phillip_Tracy) March 11, 2018
The packed event on Sunday took place less than a day after the business magnate joined a Westworld panel alongside the show’s creators, Nolan and Lisa Joy. Musk worked with the directors to create a short film about SpaceX’s recent Falcon Heavy launch and Spaceman, the space-faring dummy flying his Roadster to Mars.