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AI / Tech Culture

VivaTech: The Secret of Elon Musk’s Success? ‘Crystal Meth’

At a conference in Paris, the owner of Twitter and CEO of Tesla and SpaceX got silly and serious about his business adventures, "A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," and the future of AI.
Jun 20th, 2023 9:32am by
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Elon Musk was soaking up the adulation Friday at Paris’ Viva Technology, Europe’s largest startup and tech conference. In a four-day confab that began Wednesday, VivaTech has featured French President Emmanuel Macron, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, and Yann LeCun, a Meta scientist and Turing Award winner.

But Musk was clearly the star invitee, with the keen interest in his appearance necessitating a move from a smaller venue to the 4,000-seat Dôme de Paris, most frequently used for musicals. (His mother, Maye Musk, was in the audience.)

To hoots of approval from the audience, a fawning Maurice Lévy, chairman of the Publicis Group, an advertising company, invited Musk to sing and dance, if he wanted. Lévy then said, “Your name is a brand. It’s a brand for innovation, for ambition … ”

“For perfume,” Musk interrupted.

Levy continued, “You have been always proven right.”

“Not always,” Musk chuckled.

Then Lévy asked his first question: “Will you still be right with Twitter?”

“Sure, it was expensive,” Musk answered, to audience laughter. (The CEO of Tesla and SpaceX paid a reported $44 billion for the social media outlet. In May, the asset manager Fidelity marked down its equity stake in the company, placing the overall value of the X Holdings Corp., Twitter’s parent company, at roughly $15 billion.)

“Listen, if I’m so smart, why did I pay so much for Twitter?” A question he never answered during the hourlong conversation.

Tesla: ‘I Thought It Would Fail’

Some subjects he did address during the interview — which included questions from representatives from large French corporations (L’Oréal, Orange, LVMH), and, in an impromptu and chaotic session at the end, from the audience — follow. (Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.)

What drives him: “Crystal meth is the answer. If you think Red Bull gives you wings. … Just kidding, for the record.

“The companies still have a lot to do for their core mission. For electric vehicles, sustainable energy, it’s still, less than 1% of the global fleet is electric. So you’ve got about 2 billion cars and trucks on the road, but still less than 20 million are electric at this point. So this is a long way to go for sustainable energy, for sustainable energy generation.

“[For] the Tesla mission, I think we’re we’ve made a lot of progress, but still it’s a lot more ahead. Then SpaceX, the goal is a big goal, but we want to try to make life multi-planetary, to extend life beyond Earth. And I think this is important for a number of reasons.”

The “light of consciousness”: “It appears that we might just be the only consciousness, at least in this galaxy. And if so, that’s kind of a scary prospect, because it means that the light of consciousness is like a tiny candle in a vast darkness. And we should do everything we can to prevent that candle from going out. [applause from the audience] So that means obviously taking the actions to ensure that Earth is good, that Earth is safe and secure for civilization.”

Growing up and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”: “The thing that was maybe most significant from a philosophical standpoint was that when I was about maybe 12 or 13, I had somewhat of an existential crisis where I was like, What is the meaning of life? Is life just meaningless? Why are we here? What does it all mean?

“And I read a lot of books on religion and philosophy and then ultimately, I read this book ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,’ which is great. That book is really a philosophy book that’s disguised as humor. And the point that [author] Douglas Adams makes is that the real difficulty is understanding what questions to ask about the answer that is the universe.”

What he learned from Douglas Adams: “It’s essentially a philosophy of curiosity, of saying, What can we do to find out more about the nature of the universe and the meaning of life? And so that’s the foundational element. And then from there you say, OK, well, if we want to find out the meaning of life, we have to expand the scope and scale of consciousness. We have to go out there, and we can explore the stars to know what questions to ask about the universe and understand the universe.

“It’s from that sort of core philosophy that these companies arise — in most cases. You might say, How does Twitter help with that?”

His prediction of Tesla’s failure: “There was a need for Tesla because at the time of starting Tesla, there were no electric vehicles being made, and the big car companies were not making electric vehicles. There were no startups that we were aware of making electric vehicles. So it’s like, well, we should try.

“And in the case of both Tesla and SpaceX, I thought the chance of success was maybe 10%. So it’s not like I thought it would be successful. I thought it would fail.”

The risk of AI: “I think there’s a real danger for digital superintelligence having negative consequences. And so if we are not careful with creating artificial general intelligence, we could have potentially a catastrophic outcome. I think there’s a range of possibilities.

“The most likely outcome is positive for AI, but that’s not every possible outcome. So we need to minimize the probability that something will go wrong with digital superintelligence. So I’m in favor of AI regulation because I think that AI is a risk to the public.”

Changes at Twitter: “I think that most people would say that their experience has improved. We’ve gotten rid of 90% of the bots and the scams. … We’ve gotten rid of, I think, 95% of the child exploitation material that was on Twitter — which was a shock to see, but the amount of that was really terrible. Some of that had been going on for 10 years with no action.

“We have open sourced the algorithm, so we’re trying to be as transparent as possible. So Twitter is the only social media company where you can see the actual code of the algorithm. So it’s not like some secret black box. [audience applause] The way to build trust is not, Take my word for it. It’s, Let’s show you exactly how it works and full transparency.”

Are Twitter advertisers back?: “Maybe with a few exceptions, almost all the advertisers have either come back or they said they will come back.”

Twitter, a positive force in the universe: “The overarching goal is to have Twitter be a force, a positive force for civilization. And, so if you’re on the platform and you’re being harassed or bullied or whatever, obviously that’s a negative experience.

“What we’re doing is what we call ‘freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach.’ Yes, you can say offensive things, but then your content is going to get downgraded. [chuckled] So if you’re a jerk, your reach will drop. [chuckled] So, yeah, I think that’s the right thing.” [chuckled, audience applause]

In response to a child’s question about Neuralink, Musk’s company that is developing implantable brain-computer interfaces: “First of all I want to assure everyone who may be worried about Neuralink, Neuralink is going to be a fairly slow process because anything that’s done in humans, it’s very slow. So sometimes people think that suddenly we’re going to be ripping open one’s head and then before you know it, everyone’s connected to the internet, and then we’re in trouble.”

“Hopefully later this year we’ll do our first human device implantation. And this will be for someone [who is] tetraplegic, quadriplegic, [who] has lost the connection from their brain to their body. And we think that person will be able to communicate as fast as someone who has a fully functional body. So that’s going to be a big deal.”

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