Elon Musk is Doing His Best to Convince Us He's Not a Super Villain

Musk positions SpaceX as a philanthropic company.


The past few days have been quite busy for presumed super villain-in-waiting Elon Musk, as the SpaceX and Tesla CEO made two public appearances in consecutive days, talking about inspiring humanity to become a star-faring species and how he wants to prioritize mass transit over individual cars in his crazy Boring Company plan.

The 46-year-old South African entrepreneur gets the villain rap for his comments about terraforming Mars with nuclear weapons (what if he wanted to do that to Earth?) and harnessing the sun’s power to create limitless energy to power the planet (what if he unplugged it?), and how he controls the world’s most powerful rocket (the scary-huge Falcon Heavy).

Speaking at the 2018 South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, Musk reiterated how he wanted to use SpaceX, the aerospace company with the ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars, to inspire people.

“In the case of Space X, I was wondering why we were not making progress towards sending people to Mars,” Musk said. “Why we didn’t have bases on the Moon? Where were the space hotels? It was getting me down. Looking at the NASA website, it doesn’t say when we’re going to Mars. The genesis of Space X was to not create a company but how to make NASA’s budget bigger.”

He’s also announced a change of thinking when it comes to the Boring Company, the side-project he started behind SpaceX headquarters in Southern California. A video released in April 2017 at the TED Conference in Vancouver, shows a red Tesla sedan shooting through underground tunnels. That car has been replaced, in a video released Friday:

The switch to a futuristic-looking bus was explained like this: “If someone can’t afford a car, they should go first.”

Here are his full comments, originally posted on his Twitter account:

Adjusting The Boring Company plan: all tunnels & Hyperloop will prioritize pedestrians & cyclists over cars. Will still transport cars, but only after all personalized mass transit needs are met. It’s a matter of courtesy & fairness. If someone can’t afford a car, they should go first. [Boring Company] urban loop system would have thousands of small stations the size of a single parking space that take you very close to your destination & blend seamlessly into the fabric of a city, rather than a small number of big stations like a subway.

The joke that Musk is a super villain comes from his future-focused endeavors about super-smart AI, rockets to Mars, self-driving cars, and brain-to-computer interfaces, as this video so clearly points out:

But the real danger with Musk, say his critics, is that he’s a billionaire who only makes products that will help other very rich people. The move to prioritize mass transit for the Boring Company — a concept that may never actually go anywhere — is at least a signal that he’s actually doing something to help society as a whole.

It’s not like Musk has shifted his thinking recently, but he appears to be doing better job of publicly speaking about his motivation. The Tesla Model 3 — the electric car that starts at $35,000 — is his car company’s least-expensive vehicle and was in his “The Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan” published back in 2006 (emphasis ours):

Build sports car
Use that money to build an affordable car
Use that money to build an even more affordable car
While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options

With Musk’s endeavors becoming increasingly more ambitious, it’s likely that the “super villain” joke will stick around; not that he’s missing any of his public-facing speaking opportunities to remind people of his thinking. Here’s Musk on Saturday at South By Southwest, during a different speaking event:

There are a lot of negative things in the world, there are a lot of terrible things happening all over the world, all the time. There are lots of problems that need to get solved; there’s lots of things that are miserable and kind of get you down.
But life cannot just be about solving one miserable problem after another. That can’t be the only thing. There need to be things that inspire you, that make you glad to wake up in the morning and be part of humanity. That’s why we did this.
There’s a guy called [Konstantin Tsiolkovsky], one of the early Russian rocket scientists. [He had] a great saying, “Earth is the cradle of humanity, you cannot stay in the cradle forever. It is time to go forth, become a star-faring civilization, be out there among the stars, expand the scope and scale of human consciousness.
I find that incredibly exciting. That makes me glad to be alive. I hope you feel the same way.

Musk then showed a video by Westworld creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, meant to inspire humans to keep working collectively to take civilization off-Earth.

The digs at Musk — he’s half-brilliant, half-hype man, he only makes technology for rich people, he doesn’t treat his Tesla workers fairly — all have some truth to them, which is why they persist and probably sting. But Musk is not a super-villain — probably.

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