Elon Musk and Jack Ma can’t agree on one of the big questions about the future: Is it worth sending humans to Mars?
For Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, the answer is an emphatic yes. His company is working on prototype models of the Starship, a stainless steel rocket designed to send 100 people at a time to Mars and beyond, at test facilities in Florida and Texas. He has outlined plans to establish a city on Mars as early as 2050.
“I think it’s important for us to take the set of actions that are most likely to continue consciousness into the future,” Musk said during an on-stage debate with Ma at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai on Thursday.
Beyond SpaceX, Musk is also best known for being CEO of Tesla, co-founding brain wireup firm Neuralink, and founding tunnel-digging venture The Boring Company. Ma, co-founder of the Alibaba Group, ranks as the richest person in China according to Forbes.
During a conversation that covered aliens, artificial intelligence, population collapse and the future of employment, the two men debated the big issues facing humanity in the coming decades. Musk, concerned that the future of humanity could suddenly look rather bleak through either an external force or an internal error, wants a backup plan. Humans may not have another chance.
“Put another way, this is the first time in the four-and-a-half-billion-year history of the Earth that it’s been possible to extend life beyond Earth,” Musk said. “Before this, it was not possible. How long will this window be open?”
"We need more heroes like us working hard on the Earth.
“Every time when I read the news about your interest in outer space, I look at you with great respect,” Ma said.
Ma was slightly more skeptical, however, that colonizing other planets is the way to approach that. He explained that, while sending one million people to live in Mars in a city is impressive, efforts should be made to improve the lives of the 7.4 billion people on Earth.
“We need heroes like you, but we need more heroes like us working hard on the Earth, improving things every day,” Ma said. “That’s what I want.”
Elon Musk and Jack Ma: Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species
Musk has called to transform humanity into a multi-planetary species. SpaceX is currently developing the Starship, which uses liquid oxygen and methane as its fuel instead of rocket propellant. The idea is to build a depot on Mars that could harvest more fuel from the planet, filling up the ship and either returning home or venturing out further, establishing depots on the way.
“[Starship] is really intended as an interplanetary transport system that’s capable of getting from Earth to anywhere in the solar system as you establish propellant depots along the way.” Musk said in September 2018. Humans could go to “Mars, Moon, maybe Venus, the moons of Jupiter, throughout the Solar System.”
The ship can carry 100 people at a time, and with Mars and Earth reaching their closest around every two years, Musk has suggested the team could establish such a city by 2050. In a 2017 article in the journal New Space, he claimed the team could build a million-strong city in the space of less than 50 years.
Who would go? Musk has stated his goal is to price the trip around the same cost as a median house in the United States, around $200,000, so people could sell up and start life afresh.
Economist Guenter Lang told Inverse in May that this taps into a bit of a conundrum: if you’re rich enough to go, why would you leave behind your life of luxury on Earth?
In November 2018, Musk said there was a 70 percent chance he’d move to Mars, but that the chances of dying on the planet would be much higher than Earth. He compared the ad for the trip as “like Shackleton’s ad for going to the Antarctic,” which in 1912 called for men to join him with the promise of “small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful.”
In December 2018, Musk said there was a 30 percent chance that the first resident would instead be a super-smart A.I.
Elon Musk and Jack Ma: Putting a Price Tag on a Mars City
One of the main points of contention around building such a city is cost. Musk startled commentators when he suggested it would cost anywhere between $100 billion and $10 trillion. This was based on the logic that a self-sustaining city would need around one million tons of cargo to the nearest order of magnitude, which at around $100,000 per ton would cost around $100 billion at the low end.
Musk has outlined how the company could pay for it. SpaceX claimed an annual revenue of $2 billion for its rocket launches last year, more than any other rocket firm. Starlink, its internet satellite constellation, is expected to bring in $20 billion revenue by 2025, according to the company’s own estimates.
Musk stated in 2015 that Starlink is a means of “generating revenue to pay for a city on Mars.” If SpaceX takes 30 years to build up its Mars city, based on the low-end estimate it would need around $3 billion per year.
During his conversation with Ma, Musk offered another justification for spending that much on a Mars city. He estimated that humanity would need to spend somewhere between half a percent and one percent of the global gross domestic product on reaching multi-planetary status, somewhere between spending on cosmetics and spending on healthcare.
The World Bank placed the world’s gross domestic product at $85.7 trillion for 2018, which means Musk is calling for an expenditure of roughly between $400 billion and $900 billion.
“It seems like a wise investment for the future,” Musk said.
Elon Musk and Jack Ma: What Is the Future of Humanity?
As the conversation moved onto broader issues around the challenges facing humanity, Ma struck a more skeptical tone about Musk’s bold claims about the future of humanity.
Musk is notably concerned about artificial intelligence. Part of his drive with Neuralink is to wire up humans with machines and create a symbiotic relationship, so a super-smart machine can’t overtake humans. Musk has also called for regulation in the growing space before it’s too late.
Ma, however, suggested that humanity will struggle to make anything smarter than itself. He praised the potential for A.I. to automate jobs, arguing that humans could work three days a week for four hours a day. When people can live for 120 years, machines will be used to automate the undesirable jobs and take care of older people.
The two men did agree, however, on one thing.
“I think that the biggest problem the world will face in 20 years is population collapse,” Musk said, as Ma nodded emphatically and declared that he agreed. Demographers predict that the current population will rise from 7.7 billion to 11 billion by 2100, before declining. Lower birth rates, spurred by higher incomes and better education, could have a knock-on effect on social structures.
But as the event concluded, Ma emphasized the need to “improve this Earth” and “improve this world.”
While the pair came to an agreement on some of the issues facing the future, it seems Musk may not have quite convinced Ma about the need to build a Mars city.