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Elon Musk: Mars will be great, if AI doesn’t kill us first

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AUSTIN — The most interesting businessman in America came to SXSW to dance. And to talk.

After dancing his way onstage to the tune of Randy Newman’s “My Little Buttercup” — a longtime favorite of his — Elon Musk spent over an hour talking to Westworld co-creator Jonathan Nolan about his hopes and fears for technology, from colonizing Mars to the risks of “digital super-intelligence.”

Mars as startup hub

The founder of SpaceX, Tesla (TSLA), Solar City (SCTY) and the Boring Company led off by discussing his Martian ambitions. A month after the successful launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket in service, Musk said work on a much larger launch vehicle called the BFR — you may think of that as short for Big Falcon Rocket — is proceeding well.

SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk says we’ll eventually have pizza places on Mars, as long as AI doesn’t kill us first.

“We’re making good progress on the ship and the booster,” he said of this gigantic, fully reusable spacecraft that can lift 150 tons to Earth orbit. He hopes to see the first test flights next year.

SpaceX’s schedule calls for the first Mars cargo flight in 2022, with humans following in 2024. Musk allowed that people might not trust that forecast: “People have told me that my timelines historically have been optimistic.”

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy takes off making it the most powerful operation rocket in the world. (Bloomberg)

Musk warned that life on Mars would be difficult at first. “It kind of reads like Shackelton’s ad for Antarctic explorers,” he said. “Difficult, dangerous, good chance you will die, exciting if you survive.”

But things should pick up soon as Earth-to-Mars travel becomes routine in the way that Union Pacific railroad made transcontinental travel something you could reliably schedule.

“Once you can get there, the opportunity is immense,” he said. “There’s going to be an explosion of entrepreneurial opportunities. Mars is going to need everything from iron foundries to pizza joints.”

AI anxiety

Space travel may not make Musk uneasy, but the prospect of artificial intelligence unconfined to specific tasks does.

“We have to figure out some way that the advent of digital super-intelligence is somehow symbiotic with humanity,” Musk warned as he noted the breathtaking progress of such narrow AI ventures as AlphaGo, the game-playing AI owned by Google (GOOG, GOOGL) and Tesla’s self-driving Autopilot.

And he wants government to make sure of that.

“I’m not normally an advocate of regulation and oversight,” he said. “There needs to be a public body that his insight and oversight to confirm that everyone is developing AI safely.”

Elon Musk’s Teslas use a form of artificial intelligence to guide it on highways without driver input. (image: Reuters: Lucy Nicholson)

Musk said the downside of a misguided or malevolent AI could be worse than nuclear war.

“Mark my words, AI is far more dangerous than nukes. Far,” he said. “So why do we have no regulatory oversight? That’s insane.”

Musk also called for government action to combat climate change, in the form of a tax on carbon dioxide pollution.

“Anything that puts carbon in the atmosphere, which includes rockets, I’m not excluding myself, there has to be a price,” he said. “It’s up to people and governments to put a price on carbon.”

Electric cars and high-tech tunnels

Tesla’s electric cars can be part of the solution for global warming, but Musk said manufacturing electric vehicles has been even harder than building rockets.

“For all the drama of SpaceX, I think Tesla has been probably two thirds of my total drama dose,” he said. “Tesla is a total drama magnet.”

Nolan didn’t press him on that point, but Tesla’s Model 3 — the $35,000-and-up sedan that’s supposed to democratize the company’s product line — has suffered from serious production bottlenecks.

Elon Musk’s Boring Company to prioritize pedestrians over cars. (image: Engadget)

Musk got no more specific than calling Tesla “hugely hard work.”

He offered a little more detail on his latest venture, the tunnel-building project he named the Boring Company “because I thought it would be a funny name for a company.”

Musk played a video he tweeted on Friday that showed passengers boarding a pod at street level that was then lowered into a tunnel before speeding them at 124 mph to Los Angeles International Airport.

He also noted the Boring Company’s most public product to date, a $500 flamethrower with the company’s name on it that almost instantly sold out.

“Thank you for anyone who’s bought our flamethrower,” he said. “You will not be sorry, or maybe you will.”

The talk wrapped up after Musk’s brother Kimbal joined him onstage with a guitar and the two performed “My Little Buttercup.” Musk’s vocals suggested that while he may be a superhuman entrepreneur, he would be just as awkward at a karaoke bar as the rest of us.

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