"Since childhood, Musk has had the complex of being almost a superhero"

Walter Isaacson (New Orleans, 1952) greets smiling, relaxed.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
16 September 2023 Saturday 11:17
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"Since childhood, Musk has had the complex of being almost a superhero"

Walter Isaacson (New Orleans, 1952) greets smiling, relaxed. Is he finally resting?, one thinks after learning that he, ex-CNN executive, long-time journalist and writer of best-selling biographies – that of Steve Jobs is a good example – has been two years, two years!, alongside of the always controversial Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX, Twitter and more) to profile him in his new book. Today, technology rules and Musk, “for better or for worse”, he says, is here the “most important private figure on the planet”. Despite "his chaos".

He recites this phrase from Musk in his book: "If I don't succeed, humanity will die." Does he want to be recognized as a great innovator or a great revolutionary leader?

I think since he was reading comics as a kid, he's had a bit of a superhero complex. And he makes a joke about it, because he says, when you read comics, the heroes are trying to save the world with their underpants on, but at least they're trying to save the world. He has a big picture of himself as someone who can take humans to Mars and into the era of electric vehicles, and who can make artificial intelligence safe.

Do you ever doubt?

One of his superpowers, but also one of the things that makes him so controversial, is that when he believes in a mission he doesn't hesitate, and he doesn't have many people around who can tell him no. However, he can process information and change his mind. For example: for the last four years he has insisted that Tesla's next car will be a robotaxi, autonomous, without a steering wheel. The people around him told him: "It's ridiculous". Finally, a few months ago, he decided: “Okay, we will make the next generation car a robotaxi, but also a normal one with a steering wheel. It will be very economical to do it on the same platform”. That's how he changes his mind.

After two years of living stuck to him, can you say he's as chaotic as his Twitter profile makes him seem?

His life is not as chaotic as he thinks, but even more chaotic than he thinks. There are many Elon Musks. There are times when he is charming and funny; others in which he is utterly absurd, childish and impetuous, and others in which he is an engineer and can concentrate almost fanatically on a problem. Then there are also times when he goes into demon mode.

And he says that this comes from his childhood.

He had a very violent childhood. His father was psychologically hard on him.

And his father told him that this is reflected in his autocratic behavior. Is it like that?

From an early age he learned to love drama. One of his partners, in fact, told me that he associates drama with love and if things don't happen too dramatically, he separates them. His mother told me that Elon is in danger of becoming his father, Errol Musk, and he was in very dark moods. You see that in him. When things are calm and going well, it almost seems like he wants to cause drama.

There are many Elon Musks, but are there any that surprise and amaze?

It has silly, immature, funny moments that it turns into something useful, like the arms of the rocket launcher to catch and immediately reuse - it's an idea straight out of the Karate Kid movies and he laughs at it. It's the rare things about Elon Musk that I find fascinating.

He explains that Musk likes to read about military history, World War I and Napoleon, in search of corporate leadership advice. Corporate only?

That's why when asked about his management techniques, he believes that designers and engineers should have their desks right next to the assembly line, so they can see every little detail. He believes that building a product, such as a rocket or an electric vehicle, is difficult, but what is really important is to find the manufacturing process and the factories that will make these vehicles or products in large quantities. And their manufacturing techniques have certain rules. Number one: question every requirement. The second: leave only the essentials.

We know he doesn't like unions, he does like working long hours as long as it takes (even in the time of covid) or the privatization of NASA and other key public industries... He is even defined as the last incarnation of capitalism. Is he aware of it?

Yes of course. He watches his oldest son, whom he named Xavier after his favorite character in the X-men comics, transition and become Jenna, his daughter, and become a Marxist, anti-capitalist, anti-rich, change his last name and refuses to have anything to do with it. This is part of the drama in his personal life that I think has an effect on his other life and the reason why he has moved politically to the right.

And drives this image of him?

He is very hard and wants people to work very hard. One of his rules is: 'I don't expect people to do things I wouldn't do', so he sometimes lives in the factory and sleeps under his desk as he also believes that highly focused private companies can get things done faster than the Government. For example, he has been criticized for believing that space travel should be more privatized. But it had been twelve years since NASA could put an astronaut into orbit. The same goes for Starlink, the satellites. He placed nearly 4,000 of them and created an internet communication system in low orbit. Well, the publicly funded satellites were destroyed by the Russians when they invaded Ukraine and so were Viasat and other companies, so theirs was the only one good enough not to be destroyed. Does that give him too much power? Yes.

And Musk went so far as to turn off his satellites to prevent a Ukrainian attack on the Russian fleet in Crimea for fear of seeing a mini Pearl Harbor that would lead to a nuclear response from Putin. Does this confirm his now powerful position even in an area he never thought about, like war?

The situation in Crimea was the best example of the power he now has over what happens in the world. It made even him uncomfortable and he struck a deal with the US military to sell him a military version of Starlink, Starshield, which they would control instead.

He runs Tesla, SpaceX and now Twitter, an area in which his position on freedom of expression, its effects on political polarization, etc., are of concern. Are you really interested in politics?

He has become more interested in politics over the past three years and has leaned to the right, being opposed to what he calls the progressive and woke mentality. What does this mean? What is your political idea? Well, it's like asking yourself: 'What time is it?', because it changes a lot. But he knows what he thinks it means, and he took Twitter and put his thumb on the scale to allow more conservative and right-wing views on the platform. Although I don't think he has political ambitions and will never run for office.

Reading it leads to the conclusion that, for Musk, the end always justifies the means. For example, he explains how he unplugged Twitter's central servers with a razor and without warning, despite the danger. Is that why we should be afraid of him?

Musk focuses his mind on the big missions, the purpose, on how to get us to electric vehicles, to Mars or to ensure that artificial intelligence is safe. Driven by a mission, sometimes it breaks the rules, sometimes like a kid at school punches another in the face and sometimes it can be dangerous, and that's why it's good that we have legislators and regulators. Elon Musk is not someone who generally seeks balance and this can make him seem problematic. On the other hand, we need to make sure that he can figure out how to advance electric vehicles or space travel. A balance must be maintained.

Musk started OpenAI with Sam Altman, but he's out today. Once it is assured that artificial intelligence will be the future of technology... Surprise. Have you ever justified it in private?

He parted ways with Sam Altman and OpenAI because he felt that artificial intelligence should be more open and faster in order to protect the human species from out-of-control robots, and so he founded his own company, called xAI, which will make artificial intelligence bots that will compete with ChatGPT, but also self-driving cars and other real-world applications. The most interesting of all is Neuralink, which implants chips in the human brain directly connected to computers, so that they will be completed between the two, although always tied to our intention.

Is Musk afraid of China's moves like the White House seems to be?

He believes that China could overtake us in artificial intelligence, but also that the best way to avoid this is not to fight with China, but to go faster with our own technology. He feels that the United States has been too confrontational with Beijing and that our economies are connected. In addition, Musk believes that innovation arises from questioning authority, and that in China most people do not question it, but learn to accept it. That is why he sees Europe and the United States as naturally more innovative, because young people know how to question authority and rules.

Speaking of authority, Elon Musk, along with Bill Gates (Microsoft), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, leads many of the key industries in an almost 100% digital society . When they talk to each other are they aware of their power and the consequences of their decisions for everyone?

No, but as we struggle to make sure we're on the cutting edge of technology, sometimes the people who invent the technology, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, aren't necessarily the best to control that technology.