The transcript and German translation of this interview with Sam Altman is based on the post „Elon Musk on how to build the future“ by Y Combinator. The associated YouTube video was published on September 15, 2016. For me personally, it is particularly interesting to see how constant and forward-thinking Elon Musk remains in his statements over the years, considering how long ago this interview took place. Here, Sam Altman wants to know from Elon Musk, among other things, how he makes the decision that something is useful enough to do, how he came to do what he does today, what the chances are of going to Mars, and how he plans to somehow steer the development of AI for the better.
Sam Altman: Today, we have Elon Musk. Elon, thank you for joining us.
Elon Musk: Thanks for having me.
Sam Altman: So, we want to spend the time today talking about your view of the future and what people should work on. So, to start off, could you tell us…you famously said when you were younger, there were five problems that you thought were most important for you to work on. If you were 22 today, what would be the five problems that you would think about working on?
Elon Musk: Well, first of all, I think if somebody is doing something that is useful to the rest of society, I think that’s a good thing. It doesn’t have to change the world. If you’re doing something that has high value to people and frankly even if it’s something…if it’s just a little game or, you know, the system improvement in photo sharing or something, if it has a small amount of good for a large number of people, I mean, I think that’s fine. Stuff doesn’t need to change the world; just to be good.
But, you know, in terms of things that I think are most likely to affect the future of humanity, I think AI is probably the single biggest item in the near term that’s likely to affect humanity. So it’s very important that we have the advent of AI in a good way. That is something that if you could look into a crystal ball and see the future, you would like that outcome because it is something that could go wrong as we’ve talked about many times. And so we really need to make sure it goes right.
I think working on AI and making sure it’s a great future, that’s the most important thing, I think, right now, the most pressing item. Obviously, anything to do with genetics. If you can actually solve genetic diseases, if you can prevent dementia or Alzheimer’s or something like that with genetic reprogramming, that would be wonderful. So I think this genetics might be the sort of second most important item.
I think having a high bandwidth interface to the brain. We’re currently bandwidth limited. We have a digital tertiary self in the form of our e-mail capabilities, our computers, phones, applications. We’re effectively superhuman, but we are extremely bandwidth constrained in that interface between the cortex and that tertiary digital form of yourself, and helping solve that bandwidth constraints would be, I think, very important for the future as well.
Sam Altman: So, one of the, I think, most common questions I hear young people, ambitious young people ask is: “I want to be the next Elon Musk, how do I do that?” Obviously, the next Elon Musk will work on very different things than you did, but what have you done or what did you do when you were younger that you think sort of set you up to have a big impact?
Elon Musk: Well, I think, first of all, I should say that I did not expect to be involved in all these things. So, the five things that I thought about the time in college, quite a long time ago, 25 years ago, making life multi-planetary, accelerating the transition to sustainable energy, the Internet broadly speaking, and then genetics and AI. I didn’t expect to be involved in all of those things. Actually, at the time in college, I sort of thought helping with electrification of cars was how I would start out, and that’s actually what I worked on as an intern, with advanced ultracapacitors to see if there would be a breakthrough relative to batteries for energy storage in cars.
And then, when I came out to go to Stanford, that’s what I was going to be doing my grad studies on was working on advanced energy storage technologies for electric cars. And then I put that on hold to start an Internet company in 95 because there does seem to be like a time for particular technologies when they’re at a steep point in the inflection curve. And I didn’t want to do a Ph.D. at Stanford and watch it all happen. And I wasn’t entirely certain that the technology I’d been working on would actually succeed. You can get a doctorate on many things that ultimately do not have a practical bearing on the world. And I wanted to just…I really was just trying to be useful. That’s the optimization. It’s like, what can I do that would actually be useful.
Sam Altman: Do you think people that want to be useful today should get PHDs?
Elon Musk: Mostly not.
Sam Altman: What is the best way to be useful?
Elon Musk: Some yes, but mostly not.
Sam Altman: How should someone figure out how they can be most useful?
Elon Musk: Whatever this thing is that you’re trying to create, what would be the utility delta compared to the current state of the art, times, how many people it would affect. So that’s why I think having something that makes a big difference but affects a sort of small to moderate number of people is great, as is something that makes even a small difference but affects a vast number of people, like the area under the curve…
Sam Altman: The area under the curve.
Elon Musk: Yeah exactly. That area of the curve would actually be roughly similar for those two things. So it’s actually really about just trying to be useful and matter.
Sam Altman: When you’re trying to estimate probability of success, this thing will be really useful, a good area under the curve. I guess to use the example of SpaceX. When you made the go decision that you were actually gonna do that, this was kind of a very crazy thing at the time…
Elon Musk: Very crazy for sure. Yeah. People were not shy about saying that, but I agreed with them that it was quite crazy. Crazy if the objective was to achieve the best risk-adjusted return starting our company is insane. But that was not my objective. I’d soon come to the conclusion that if something didn’t happen to improve rocket technology, we’d be stuck on Earth forever. And the big aerospace companies had no interest in radical innovation. All they wanted to do was try to make their old technology slightly better every year, and in fact, sometimes it would actually get worse.
And particularly rockets is pretty bad. In ’69, we were able to go to the moon with the Saturn V, and then the Space Shuttle could only take people to low Earth orbit, and then the Space Shuttle retired. That trend basically trends to zero. People sometimes think technology just automatically gets better every year, but it actually doesn’t. It only gets better if smart people work like crazy to make it better. That’s how any technology actually gets better. And by itself technology…if people don’t work on it, it actually will decline.
You can look at the history of civilizations, many civilizations, and look at, say, ancient Egypt where they were able to build these incredible pyramids, and then they basically forgot how to build pyramids. And then even hieroglyphics, they forgot how to read hieroglyphics. Or you look at Rome and how they were able to build these incredible roadways and aqueducts and indoor plumbing, and they forgot how to do all of those things. And there are many such examples in history, so I think you should always bear in mind that entropy is not on your side.
Sam Altman: One thing I really like about you is you are unusually fearless and willing to go in the face of other people telling you something is crazy. And I know a lot of pretty crazy people; you still stand out. Where does that come from, or how do you think about making a decision when everyone tells you this is a crazy idea? Where do you get the internal strength to do that?
Elon Musk: Well, first of all, I actually think I feel fear quite strongly. So it’s not as though I just have the absence of fear. I feel it quite strongly. But there are just times when something is important enough, you believe in it enough, that you do do it in spite of fear.
Sam Altman: So, speaking of important things.
Elon Musk: People shouldn’t think, well, I feel fear about this, and therefore I shouldn’t do it. It’s normal to feel fear. You’d have to definitely something mentally wrong if you didn’t feel fear.
Sam Altman: So you just feel it and let the importance of it drive you to do it anyway.
Elon Musk: Yeah. Actually, something that can be helpful is fatalism to some degree. If you just accept the probabilities, then that diminishes fear. So, when starting SpaceX, I thought the odds of success were less than 10%, and I just accepted that actually probably I would just lose everything. But that maybe would make some progress if we could just move the ball forward; even if we died, maybe some other company could pick up the baton and keep moving it forward so that would still do some good. Yeah, same with Tesla; I thought the odds of a car company succeeding were extremely low.
Sam Altman: What do you think the odds of the Mars colony are at this point today?
Elon Musk: Well, oddly enough, I actually think they’re pretty good.
Sam Altman: So, like when can I go?
Elon Musk: Okay. At this point, I am certain there is a way. I am certain that success is one of the possible outcomes for establishing a self-sustaining Mars colony, a growing Mars colony. I’m certain that that is possible, whereas until maybe a few years ago, I was not sure that success was even one of the possible outcomes. Some meaningful number of people going to Mars, I think this is potentially something that can be accomplished in about ten years. Maybe sooner, maybe nine years. I need to make sure that SpaceX doesn’t die between now and then and that I don’t die, or if I do die, that someone takes over who will continue that.
Sam Altman: You shouldn’t go on the first launch.
Elon Musk: Yeah, exactly. The first launch will be a robotic anyway.
Sam Altman: I want to go except for that Internet latency.
Elon Musk: Yeah, there aren’t latency would be pretty significant. Mars is roughly 12 light minutes from the Sun, and Earth is eight light minutes. So the closest approach to Mars is four light minutes away, the furthest approach is 20. A little more because you can’t talk directly through the sun.
Sam Altman: Speaking of really important problems, AI. So you’ve been outspoken about AI. Could you talk about what you think the positive future for AI looks like and how we get there?
Elon Musk: Okay. I mean, I do want to emphasize that this is not really something that I advocate or this is not prescriptive. This is simply hopefully predictive. Some say, well, this is something that I want to occur instead of this is something I think that probably is the best of the available alternatives. The best of the available alternatives that I can come up with and maybe somebody else can come up with a better approach or better outcome is that we achieve democratization of AI technology, meaning that no one company or small set of individuals has control over advanced AI technology. I think that that’s very dangerous.
It could also get stolen by somebody bad, like some evil dictator. A country could send their intelligence agency to go steal it and gain control. It just becomes a very unstable situation, I think, if you’ve got any incredibly powerful AI. You just don’t know who’s gonna control that. So it’s not as though I think that the risk is that the AI would develop a will of its own right off the bat. I think the concern is that someone may use it in a way that is bad, or even if they weren’t going to use it in a way that’s bad, but somebody could take it from them and use it in a way that’s bad. That I think is quite a big danger.
So I think we must have democratization of AI technology and make it widely available. And that’s the reason that obviously, you and me and the rest of the team created OpenAI, was to help spread out AI technology, so it doesn’t get concentrated in the hands of a few. But then, of course, that needs to be combined with solving the high bandwidth interface to the cortex.
Sam Altman: Humans are so slow.
Elon Musk: Humans are so slow. Yes, exactly, but we already have a situation in our brain where we’ve got the cortex and the limbic system. And the limbic system is kind of…that’s the primitive brain. It’s kind of like your instincts and whatnot. And then the cortex is the thinking upper part of the brain. Those two seem to work together quite well. Occasionally your cortex and limbic system may disagree, but they…
Sam Altman: It generally works pretty well.
Elon Musk: Generally works pretty well, and it’s rare to find someone who…I’ve not found someone who wishes to either get rid of their cortex or get rid of their limbic system.
Sam Altman: Very true.
Elon Musk: Yeah. That’s unusual. So I think if we can effectively merge with AI by improving the neural link between your cortex and the digital extension of yourself, which already, like I said, exists, it just has a bandwidth issue. And then effectively you become an AI human symbiote, and if that then is widespread with anyone who wants it can have it, then we solve the control problem as well. We don’t have to worry about some sort of evil dictator AI because we are the AI collectively. That seems like the best outcome I can think of.
Sam Altman: So you’ve seen other companies in their early days that start small and get really successful. I hope I never get asked this on camera, but how do you think OpenAI is going as a six-month-old company?
Elon Musk: I think it’s going pretty well. I think we’ve got a really talented group at OpenAI…
Sam Altman: It seems like.
Elon Musk: Yeah, really, really talented team, and they’re working hard. OpenAI is structured as a 501(c) nonprofit, but many nonprofits do not have a sense of urgency. It’s fine, they don’t have to have a sense of urgency, but OpenAI does because I think people really believe in the mission. I think it’s important, and it’s about minimizing the risk of existential harm in the future. And so I think it’s going well. I’m pretty impressed with what people are doing and the talent level. And obviously, we’re always looking for great people to join who believe in the mission.
Sam Altman: You’re up to…close to 40 people now. All right, just a few more questions before we wrap up. How do you spend your days now? What do you allocate most of your time to?
Elon Musk: My time is mostly split between SpaceX and Tesla, and of course, I try to spend part of every week at OpenAI. So I spend basically half a day at OpenAI most weeks, and then I have some OpenAI stuff that happens during the week. But other than that, it’s really Space X and Tesla.
Sam Altman: And what do you do when you are at SpaceX or Tesla? What does your time look that there?
Elon Musk: Yeah. So that’s a good question. I think a lot of people think I must spend a lot of time with media or on business things but actually, almost all my time, 80% of it, is spent on engineering and design. So it’s developing a next-generation product. That’s 80% of it.
Sam Altman: You probably don’t remember this; a very long time ago, many, many years, you took me on a tour of SpaceX. And the most impressive thing was that you knew every detail of the rocket and every piece of engineering that went into it, and I don’t think many people get that about you.
Elon Musk: Yeah, I think a lot of people think I’m kind of a business person or something. Which is fine, like, business is fine, but really it’s… You know, with SpaceX, Gwynne Shotwell is Chief Operating Officer. She kind of manages legal, finance, sales, and kind of general business activity, and then my time is almost entirely with the engineering team working on improving the Falcon 9 and the Dragon spacecraft and developing the Mars colonial architecture. And then at Tesla, it’s working on the Model 3 and some in the design studio, typically half a day a week, dealing with aesthetics and look and feel things. And then most of the rest of the week is just going through the engineering of the car itself as well as the engineering of the factory. Because the biggest epiphany I’ve had this year is that what really matters is the machine that builds the machine, the factory, and that is at least towards a magnitude harder than the vehicle itself.
Sam Altman: It’s amazing to watch the robots go here and these cars just happen.
Elon Musk: Yeah. Now, this actually has a relatively low level of automation compared to what the Gigafactory will have and what Model 3 will have.
Sam Altman: What’s the speed on the line of these cars?
Elon Musk: Actually, the average speed of the line is incredibly slow. It’s probably about…including both X and S it’s maybe 5 centimeters per second.
Sam Altman: And what can you get to?
Elon Musk: This is very slow.
Sam Altman: And what would you like to get to?
Elon Musk: I’m confident we can get to at least 1 meter per second, so a 20-fold increase.
Sam Altman: That’ll be very fast.
Elon Musk: Yeah, at least. I mean, I think quite…1 meter per second, just to put that in perspective, is a slow walk or a medium speed walk. A fast walk could be 1.5 meters per second, and then the fastest humans can run over 10 meters per second. So, if we’re only doing 0.5 meters per second, that’s a very slow current speed, and at one meter per second, you can still walk faster than the production line.