3 Takeaways From Elon Musk’s SXSW Talk (and One Song)

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Serial entrepreneur Elon Musk loves surprises, and his appearance for a Q&A session at this year’s South by Southwest conference (SXSW) is perhaps one of the most entertaining shows we’ve seen from him so far. Most attendees found out about the impromptu Musk Q&A from an email sent on the night before, which added to the suspense.

Fans knew they were in for a treat as the seemingly unplanned event kicked off 30 minutes past noon on March 11 at the Moody Theater in Austin, Texas. Musk answered questions from the audience, thrown at him by Interstellar co-writer and Westworld co-creator Jonathan Nolan.

The panel was informative, but it was also silly — watch out for that “Mars Bar” dad joke. Of course, he mostly answered questions about his companies’ major preoccupations, particularly SpaceX’s efforts towards making humankind a multi-planetary species, beginning with getting to Mars, and Tesla’s work to bring truly autonomous, electric vehicles on the roads.

Here are the three takeaways from Musk’s Q&A, which offered fresh insights about his plans for the future.

“Optimistic” for the BFR

Last year was a blast for SpaceX, marking milestones with one successful rocket launch after another. So far, Musk’s rocket company — which he said “is alive by the skin of its teeth” — has had a good start in 2018 and it might get even better as it builds up to 2019.

With the first successful Falcon Heavy launch this February, Musk said SpaceX’s focus is the BFR — the rocket that might bring humanity to Mars. He told the audience to expect the BFR’s first’s few test flights by early 2019.

“[W]e are building the first Mars, or interplanetary ship, and I think we’ll be able to do short trips, flights by first half of next year,” Musk said. After that, however, he quickly added his own disclaimer: “Although sometimes, my timelines are a little, you know…” he told a laughing audience. Indeed, Musk is known for being so optimistic with his personal goals that he often sets the bar a little too high.

So far, we know that SpaceX plans to send their first cargo to Mars aboard the BFR by 2022, with a crewed mission to follow a couple of years later by 2024. With these in mind, a 2019 BFR system’s test seems realistic enough.

Mars: A Matter of Survival

This brings us to why Musk has been so keen for humans to colonize Mars: Getting there, he believes, is a question of survival for the human species.

“It’s important to get a self-sustaining base on Mars because it’s far enough away from Earth that it’s more likely to survive than a moon base” in the event of a war, said Musk. “If there’s a third world war we want to make sure there’s enough of a seed of human civilization somewhere else to bring it back and shorten the length of the dark ages,” he explained.

The possibility of a third world war, however, isn’t the only extinction-level threat Musk mentioned at the Q&A. What else could potentially end humankind as we know it? For Musk, of course, it would be the irresponsible development of artificial intelligence (AI), and he again called for the need to work “safely” on AI.

“I’m very close to the cutting edge in AI,” Musk said, and that seems to both excite and scare him. “It’s capable of vastly more than almost anyone knows, and the rate of improvement is exponential,” he explained, using AlphaGo’s history of learning as an example. “Mark my words: AI is much more dangerous than nukes,” Musk warned, adding that there should be a “regulatory oversight” for the technology.

“We have to ensure that the advent of digital super-intelligence is one which is symbiotic with humanity,” Musk said. “I think that’s the single, biggest existential crisis that we face — and the most pressing one.”

Self-Driving Cars and Safer Roads

On the other hand, the same kind of exponential, unsettling learning curve AI is capable of would also underpin the development of self-driving cars. “I think in the next year, self-driving will encompass essentially all modes of driving,” Musk said.

And while uncontrolled AI could be a threat, self-driving cars are going to make roads safer, Musk explained. “At least, a hundred to two hundred percent safer than a person [a human driver] by the end of next year. We’re talking maybe 18 months from now,” he said. Tesla’s current autonomous driving system, or Autopilot 2.0, will be “at least 2 or 3 times better” than a human driver, Musk added.

The informal Q&A was the latest update that Musk has given on the future of Tesla’s Autopilot self-driving system. Tesla had supposedly been working towards Level 5 autonomy — or full autonomy, by the standards of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) — for 2017. However, how close Tesla is in achieving that remains anyone’s guess.

A Bonus for Fans

Fans were surely excited to learn about Musk’s plans for the future, but the eccentric billionaire had another little surprise up his sleeve.

With his brother Kimbal, he sang a duet of “My Little Buttercup” from The Three Amigos. Should we expect a career change from the eclectic futurist? You be the judge:

Ok, maybe Musk won’t go for such a crazy move, but the Tesla and SpaceX CEO did leave us with lots to look forward to. Apart from the BFR and Mars, Autopilot 2.0 and Level 5 autonomy, Musk has his hands full with his other ventures, which include a futuristic tunnel to beat traffic and plans to give humanity a fair chance in competing with intelligent machines.

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Watch the best bits of Elon Musk’s SXSW talk

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Elon Musk took the stage about 30 minutes late at the Moody Theater in downtown Austin, Texas, and when he finally appeared, the sold-out crowd cheered and jumped to their feet, smartphones glowing. His conversation at SXSW was a surprise, announced…
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Elon Musk’s Boring Company to prioritize pedestrians over cars

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While we ponder the state of hyperloop tunnel transportation, Elon Musk just updated the plan for The Boring Company. The tech exec tweeted out a new concept video that focuses on a shuttle instead of cars. The shuttle (seen briefly in the first Bori…
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Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 Just Launched the First of 11,925 SpaceX Internet Satellites

SpaceX Internet Satellites

Today’s Falcon 9 reusable rocket launch may not be quite as headline-making as the Falcon Heavy’s epic sendoff a few weeks earlier, but it was nothing to sneeze at either. After all, Elon Musk does not simply launch a rocket. No, the SpaceX CEO prefers to break records. Or better yet, set them.

While the primary mission of Thursday’s launch was to carry Spain’s newest Earth-observation satellite, known as Paz, the rocket’s payload also included SpaceX’s first two internet satellites. It’s this pair of spacecraft that could kick off a new phase for the company — and for the global internet as we know it.

Musk has been working on somewhat secretive plans to launch internet satellites into orbit for a couple of years now. Back in 2016, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved the launches of 4,425 SpaceX internet satellites. The company then jacked that number up to almost 12,000 – six times the number of active satellites currently orbiting Earth.

A Comprehensive List of Elon Musk’s Breakthroughs in 2017
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According to data from the Union of Concerned Scientists Satelite Database, there are 1,738 active satellites in orbit right now. Even if you add the 2,600-some inactive satellites, that would still make SpaceX’s presence three times that of all other spacecraft in orbit.

At first glance, it may not seem as impressive as launching a Tesla Roadster into space, but these satellites are pretty hefty: they’re roughly car-sized — about 390 kg (850 pounds) — and will eventually fill out SpaceX’s proposed constellation of satellites that would beam high-speed internet back down to Earth.

To that end, hitching a ride with Paz are two small telecommunication satellite prototypes: Microsat-2a and Microsat-2br. They’ll be the first of what SpaceX ultimately hopes will become two large groups of internet-beaming satellites, each operating on a different radio frequency.

Starting Starlink

Of the 12 grand, 4,425 SpaceX internet satellites will be positioned about 1,1oo km (700 miles) above Earth and the other 7,518 will orbit just 300 km (200 miles) above. The sheer number of the satellites, their varying positions in orbit, and their beaming-ability pose a formidable challenge for SpaceX.

The company will need to ensure the satellites can coordinate with receivers on Earth, for one. Then there’s the more fundamental question of how they’ll manage to keep track of so many objects in orbit and prevent them from colliding.

But if he can actually assemble this fleet of satellites, Musk says the network (informally known as Starlink, according to the Wall Street Journal) could provide internet to virtually any location on Earth. Such a network would lift the burden of developing internet infrastructure off of the developing world — in which less than half the population has ready access to the internet.

When Musk initially requested permission from the FCC to start this project in 2015, he said at SpaceX Seattle that the goal for the network would be to handle more than half of long-distance internet traffic. This would allow faster and more direct communication between different continents than is currently possible, Musk said.

That said, the impact on local internet communications would be less dramatic. Starlink would probably handle only 10 percent business-to-consumer direct — leaving the other 90 percent of local access to fiber. But that reality could only be for the short term.

“We’re really talking about something which is, in the long term, like rebuilding the internet in space,” Musk said at SpaceX Seattle. And after today’s successful launch, it seems like SpaceX is one step closer to doing just that.

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Elon Musk’s Departure From OpenAI’s Board Might Mean Big Things for Tesla

Goodbye, Elon

On Tuesday, OpenAI announced that Elon Musk, one of the non-profit AI research company’s founding members and foremost benefactors, would be vacating his position on the OpenAI board of directors.

Musk helped craft OpenAI’s vision and financed much of the nonprofit’s growth. An announcement of both incoming and outgoing board members published on the Open AI blog said the following regarding his ending tenure on the board:

Elon Musk will depart the OpenAI Board but will continue to donate and advise the organization. As Tesla continues to become more focused on AI, this will eliminate a potential future conflict for Elon.

The OpenAI board of directors now consists of Greg Brockman, Ilya Sutskever, Holden Karnofsky, and Sam Altman, with whom Musk co-founded the venture. The company has plans to not only fill Musk’s seat on the board but expand their team as well.

Since 2015, OpenAI has promoted AI research and development in a number of industries, garnering support (both ideological and financial) from many high-profile players in the AI game.

Open AI has also been a prominent voice in the conversation concerning the limitations, challenges, and potential dangers of artificial intelligence. Just this week, the company co-released a report with a number of other global AI experts that outlines the potential “malicious” uses of the technology and how to prevent them.

Hello, Autonomous Cars?

Musk’s departure from the OpenAI board is intriguing, not so much for what it might mean for OpenAI’s future, but for Tesla’s. The given reason of “a potential future conflict for Elon” could signal that Tesla is more deeply committed to their own AI projects than we thought.

The Technologies That Power Self-Driving Cars [INFOGRAPHIC]
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Those who have had their ears to the ground for any rumblings that Tesla is ready to deliver vehicles capable of Level 5 autonomy could take this new OpenAI development as a sign that the company is inching closer to that elusive goal.

Tesla’s customer base has already demonstrated its interest in AI-enhanced features. More than 35,000 Tesla customers were even willing to pay $ 3,000 each for a “fully self-driving capability” that doesn’t yet exist. If Musk’s departure from the OpenAI board is a sign that Tesla is closing in on Level 5 autonomy, their confidence in the company could soon be rewarded.

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Elon Musk’s Boring Company gets green light to start digging in Washington, DC

Elon Musk’s tunnel-boring project has received more vague government approval for its equally vague plans to build an underground hyperloop between New York and Washington, DC. Last week, Washington, DC’s Department of Transportation issued a preliminary permit to Musk’s Boring Company to start digging at an abandoned lot in the northeast section of the city, according to The Washington Post.

Exactly how much digging — how deep and how long — is still unclear. A spokesperson for the Boring Company did not immediately respond to a request for comment, although they did tell the Post that the lot on New York Avenue could be a stop along a theoretical East Coast hyperloop.

In comments to the Post, city officials…

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Want to Follow Elon Musk’s Roadster Through Space? There’s a Website for That.

Mars and Beyond

It’s been barely two weeks since SpaceX successfully launched the first Falcon Heavy into orbit, and many are curious as to where it and its unconventional passenger are right now. Instead of sending something boring as the Heavy’s first payload, SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk launched his own Tesla Roadster. On board is a mannequin affectionately called “Starman.”

Starman, who is dressed in a SpaceX suit, was supposedly en route towards the orbit of Mars and then towards the asteroid belt, to the tune of David Bowie’s music. In any case, Musk has said that Starman’s trajectory after launch had gone a bit off from its intended path.

It turns out, it might not have veered off that far, at least according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which released information as to the Roadster’s whereabouts. Now, you can keep track of the Roadster and Starman using NASA’s data, which engineer Ben Pearson has wonderfully put into a website called Whereisroadster.com.

A Lonely Starman

Pearson was so fascinated by the Falcon Heavy launch that he made his own calculations for Starman’s trajectory, partially because he’s always been a fan of the SpaceX CEO. “I like that he’s willing to take risks and do cool stuff that people just keep saying it’s not possible and he figures out a way to make it possible,” Pearson told The Verge

However, Pearson noticed his results were different from what Musk announced. This made Pearson unease, but NASA’s data ended up showing that he was right.

Image credit: Whereisroadster.com
Where Starman as of Feb. 18. Image credit: Whereisroadster.com

“I was just relieved to know that I wasn’t doing anything critically wrong,” Pearson said in his interview with The Verge. “Elon Musk is a visionary man, incredibly far forward, but there’s a reality distortion field when it comes to him.”

In case you’re wondering, Pearson’s website shows that Starman is now 3,609,979 km (2,243,136 miles) from Earth, moving away from Earth at a speed of 10,844 km/h (6,738 mph), as of writing. It’ll continue to move in orbit around the Sun, making a close pass to the Earth on 2091, said Pearson. That is, of course, assuming that Starman’s Roadster survives in space for that long.

At any rate, at least we know where it is, which is more than what we can say for the Falcon Heavy’s Center Core. For now, SpaceX is barreling ahead with their other projects, including their latest Falcon 9 mission that will launch two of their first internet satellites into space.

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Website follows journey of Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster through space

Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster may have slipped the surly bonds of Earth, but you can still follow its path through the Solar System. Satellite guru Ben Pearson's unofficial Whereisroadster.com website is tracking the EV based on NASA data and his own fl…
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Track Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster in space with this aptly named website

Last week, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk launched his now-famous red Tesla Roadster into space, atop the first Falcon Heavy rocket. Cameras mounted on the car live-streamed the Starman’s journey for a few hours, giving us some unforgettable shots of Earth before going black. But if you want to know where the first car cruising our Solar System is right now, there’s a website for that — aptly called Whereisroadster.com.

The website was created by engineer Ben Pearson, who’s been passionate about space since he was in third grade. “I read every book in my little library that I could about space and space exploration stuff,” he tells The Verge. The day of the Falcon Heavy launch, he saw that people online were asking questions about tracking the…

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Worst Case Scenarios: What Could Happen to Elon Musk’s Space Roadster?

Last week an enormous rocket took off from Earth and placed something a little, how shall we say, different into our solar system: a red Tesla Roadster, with a mannequin in a space suit strapped into the driver’s seat (as the car blasted David Bowie’s “Space Oddity“).

Plenty of questions to ask here, among them: Why float a car through space when it’s not going to be driven? Why does a mannequin need a space suit? And what, exactly, is Elon Musk compensating for?

But at the end of that line of questioning, the easiest one to stop at is: What the hell’s gonna happen to it?

We’re hard up for an answer on most of those questions, but that last one has answers — or, at least, potential outcomes. Here’s what could happen to Musk’s spacecar, and anything it comes in contact with along the way.

Scenario No. 1: Radiation Rips It Apart.

The car may be drifting, but it’s not doing so peacefully, as it’s being bombarded with super high levels of stellar radiation, which will eventually destroy any organic material that make up the car, as LiveScience recently reported. Among other things, organic material (anything carbon-based) on the Roadster includes plastics, which make up parts of its windshield and various parts of its interior, along with its carbon-fiber frame.

Indiana University chemist and plastics/organic molecules expert William Carroll told LiveScience that the radiation would randomly snap the bonds within the molecules themselves, causing anything organic to splinter and flake away into the ether — and do it quickly.

“Those organics, in that environment, I wouldn’t give them a year,” Carroll added.

Scientifically, this doesn’t really matter; it’s not as though the Roadster is useful for an exploratory mission, and the mannequin in the driver’s seat won’t be any worse off floating by itself in space. The car just wouldn’t look as good after it’s warped by space — and we won’t even really get to watch that happen, except for the occasional glimpse. According to Musk, the livestream from the car has already gone dead.

Scenario No. 2: Asteroid + Car = Car Pieces.

The Roadster was initially headed for Mars’ orbit, but that’s not where it’s going now, thanks to an unexpectedly powerful boost, as SpaceX reported to NASA (and Musk tweeted). Instead, the car will be moving toward the asteroid belt — or, according to more recent calculations, somewhere near it.

As the name indicates, this area of space is…dense with rocky objects. But it’s not a foregone conclusion the car will end up between a rock and, well, another rock. As Jonathan McDowell, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Vice News: “Whenever you see an asteroid belt in movies, like ‘Star Wars,’ it looks like they’re 10 feet apart. They’re not. When you’re on an asteroid, the next-closest asteroid looks like a distant star. It’s mostly empty space.”

So the odds of the Roadster encountering an object large enough to damage it apart are slim. But they’re not zero.

In the unlikely event that a collision did occur, the car would break up into a zillion pieces, which would contribute to the growing problem of space debris. And space junk could pose a hazard to future space missions. Or the impact could just send pieces of the Roadster off on new trajectories towards Mars or other planets.

Scenario No. 3: The Car Is Pulled Into Orbit Around Mars, and Damages Our Satellites.

We—People of Earth—currently have six active satellites orbiting the Red Planet. Recently, images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter helped scientists identify eight large patches of ice exposed on the surface. This sort of information could be crucial for future human visitors that want something to drink.

Based on its current trajectory, the Roadster should make its closest approach to Mars in October 2020, McDowell tweeted. It’ll be just 4.3 million miles from the Red Planet  pretty close in space terms, but still distant enough that we don’t need to worry that the car would hurtle into the planet itself (it could be pulled in slowly, over a few hundred years, but it won’t crash quickly).

If, however, the Roadster were struck by debris, pieces of it could be propelled into the Martian atmosphere, damaging any spacecraft there.

(Yeah: just like in Gravity.)

As for how scientists using these satellites to study (or even prepare for a potential mission to) Mars would feel about that possibility, the words you’re looking for are “probably not great.” But since that debris likely wouldn’t reach Mars until far in the future, it could also pose a threat to any humans who would be orbiting the planet. And if there’s a future where people are living on Mars? Showering the planet with centuries-old debris from an unused sports car could damage the satellites they use to communicate with Earth. If you think bad drivers with fast cars are irritating now, imagine how annoyed you’d be at that.

Worst Case Scenario, No. 4: The Car Crashes On Mars, Contaminating It With Microbes.

The worst thing that could happen to Musk’s car, if it’s not felled by cosmic rays, an asteroid, an orbital pattern, or a satellite?  It actually makes it on Mars. Or some other celestial body in our solar system. And that debris would basically colonize the planet, eliminating anything that may already exist there. Yeah, it sounds like a reach. And yet:

Mars may have supported life in the past, and there’s a very small chance it hosts some, still. Any Earthly microbes that survived the cold, airless sojourn through space could multiply on Mars, killing off native life. Or it could make it impossible for future science missions to tell the difference between life that was already on Mars, and what we brought there. Same thing could happen if the car (or parts of it) made it to other places that host life in our solar system, like Europa or Enceladus.

But this catastrophic scenario is also the least likely. The Roadster’s so far from any other planet that it would take an extraordinary set of circumstances for this to happen. First, something would have to re-direct the car’s trajectory  a collision with a large object, or a gradual change it its orbit thanks to the pull of other planets and the sun (which The Atlantic reports will indeed happen over hundreds of years). This trajectory change would then have to bring the car near enough to a planet to be sucked into strongly its gravity. Finally, any Roadster remnants would have to make it through the planet’s atmosphere without being burned up entirely  hard enough to accomplish for spacecraft we’ve designed specifically to be able to do so.

But, hey, this is space, where the extraordinary seems to happen an awful lot (like the fact that we exist). So, you never know. And for what it’s worth, at the time of writing, the Roadster was roughly 36,000 miles (58,000 kilometers) from its home planet, and 148 million miles (238 million kilometers) from Mars. That means we’ve got a bit of time to monitor this space traveler, and to prepare for its potential effects (or inevitable demise) far from Earth until Musk’s car becomes an intergalactic pile of parts.

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