Elon Musk sees a long-term role for cryptocurrency, “but I don’t think it’s the second coming of the Messiah,” he said at the Code Conference this week.
The SpaceX and Tesla chief noted that cryptocurrency is fundamentally aimed at reducing the power of a centralized government, which rankles authoritarian countries like China, where cryptocurrency mining and trading were just deemed illegal.
People should think of any form of money as a form of information, according to Musk, who said he’s positive about crypto in part because he knows how money works in the real world, as opposed to economic theory. The current system relies on a series of heterogeneous databases that aren’t real-time, with the exception of PayPal (which he co-founded) and several others.
This results in latency and jitter, Musk said; he also has issues with Automated Clearing House (ACH) security. He’s hopeful that crypto will reduce errors and latency in the current system to produce a more fair system. Then, governments can’t “put their hand in the kitty jar,” he said. “It is not possible to destroy crypto, but it is possible for governments to slow it down.”
Why Is Musk Still on Earth?
Musk, whose titles are Technoking of Tesla and Chief Engineer at SpaceX, was interviewed by Code producer Kara Swisher and talked about a wide variety of topics, but the bulk of their conversation dealt with space.
Asked why he did not send himself up to space yet, Musk said his goal is not flight for himself, but to open up space for humanity and eventually help us become a multi-planetary species.
Currently, SpaceX is providing orbital space flight and transport of cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station. In addition, it enables Starlink, a global internet service provider, designed to serve rural areas that lack adequate broadband. Starlink has 1,500 satellites now, with a goal of 30,000. This will allow for high bandwidth and low latency, which will require lots of satellites in low Earth orbit. This is not threat to 5G or terrestrial fiber, he insisted, but well-suited to low-to-medium density places on Earth and serving the least served 5% of the planet.
Musk claims the launch side of the SpaceX business provides $3 or $4 billion in revenue. But 3% of global internet revenue would be $30 billion, and SpaceX will use the proceeds to create the technology to get humanity to Mars and other places in the solar system, he said.
Must also discussed Starship, SpaceX’s next-generation rocket. He noted that the current Falcon 9 is mostly reusable, but still must lose the upper stage, which is the equivalent of a small jet airplane. So in the best case, SpaceX is still “throwing away $15 million” per flight. Still, that is half to a third of the cost of alternatives due to the amount of reusability. With Starship, the goal is to get to only 1% of the rocket being non-reusable, so it could launch 100 to 150 tons for $1 million, providing 10 times the payload for 15 times less cost. Musk is trying to make the economics work for a self-sustaining base on Mars and the moon.
Starship is designed as a general-purpose transport system with a propulsive lander designed for orbital refilling that can touch down anywhere with a solid surface. Asked about a potential moonbase, Musk said there is a lot we could learn scientifically if we had a laboratory on the moon, “and it would be just frigging cool.” While only a few people actually went to the moon with the Apollo program, “we all went with them vicariously,” he noted, and it was inspiring to kids everywhere.
Suing Your Way to Outer Space
Musk was a bit dismissive of suborbital flights, like the one Jeff Bezos recently completed. He noted that it takes 100 times more energy to get to orbit than sub-orbit, and it requires a special heat shield to get back. On Bezos’ Blue Origin suing NASA over how it awarded a lunar lander contract to SpaceX, Musk remarked: “You can’t sue your way to the moon.”
Still, space tourism flights have “a bit more gravitas than simply tourism,” Musk acknowledged. Emerging technology is always expensive at first, attracting deep-pocketed enthusiasts. Early cell phones were expensive and unimpressive, for example, but had people not shelled out for these pricey devices, we wouldn’t have inexpensive smartphones today, he argued.
Similarly, the Tesla Roadster was derided as a toy sports car for rich people, but there was no way Tesla could have started out with an affordable car. It required many design iterations, a lot of hard work, and scaling up production to be able to make affordable cars, Musk said.
Musk believes that going to Mars will be affordable someday, and that is important if we are to become a multi-planetary species. A critical threshold would be self-sustainability so that if resupply ships stop coming for any reason, the Mars colony won’t die out. He hopes we can “pass this filter” as soon as possible, hopefully by the end of the century.
This is important to ensure that consciousness continues: “If we want to understand what the universe is about and the meaning of life, we have to get out there,” he said.
On other space topics, he said Starlink is working with leading astronomers so that its satellites will not interfere with their telescopes, and that Starship will allow for new telescopes that offer 10 times the resolution of Hubble.
Tesla AutoPilot and Crashing the Electrical Grid
On self-driving cars, where Google has stated that having drivers responsible for taking over in some situations is unrealistic, Musk said that a transition period to new technology is always bumpy. Tesla has published its safety statistics and there’s a factor of 10 difference between crashes per miles driven on Autopilot and miles driven manually.
“People are not great at driving these two-ton death machines,” Musk said. “They get tired, drunk, or text, and cars crash.” He said he was warned that if you reduce fatalities by 90% with autonomy, the 10% will sue you while the 90% don’t even know that’s why they are alive. “The reality of doing the right thing is better than the perception of doing the right thing.”
Musk is concerned about the impact that electric vehicles will have on the grid. If we replace gasoline, electricity demand will roughly double, he said, requiring new power distribution lines and bigger substations. It is unworkable without local power generation in homes, which is why Tesla sells local solar power generation for roofs at homes.
It will also require large sustainable power generation with batteries, but Musk claims a lot of good things are happening, such as a 40% annual growth rate in solar, and similar growth in wind. While he wouldn’t necessarily build new nuclear plants, we shouldn’t shut down the ones that are operating safely, he said. “One way or another we’ll need more electricity generation, mostly solar and wind.”
Asked about what China is doing to technology companies, he said part of this may be COVID-related, because their system runs on in-person meetings, which have been difficult to conduct. Tesla has a big factory in China, where things are going well, so Musk said he is not especially worried about the US-China relationship now.
As always, Musk made a lot of amusing comments on a variety of subjects. He referred to the Securities and Exchange Commission, a frequent foe, as the “Short-seller Enrichment Commission.” Asked about his frequent use of Twitter, he said that “Some people use their hair to express themselves; I use Twitter.” On taxes, he said there is a lot of misleading stuff published about him; and that when he is forced to exercise his stock options at the end of the year, he’ll pay a marginal tax rate of 53%.
Meanwhile, Musk said people should be open to psychedelics, and noted that despite the stories of conflicts, we’re living at a very peaceful moment in human history, with comparatively very low rates of violence.
Swisher concluded by bringing up Musk’s comments at Code few years ago about whether we’re living in a simulation. What does he think now? “My heart says no, but my brain says yes.”