Elon Musk might be the most interesting person on the planet. And given his passionate quest (so far surprisingly on track) to make humans into a multiplanetary species, he could someday become the most interesting person in the solar system.
O.K., those statements may be hyperbole. But Musk’s ability to turn hyperbole into reality is one of his superpowers. Through his intense focus on driving every problem down to the level of basic physics, he has already earned himself a spot in the pantheon of history’s great innovators.
His endeavors are not merely digital concoctions conjured up in a dorm room or garage. They involve devising and manufacturing physical products, such as cars and batteries and rocket ships, like America used to be able to do:
Tesla (no, Mr. President, not General Motors) is the primary driving force transporting the world into the age of electric cars. And self-driving ones.
Tesla Energy, with its solar roof tiles and battery walls, is heralding an era of decentralized, carbon-free electricity.
SpaceX has enabled the U.S. to launch humans into orbit for the first time since NASA shut down the space shuttle program a decade ago.
Starlink has deployed more than 1,800 satellites and is quietly rebuilding the Internet in space.
Neuralink is making the next great leap in the storied history of human-machine interfaces by creating implants that can link to the neurons of a brain.
The Boring Co. is building tunnels designed to conquer the scourge of traffic.
And Starship, the biggest rocket ever built, will someday take us to Mars.
Musk’s input-output mechanisms can be unnerving. He displays a manic wackiness and semicalculated craziness that occasionally skitters, like a too early beta version of Full Self-Driving, across the line between wiliness and weirdness. With ultracapacitor bursts of energy, he is addicted to sparking dramas that he can use for strategic purposes. Having endured psychological and physical violence as a kid in South Africa, he has a greater-than-normal mental ability to calculate risk and emotional ability to tolerate it.
As a biographer who has covered the shapers of technological revolutions, I see in Musk many of the traits of earlier innovators. Like Thomas Edison, he knows that vision without execution is hallucination, a weakness that sometimes hobbled the original Tesla, as in Nikola. So he expends 90% of his time on the nuts and bolts (literally) of his products.
Like Henry Ford, he understands the importance not only of the products he devises but also the factories that can churn them out. His gigafactories for cars and batteries—in the U.S., Germany and China—are showing that innovative methods for manufacturing a product are even more important than innovative products themselves.
Like Steve Jobs, he is reinventing multiple industries with the strategic use of reality-distortion fields. He questions every assumption in order to drill down to the first principles of physics.
Like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, he has a hardcore intensity that can drive colleagues (and himself) to near madness but also drive them to do things they thought were impossible.
And like Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci, he has an obsessive but playful curiosity about all of the wonders of nature that helps him see patterns across disparate fields.
But more than most other great innovators, Musk is driven by a larger sense of mission. He has a fierce urge to make life on this planet sustainable, turn humans into a spacefaring species, and assure that artificial intelligence will be beneficial rather than malign to us mortals. These goals are audacious, and he may fail. But at the moment, he has become the most important single individual in designing and deploying the innovations that will bring us a few steps closer to each of these aspirations.
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