A good candidate for the person I’m most tired of hearing about lately: Elon Musk, who was described yesterday by technology writer Steven Levy, in a remark that may be half tongue-in-cheek and may be purely serious, as “our current Visionary In Chief.” (That phrase appeared here.)
In what sense is Musk a visionary? I’m unsure about the origins of the high-speed transportation system called the Hyperloop, though it sounds to me like an updated version of the old pneumatic subway, but none of the other ideas that Musk is associated with were first thought of by him or first made into a business by him. Rockets weren’t made only by governments before he came along; in the United States, they were funded by the government but were made by commercial enterprises, and the idea of commercializing space goes back decades as well. Besides, Musk’s SpaceX company isn’t the only one in the business. Electric cars go back to the late 19th century. The brain-machine interface that Musk’s Neuralink company is working on turned up in science fiction years ago—although for all I know it could’ve originated with an engineer or a biomedical researcher rather than a fiction writer—and it has been a subject of practical research for some time as well.
None of these are necessarily bad ideas, though I have doubts about whether anyone can afford to build a Hyperloop or, if they do, whether many customers will be able to afford to use it. Many of the ideas Musk is pursuing are good ones. In the case of SpaceX and its semi-reusable rockets, a cheaper route to space is probably needed if the high frontier is not to remain almost totally out of reach, and brain-machine interfaces probably need to be pursued to see where they lead, although skepticism is in order for now. Nor does it matter greatly whether Musk originated any of this.
What I want to know is why we think a thing is important if Musk is doing it or talking about it. If artificial intelligence presents a potential threat, that’s true regardless of whether Musk thinks it does, and it was true before he thought to say anything about it—as, for instance, philosopher Nick Bostrom’s work on the subject, published in the 2014 book Superintelligence, shows. But when Maureen Dowd proposed to write about the subject and Vanity Fair magazine agreed, Dowd didn’t hang the warning sign around the neck of Nick Bostrom, who’s not widely known, or on Stephen Hawking or Bill Gates, who are, and who also raised the alarm. It was Musk who carried the flag (the article is here). It’s not hard to say what he has done and is doing, although, as with Steve Jobs before him, the summaries sometimes attribute too much to him. But it’s a little hard to say succinctly why people pay attention to Musk. Rather, it’s easy, but it’s not so complimentary to him or to us. He’s still a technologist, a wealthy entrepreneur, and a person with a few provocative ideas, but as MIT Technology Review pointed out in 2015, Elon Musk is now, in addition, a celebrity, to whom we pay attention because other people are paying attention to him.