It’s not that Elon Musk isn’t one of the world’s most interesting people. As enumerated by South by Southwest chief programming officer Hugh Forrest in his introduction of a late-added Q&A session at ACL Live at the Moody Theater, Musk checks off a lot of boxes that the event looks for in choosing its major talkers.
“Involved in a couple of successful startups... Not afraid to take some big chances... Likes things that go fast and far, and has a big-picture vision of the future,” Forrest said. It doesn’t hurt, he added, that Musk’s interests in film and music (not for nothing is he often compared to Marvel’s Iron Man, Tony Stark) dovetail nicely with SXSW.
It’s that − and this is a complete guess − the man maybe didn’t get enough coffee Sunday morning. And he said he had a small cold. And, as documented on Instagram, he’d been hanging out with Snoop Dogg the night before.
Whatever the reason, Musk’s Q&A session with “Westworld” co-creator Jonathan Nolan was less “Wow!” than “Huh, interesting,” less full of dynamic showmanship than a more grounded representation of a detail-oriented billionaire with a lot on his mind trying to solve some of the world’s big problems with his companies SpaceX, Telsa and The Boring Company (the one looking to make tunnels and underground highways a thing).
As has been happening at SXSW this year, the majority of the questions were from audience members invited to the presentation using an online tool called “SLIDO.”
Slido has streamlined a lot of the talks at this year’s South by Southwest, giving panel moderators a way to draw questions from the crowd without relying on microphones and audience members who’d rather make a five-minute comment than ask a 30-word question. But it has also made the Q&A sessions a little airless and much less spontaneous. It might be that there’s a little over-curation going on.
Partly because of this, the session was made up largely of questions, from a crowd that had stretched all the way around The W building, such as: “Who inspires YOU?” and “Mars. How can we help?” Musk either used these questions as opportunities for half-serious answers (”Well, Kanye West, obviously,” he answered on the former) or to admit that he didn’t have much of an answer. On Mars: “Just general support and encouragement and good goodwill.”
Tony Stark would not be impressed.
People were there, it seemed, to see how this entrepreneur’s mind works, but the most fascinating thing was how ready Musk is to get into the weeds on the costs of what he’s doing (the cost equation, for instance, of big rocket ships to Mars versus the reusable Falcon ones) or why a colony on Mars could usher in a lot of entrepreneurship opportunities once built. (”We’d need everything from iron foundries to pizza joints to nightclubs,” he said).
And when he’s not blowing your mind, he can be quite humble. He said that at SpaceX he only took a rocket engineering position because he couldn’t find someone to fill the role and will gladly step aside when he finds someone better. “I think my role is to make sure (SpaceX employees) have an environment where their talents can really come to the fore,” Musk said.
But it was Musk’s talk of his darkest moments and what worries him that were most compelling. He spoke of the period in 2008 when he went through a divorce, had three rocket failures in a row with SpaceX and watched Tesla almost go bankrupt. He had to choose between investing in one company, which would ensure the other would fail, or splitting an investment in both with the possibility they’d both fail.
And if there’s anything keeping him up at night it’s worrying about the dangers of unchecked artificial intelligence research (”I’m very close to cutting edge of AI -- it scares the Hell out of ME. It’s capable of vastly more than almost anyone knows. The rate of improvement is exponential.") He’s also worried about production problems on Tesla’s more-affordable Model 3 line of electric cars, but says his team is working hard on that (”We’re making good progress, but it’s hard,” he said.)
Better video coming soon, but it would look a bit like this: pic.twitter.com/C0iJPi8b4U— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 9, 2018
It’s probably too much to ask that Musk be a Steve Jobs-like showman at every turn. Sometimes that can backfire as when he emerged for the talk dancing to “My Little Buttercup” from “The Three Amigos” or made good on a Twitter threat to perform the song with his brother on stage (something nobody in attendance asked for or could ever want). When someone at a tech talk comes on stage wearing a cowboy hat and carrying a guitar, you know something is about to go horribly wrong. Luckily, it lasted only a verse, and then it was over.
These dorky moments were very dad-like (his kids, by the way, are at South by Southwest and got to see the “Westworld” town activation), but no one in attendance could have doubted from Musk’s appearance that the guy is working hard a lot of the time trying to build some kind of altered future for humanity. He might just need a little rest, just like everyone else on day three of South by Southwest.