Martian Democracy and Living in the Matrix: Five Crazy Things Elon Musk Said Last Night

Elon Musk SpaceX
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk speaks after unveiling the Dragon V2 spacecraft in Hawthorne, California May 29, 2014. Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Elon Musk was up late last night. Really late. Despite being the last speaker for the Code Conference, he kept the audience waiting for 45 minutes before coming onstage. And somehow, the PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX founder made the wait so worth it.

The conversation veered from the usual-suspect questions—his plans for Tesla and SpaceX, and his opinions on self-driving cars—to something more like high school friends talking after ripping a fat bong (according to people in attendance, not my conjecture). He laid out the political foundations for a Mars colony, raised concerns about rogue AI and went full "David After Dentist."

There is a lot to parse in Musk's hour and a half interview, but here are five selections that really capture his imagination and ambition.

Direct democracy on Mars instead of a representative democracy. Musk believes that a Mars colony will have a direct democracy system, with a very flexible legal code. "The potential for corruption is substantially less in a direct democracy," said Musk, who joking declared himself "the king of Mars." "It should probably be easier to remove a law than to create one. Laws have infinite life until taken away."

His small-government views were also shared when he was asked about the 2016 presidential election. "I think the framers of the Constitution made sure the president was the captain of a large ship with a small rudder," said Musk, who is South African.

Are we living in a simulation matrix? During a Q&A panel, Musk was asked about his thoughts on whether we are living in a simulated world created by an advanced civilization. Of course, he replied. In fact, he and his brother have banned talking about the topic when they are in a hot tub together.

Musk cited what he considers strong evidence for why we are living in a simulation: The rate of technological growth over the past few decades is so steep that it seems improbable. While not giving a straight answer, he said we inevitably will build—or some other civilization already has—a simulation that mimics our current reality. "If you assume any rate of growth, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality," he noted. There is a one in a billion chance that we are not living in a simulation, he said.

The risk of despotic AI—whose creator's name may start with the letter G. Musk subscribes to the school of thought that says hyper-intelligent AI will mean doom for mankind. Accordingly, he founded OpenAI last year to promote open-source-friendly AI to avoid any robot-driven cataclysms. "The power of AI should not be concentrated in the hands of a few," he said. "It's called the singularity because it's difficult to predict. I don't know a lot of people who love the idea of living under a despot."

Only one Silicon Valley company working on AI scares him, he said. Asked if that one company is building self-driving cars, as Tesla is, he demurred, saying, "There is only one."

"We're already a cyborg." Assuming that the rate of growth in AI continues at this pace, Musk said, AI will become our overlord and humans will be reduced to a pet role, like a house cat. (And that's the best-case scenario.) "I don't want to become a house cat," he said.

Instead of letting robots go wild, Musk proposes that we become partners with AI by having an AI "third layer above the cortex" in our brains, with a neural lace that goes over the brain like a hairnet. This layer will work symbiotically with the body. And why not? We already have "superpowers," thanks to the internet. "You already have more power than the president of the United States did 20 years ago," Musk said.

"The future is to be a space-faring civilization." Musk took a long time explaining the finer details of his SpaceX company and its reusable rockets, describing gravity as a "four-dimensional coin funnel" and talking about the physics of his rockets' waffle-like grid fins that coordinate their upright landing.

He said SpaceX will be sending out rockets every few weeks, with plans to send astronauts to Mars by 2018. The billionaire hopes to launch regular people to Mars in 2024 and have them return the next year. "When I say multi-planet species, that's what we want to be," he said. "It's about extending onto other planets and eventually other star systems."

Martian Democracy and Living in the Matrix: Five Crazy Things Elon Musk Said Last Night | Tech & Science