Elon Musk, blasting off in domestic bliss
By Maureen Dowd
So how do the King of Mars, his Galactic Princess and their newborn son, X Æ A-Xii, spend a Saturday night holed up in their Los Angeles pad?
A little anime — lately it’s been “Death Note” and “Evangelion”. Lots of late-night debates about the potential and danger of artificial intelligence. And many audiobooks and podcasts, particularly ones about history.
“Right now, we’re going back to Genghis Khan for like the third time, and the Mongols, I guess,” said the Galactic Princess, otherwise known as Grimes, otherwise known as Claire Boucher, otherwise known as “c,” her initial and the symbol for the speed of light.
“You seem to be obsessed with that,” she teased her boyfriend about Genghis Khan.
Grimes, the singer and artist, and Elon Musk, the rocket man and Tesla magnate, have an otherworldly romance. Which works out well since Musk wants to occupy Mars, in case malevolent robots or an engineered virus threaten Earth, and then die on Mars, just not on impact.
The couple has a baby with the most unusual name, which they shorten to “X.” Musk said it’s pronounced “just like the letter X. AE is pronounced ‘ash’, as in Old English. A-12 is also pronounced just like it reads. Refers to the Archangel-12 CIA reconnaissance plane.”
At the mention of his status as the prince of the internet, with memes about how he cries in old-school AOL dial-up tones, X begins crying. (From what I could hear, it sounded pretty human.)
“Oh, X,” c said sweetly, when the baby wailed. She said she calls her son “Little X,” and Musk chimed in, “Lil Nas X.” (“Who is actually the greatest memer,” Grimes said of the rapper.) Musk, a digital prankster who loves mixing it up with his fans, has tweeted a picture with a tattoo filter on his son’s face, responding to one admirer, “Never too young for some ink haha.”
Elon Musk with his son. (Pic: Twitter)
I had an hourlong phone interview with Musk, 49, who has been bouncing around in the Top 10 list of richest Earthlings, and for a few moments he drew in Grimes for a cameo.
His personal life has been as vertiginous as his professional life: married three times, twice to the same woman, Talulah Riley, an actress who played a lethal sexbot on “Westworld.” He has six children. And he had a high-profile romance with Amber Heard, leading to his name being dragged through the sensational London libel trial pitting Heard against her former husband, Johnny Depp — a legal morass that makes the attenuated “Bleak House” case of “Jarndyce and Jarndyce” seem short and sweet.
“I definitely was not having an affair with Amber while she was married to Johnny, this is totally false,” Musk said, disputing Depp’s claim.
Crazy in Love
Now comes an intriguing romance with Grimes, 32, who when she was pregnant floated in ethereal cyber-goth images by Charlotte Rutherford for a Rolling Stone digital cover. (The story, by Brian Hiatt, described Grimes’ Targaryen blanket and her description of herself and the baby as nocturnal creatures.)
A fan on her Reddit page described her as a hybrid of a fairy, a witch and a cyborg — pretty much Musk’s dream girl — and she has talked about going through a Wiccan phase in seventh grade.
“Yeah, she’s pretty special, that’s for sure,” Musk said, with his lilting South African accent. “She’s one of the most unusual people I’ve ever met.”
I wonder how it works with two such exotic birds.
“We’ve had this debate of ‘Are you more crazy than me or am I more crazy than you?’” Musk said.
Certainly, the titan can be a romantic. He courted Riley by lavishing her with 500 roses and a gospel choir to serenade her. Visibly distraught over his breakup with Heard in 2017, he told Neil Strauss in a Rolling Stone cover story: “If I’m not in love, if I’m not with a long-term companion, I cannot be happy.” He added that he needed a soul mate because he hates “being in a big empty house, and the footsteps echoing through the hallway, no one there — and no one on the pillow next to you.”
Grimes and Musk made their public debut at the Met Gala in 2018, which had a Catholic theme.
“She was wearing a head piece made of Vantablack, the blackest black that anything could be,” he recalled to me. “There was only one person who noticed and that was Stephen Colbert. On the back of my tuxedo jacket — which was sort of like an inverted priest jacket with the jacket being white and the collar being black — I had in big, black, gothic script, “Novus ordo seclorum.” (Often translated as “New secular order,” the maxim on the dollar bill.)
AFPElon Musk with his partner Grimes.
I love how-people-met stories, but this was the wildest one I’d ever heard: Two famous people who thought they were crazy when they were little because there were so many off-the-wall ideas bursting out of their heads somehow found each other.
Musk, who spent years warning that his friends in Silicon Valley, like Google’s Larry Page, may inadvertently be “summoning the demon” and creating killer robots or an invisible evil AI that would wipe out humanity, was about to tweet a pun about a thought experiment called Roko’s Basilisk, about a wicked AI who tortures those who didn’t help it become our overlord.
Intending to make a pun about Rococo Basilisk, he was Googling for an image of a basilisk with a rococo flair when he came across a 2015 music video for “Flesh Without Blood,” in which Grimes dresses as a rococo basilisk.
“And then it’s like, whoa, someone’s done a music video of this?” Musk recalled. “It wasn’t a joke to me, actually,” Grimes weighed in. Musk laughed, agreeing, “Rococo basilisk is no joke!”
“I just thought it sounded prettier than Roko’s Basilisk, like adding a rococo element just elevates it,” she said.
Musk said that “c has gotten quite worried about AI in the last few weeks. I think GPT-3” — the latest AI tool that has Silicon Valley buzzing — “has caused her to become quite concerned. And I’m like, ‘Welcome to me circa 10 years ago.’”
They also have Canada in common. Grimes was raised there, and Musk immigrated there from South Africa at 17. He jokes that if X isn’t the prince of the internet, he can be “the prince of Canada.”
What is it like being a father again at this age?
“I think babies are supercool and really people need to have more babies because, it sounds obvious, but if people don’t have enough babies, humanity will disappear,” he said.
But how does he have any time to spend with his children, given his insane work schedule?
“Well, babies are just eating and pooping machines, you know?” he said. “Right now there’s not much I can do. Grimes has a much bigger role than me right now. When the kid gets older, there will be more of a role for me. I think just doing what I’ve done with my other kids. If I have a trip for Tesla to China, for example, I’ll bring the kids with me and we’ll go see the Great Wall or we took the bullet train from Beijing to Xian and saw the Terracotta Warriors.” He created an online school for his older kids, which he said has “actually worked out pretty well.”
I asked Musk, who has given money to both Democratic and Republican candidates, if Grimes, who supported Bernie Sanders, had an influence on his recent decision to disencumber himself of his houses, including a quirky one once owned by Gene Wilder.
“Well,” he said, “she thinks I should hold on to at least one house.”
So he’s ready to be a homeless billionaire?
Laughing, he mused, “I guess we’ll just rent a place somewhere? And yeah, in some ways, possessions weigh you down. And also, I just have all these houses but nobody is using them. I use them infrequently. In the Bay Area, for example from 2002 to 2017, I never owned a house and I was there half the week so I would either sleep at the factory or in a friend’s spare bedroom or on a couch or in a hotel. I did that for 15 years.” He said he could always crash with his fellow billionaires Page and Sergey Brin.
“It was actually, in retrospect, kind of good because you end up rotating through friends’ houses and you catch up with them and stay in contact, whereas these days, I have been staying in this strange Gatsby-like house, what I call the haunted mansion, and it’s a bit bleak, to be totally frank,” he said. “The house itself is beautiful but, you know, it’s like Wayne Manor without Alfred.”
He had thought about designing his own “aspirational masterpiece of a house,” but decided that it would take bandwidth away from his work “getting people to Mars and environmental sustainability and accelerating stable energy.”
When I mention the nickname that Kara Swisher, a New York Times tech columnist, has bestowed on him, King of Mars, he slyly gives himself a promotion: “Sure, I mean, emperor, come on.”
Big Dreams; Hates Seams
The billionaire laughs a lot during the interview. He has come out on the other side of two of the most painful, lachrymose years that any entrepreneur could imagine, with self-inflicted wounds and schadenfreude galore.
“I think I’m a little scathed, yeah,” Musk said, adding: “I mean, basically, there was a period from end of 2017 to about, I guess, the middle of last year, that was excruciating.”
Peter Thiel, who helped build the company that became PayPal with Musk, told me, “He’s on top of the world. All of the people who have been shorting Tesla stock, who constitute a kind of ‘hate factory’ against the company, have been totally crushed. And that makes him very happy.” (Blowing a raspberry to his hedge fund foes, Musk produced a sold-out line of Tesla short shorts on his website for $69.420 apiece.)
Musk is so transparent that he seems heedless at times, in ways that make his investors nervous and his fan boys thrilled.
“The people who love him and the people who hate him are equally irrational,” said Ashlee Vance, Musk’s biographer. “It reminds me of Steve Jobs. It’s way beyond business or celebrity. It strikes me as religious, more than anything. His fans are acolytes.” (Musk is also like Jobs in his obsession with sleek design; he hates seams.)
Critics called him reckless in reopening his Tesla factory in Alameda County, California, in early May, after it had been closed since March 23 because of the coronavirus; he dared local officials to arrest him and threatened to move the factory to Texas or Nevada.
But his friends think it’s all part of the ride. They describe his internal narrative as going something like this: “I’m going to take over the world. That’s going to be a super-crazy process. And therefore, if the roller coaster ride isn’t incredibly scary, I’m doing something wrong.” And after Jobs, boards learned their lesson about pushing out visionaries in favor of gray-haired corporate suits.
Tesla stock has tripled in the last several months. Musk is the first person in almost a century to come out of nowhere and create a car company with that much volume, showing other plodding car companies how electric cars can be cool, sexy and incredibly efficient.
And with SpaceX, Musk provided a moment so bold and brimming with American razzmatazz that it lifted us briefly out of our pandemic-induced funk. When his Crew Dragon spacecraft launched two NASA astronauts in May from the legendary Florida pad that once served Apollo missions, it was a reminder of when America was first and fast and made things, coming at a dark time when even masks and ventilators seemed beyond our manufacturing reach and when our government appears so incapable of getting coronavirus under control that the European Union has banned Americans from coming in.
As a boy, Elon loved “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” and now he shoots astronauts into the Milky Way. How did that moment feel? “It’s amazing,” he said. “I mean, I’m sort of seeing everything that’s wrong or could go wrong.”
He has called Jeff Bezos, who has acquired a self-driving startup and founded the space travel company, Blue Origin, a copycat, tweeting a cat emoji. “The rate of progress is too slow and the amount of years he has left is not enough, but I’m still glad he’s doing what he’s doing with Blue Origin,” Musk said.
Congress is bringing the four top tech CEOs to Washington next week for an antitrust inquiry. How does Musk think Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg have handled fears about Facebook hurting democracy?
“I am not super-confident,” he said. “I’m, like, not pro-Facebook. I don’t have a Facebook page. SpaceX and Tesla deleted their Facebook pages. SpaceX and Tesla do have an Instagram but I think it’s relatively harmless. So I think Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg still have a lot of work to do to restore public trust in Facebook itself.”
In his spare time, Musk is working on tunnels that would alleviate urban traffic jams, an idea he dreamed up while stuck in Los Angeles traffic; spaceports that could catapult you from New York to Shanghai in 39 minutes; a hyperloop that would let you scoot between D.C. and New York in half an hour; a neural net that would be sewn or lasered into brains to fuse us with computers, which would potentially allow us to compete with super-intelligent rogue AI and could also restore the ability to walk, hear, speak or see; and solar initiatives and lightweight lithium batteries to make mitigating climate change cheaper and more accessible.
“I have lots of ideas, more ideas than I can act upon,” said the man who insists he is an engineer, not a businessman or investor. “I tend to bite off more than I can chew and then just sit there with chipmunk cheeks.”
Indeed, Musk is a rare product of Silicon Valley who actually enjoys biting and chewing. Many people there, obsessed with living longer, chug Soylent or practice intermittent fasting, like Jack Dorsey, the chief executive of Twitter.
“I love going to a restaurant that’s doing something special with food,” Musk said, “and I think really if you are not appreciating this, then you are not appreciating one of the finest things about living.”
The view of Silicon Valley has grown darker in recent years, as Americans realized that the lords of the cloud who were supposed to improve our lives were carelessly harvesting our data and allowing themselves to be disinformation factories.
Musk’s peers may mock him for his grandiosity and say that his worldview of good battling evil is just a smart business stance to lure the best people. And he is certainly a grandmaster at marketing and self-promotion. But he also really does want to save the world and make products that bring joy. A few years back, he deserted Silicon Valley for “Silicone Valley,” as he calls Los Angeles.
Musk was painted as a Luddite, “hysterical” in the estimation of Zuckerberg, for what his friends called “Elon’s crusade,” his proselytizing that we should figure out safety features for AI before it gets smarter than us.
He may not be as fortissimo about it, but he still feels passionately about “the AI warning drama game,” as he dryly put it. In the past, talking about AI turning on us, he has used the Monty Python line, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.”
“My assessment about why AI is overlooked by very smart people is that very smart people do not think a computer can ever be as smart as they are,” he told me. “And this is hubris and obviously false.”
He adds that working with AI at Tesla lets him say with confidence “that we’re headed toward a situation where AI is vastly smarter than humans and I think that time frame is less than five years from now. But that doesn’t mean that everything goes to hell in five years. It just means that things get unstable or weird.”
The hack last week of the Twitter accounts of Musk, Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Kanye West, Bill Gates and other celebrities in a bitcoin scam reinforced the idea that everyone’s information is at risk.
“Within a few minutes of the post coming up, I immediately got texts from a bunch of people I know, then I immediately called Jack so probably within less than five minutes my account was locked,” Musk said, referring to Dorsey.
Was he concerned that the hack would allow people to see his direct messages?
Chortling, he said. “I’m not that concerned about my DMs being made public. I mean, we can probably cherry pick some section of my DMs that sound bad out of context but overall my DMs mostly consist of swapping memes.”
What was it like for the guy who dabbled in hacking as a teenager and who lives out loud on Twitter with 37 million followers to have his favorite megaphone hijacked?
“Well, I was quite ill,” he said. “I think I had food poisoning or something, so you throw up incredibly violently with food poisoning. So I was kind of ill during a lot of it, the Twitter takeover. But I think it’s good anyway to take a few breaks from Twitter and not be on there 24 hours a day. Twitter can mess with your mind.”
He added: “If you’re going down a negative rabbit hole on Twitter, it can make you miserable, that’s for sure.” (As Musk learned again when he got sued for defamation, unsuccessfully, for the “pedo guy” tweet by a British cave explorer helping with the rescue of children trapped in a cave in Thailand.)
His shoot-from-the-hip style on Twitter played a prominent role in what he calls the most painful period of his career. Working 120 hours a week to get out his Model 3, including 24 hours on his birthday, and feeling enormous stress from the short sellers he felt were trying to destroy Tesla, he sent out a tweet that he had “funding secured” to take his company private at $420 a share, even though it was premature.
He said he rounded that number up from $419 in part to amuse Grimes — 4/20 is the stoner’s holiday. But it caused more trouble. (Even though he sparked up on Joe Rogan’s podcast, Musk said he’s not a big pot smoker because it makes you too logy.)
Musk’s mad energy and tendency to dream big and overpromise were reflected in that tweet, which blew up in his face spectacularly. The SEC fined him and his company $20 million apiece, and he had to forfeit his chairman title for three years.
The scandal hit warp speed when Azealia Banks, the rapper who relishes tangling with celebrities and who happened to be at Musk’s house then to work on music with Grimes, posted an unflattering Instagram story about what she described as a meltdown inside his house.
Grimes told Rolling Stone that the contretemps was “a sad, dark thing. I just, like, forgive her, and forgiving her is really, really hard.” She recalled that she lost it. “I felt I had caused the downfall of everything I care about and everyone I care about,” she said, adding that Musk calmed her down by snapping his fingers in front of her face and telling her to snap out of it because “You have to be in a battle right now.”
How did Musk stop the unraveling?
He poured himself even more into his work, staying on “the front lines with a sword and shield.” The herculean nature of turning Tesla into a well-oiled machine, he said, has not been “well appreciated.”
“The logistics are mind-boggling, trying to deliver 7,000 cars per week in 40 different countries,” he said. “There were just a bunch of mistakes that we made in creating the production system.”
For many of the coastal elites for whom a Tesla is a status symbol, Musk’s laissez-faire approach to the pandemic was disappointing, and sounded way too Trumpian. In the spring, when his California factory was shut down, he called stay-at-home orders “fascist” and tweeted, “FREE AMERICA NOW.”
“I think the reality of COVID is that it is dangerous if you’re elderly and have preexisting conditions,” he said, adding: “It absolutely makes sense to have a lockdown if you’re vulnerable, but I do not think it makes sense to have a lockdown if you’re not vulnerable.” He said he may have had COVID in January and he wears a mask on the factory floor.
Musk sat on business advisory councils for President Donald Trump early in his administration but bounced once Trump ripped up the Paris climate accord. Still, Trump was there for Musk’s rocket launch.
“We did not talk privately, but he did comment to congratulate the SpaceX team,” he said. The president has called Musk “one of our great geniuses,” likening him to Thomas Edison.
Does he blanch at being clasped in the MAGA embrace?
“I’ll take the compliment,” said Musk, who has also said that the idea of the Space Force is “cool.”
Musk has to go. There’s an earnings call. Tesla’s fortunes are soaring that day and he announces a new Tesla gigafactory in Austin, Texas, promising it will be “an ecological paradise” on the Colorado River with hiking and biking, open to the public.
On the call, he can’t resist “banging the AI drum” again, as he puts it, flatly stating about those who can’t imagine that a computer could be smarter than a human: “They’re just way dumber than they think they are.” But for now, until AI makes its move, things are good in Elonworld. And there are a lot of galaxies out there to conquer.