What do Artificial Intelligence, space exploration, electric cars, and planetary transportation tubes have in common? Aside from being common fixtures in Science Fiction, what unites these ideas is the one man behind them all, the man who plans on sustainably bringing them into existence for the benefit of all humanity: Elon musk. In this article Dima Issa takes a candid look at this Innovative icon.
It’s rare to find a man whose work involves saving the planet, exploring the cosmos, and understanding the nature of consciousness in one, as each is a task befitting a lifetime. So how did it come to be that the 53rd richest person in the world (according to Forbes magazine) and the 21st most powerful person became determined to use his power for planetary change?
Early life Musk was born in 1971 in South Africa. He was a self-described geek, voraciously read science fiction, and had an aptitude for self-learning. As such, he had a tough time at school in Pretoria, and was perceived as an outcast. He was badly bullied, to say the least, and ended up in hospital on a few occasions. In spite of, or perhaps because of the animosity he faced, he would often read for 10 hours a day — a lot of science fiction initially, and then a lot of non-fiction too.
At the age of nine, his fascination broadened to technology, when he got his hands on his first computer. It came with five kilobytes of memory and a user manual that was supposed to take the user six months to complete. Nine-year-old Elon finished it in three days. Not surprisingly, by the time he was 12 he had designed and created his own computer game, Blaster, which he sold to a PC company for $500.
By age 17 he left South Africa forever. He hadn’t been able to identify with the culture there, and had a vision of living and working in Silicon Valley — which he saw as the Promised Land of futurism and technology. He immigrated to Canada, thanks to his mother’s Canadian citizenship, and then a few years later transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, as his golden ticket into America.
Early career In college, his love of science-fiction literature led him to ask himself a very powerful question, “What will most affect the future of humanity?” and the answer he came up with was a list of five things: the internet; sustainable energy; space exploration, in particular the permanent extension of life beyond Earth; artificial intelligence; and reprogramming the human genetic code.
He decided to pursue sustainable energy initially, enrolling in a Stanford PhD program to study high energy density capacitors, a technology aimed at finding more efficient ways to store energy than the non-renewable form of the battery. However, two days into the program he got itchy feet. The year was 1995, and the internet wave was growing into a tsunami — which Elon intended to surf!
The internet so he crossed off sustainable energy as his starting point (intending to return to it at a later time) and embarked on a journey following the first item on his list to change the future of humanity: the internet. He tried interviewing with Netscape, but was too shy to secure the position, and instead teamed up with his brother Kimbal (who had followed Elon to the United States) to start their own company — Zip2.
Tim Urban, the mind behind the WaitButWhy blog, describes Zip2 as being “like a primitive combination of Yelp and Google Maps, far before anything like either of those existed. The goal was to get businesses to realize that being in the Yellow Pages would soon become outdated, and that it was a good idea to get themselves into an online directory.”
Taking risks just like anyone taking a risk and starting their own company, out of college, times were tough initially for the ‘just out of college’ brothers. They had to resort to sleeping in the office and showering at the local community center.
Their hard work paid off and in 1999, at the peak of the internet boom of the nineties, they sold their company for $307 million. Musk, who was 27, made $22 million in his share.
Empire building any other 27 year old might have seen this as the apex of their career, and would have folded their arms smugly as they embarked on an early retir