Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Elon Musk is about to change our future

What do PayPal, Space-X, Tesla Motors, Solar City, Hyperloop, and OpenAI have in common? Elon Musk. Mr. Musk's business exploits have been compared to the Marvel Comics' character Tony Stark--the rich genius inventor who becomes IronMan.

There are several societal-transforming technologies that this visionary business magnate is developing right now that seem to be on the verge of a revolutionary break-through. But first, let me try to set up a bit of his history for you from Musk's Wikipedia page.

Musk was cofounder of PayPal, a world-wide online payment system. The success, and 2002 sale to eBay, of PayPal allowed Musk to create businesses out of his other interests.

One of Musk's early ventures was to try to buy refurbished Russian ICBM's as rockets for his vision of establishing a privately-owned space exploration company. The Russian deal didn't work out--they wanted too much money, among other things. He decided to build his own rockets--and make them reusable--for only 3% of the current price of rockets being built. After all, it wasn't like this was rocket science or anything. Oh, wait.

So SpaceX was born in 2002 and today we have Elon Musk's dream already delivering goods to the International Space Station, while the booster stage of the rockets land themselves back on the launchpad to fly again. Musk's near-term dream? To colonize Mars, with first manned flights of settlers starting in 2024. That's only 7 years from now, you know.

In 2004 Musk started funding Tesla Motors, an electric car company. In 2008 Musk became the CEO and product architect. Today's Tesla Model-S luxury cars (about $70,000 and up) are fast, quick (0-60 mph in 2.8 seconds for the fastest models), and go about 250 miles between charges. In October, Tesla announced that all cars it manufactures from here forward are being produced with the hardware to be self-driving.

Musk conceived and funded SolarCity in 2006 to slow global warming. It is now the second largest supplier of solar power systems in the US. In August of 2016 Tesla Motors acquired SolarCity.

In 2013 Musk revealed a design concept called Hyperloop. A transportation tube much like the pneumatic tubes at your drive-through bank. A tube between San Francisco and Los Angeles would be the least expensive form of transportation between those cities. It is still in the experimental stage.

Another of Musk's more recent ventures is creating OpenAI, a not-for-profit, artificial intelligence research company. The stated goal is to make AI available to everyone, and not have super-intelligent systems controlled solely by governments or large corporations.

Space exploration, self-driving vehicles, solar energy, intelligent machines--these have been interests of mine off-and-on since childhood. Thus, the technologies that Elon Musk is working on fascinate me. Personal computers (1977 Radio Shack TRS-80), the Internet (1991 World Wide Web open to public), and ubiquitous little phone-computer-cameras (2007 Apple iPhone) tying the world together brought revolutionary technological changes to society in the past 40 years. I believe Elon Musk has society on the cusp of another such transformation--or even several.

I'm pretty sure that colonizing Mars is much harder than just the rockets--it's not even likely at this point that humans can survive cosmic radiation and lack of gravity for the two year trip to Mars. And the success of even small landers on Mars is way less than 50%. I think that robotic asteroid belt or moon mining is more likely as an agent for profitable space travel development than sending settlers to Mars. But NASA certainly isn't doing anything to advance space travel. And who knows what will come from thinking big? Most likely, something we haven't even thought of yet.

Self-driving electric cars would save lives, reduce traffic jams, reduce pollution, and reduce reliance on foreign oil. Such vehicles would probably reduce the total number of privately-owned cars. Self-driving cars that you call up when you need them would certainly change the automobile culture in the United States. Uber has a fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh undergoing trials in a downtown section now. Self-driving cars make the most sense in the near-term as taxis in dense urban areas.

And artificial intelligence? Visual perception, speech recognition, and human-like decision making processes performed by machines. Will intelligent machines take all our jobs or take over the world? Probably neither. But the possibility for changes to society brought by smart machines, self-driving cars, more Eco-friendly energy, cheaper access to space, and the colonizing of Mars are undeniable. Sure, it's the stuff of science fiction-- and likely our near future.