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Elon Musk: what the tech genius is teaching the church

The founder of PayPal is on a mission to protect the human race from extinction. Tim Bechervaise looks at what the Church can learn from him

There is a scene in Iron Man 2 where Elon Musk makes a brief appearance alongside Robert Downey Jr’s superhero character, Tony Stark. “I’ve got an idea for an electric jet,” Musk 16 casually informs Stark, who replies, “You do? Then we’ll make it work.” And they probably would.

The cameo is a nod to the inspiration Musk was to the creation of Tony Stark in the popular Marvel films. Writing for TIME magazine’s ‘100’ issue in 2010, director Jon Favreau stated, “Elon Musk makes no sense — and that’s the reason I know him. When I was trying to bring the character of genius billionaire Tony Stark to the big screen in Iron Man, I had no idea how to make him seem real. Robert Downey Jr said, ‘We need to sit down with Elon Musk.’ He was right.” Favreau continues, “Elon is a paragon of enthusiasm, good humour and curiosity – a Renaissance man in an era that needs them.”

Who is Elon Musk?

Put simply, Elon Musk is a physicist genius whose scent for a good idea or two has taken him a long way. The 45-year-old is worth around $13bn and, according to Forbes, the 21st most powerful person in the world. Musk’s vast and multifaceted empire includes SpaceX, Tesla Motors and SolarCity, all of which were started with funds made from the $1.5bn sale of PayPal (the online payments system he co-founded with Peter Thiel) to eBay in 2002.

Musk is a fascinating figure, driven less by money and more by a fierce determination to use technology to help save humanity.

The eldest of three children, Musk was born in Pretoria, South Africa, in 1971. He devoured sci-fi books as a child, prompting the nickname ‘Child Genius’, though this made him somewhat of a loner and a target for bullies. By the time he was 12, Musk had written the code for a video game called Blastar and sold it to a computer magazine for $500.

Musk was asked in a 2014 interview with The Daily Telegraph whether growing up in apartheid South Africa (where he stayed until he was 17 before moving to Canada) influenced his passion to address problems he viewed as affecting humanity. “I’ve never thought about that. Yeah, it probably did,” he replied. “But don’t forget that I also read a lot of comic books as I was growing up, and I think that might have influenced me just as much. I mean, they’re always trying to save the world, with their underpants on the outside or these skin-tight iron suits, which is really pretty strange when you think about it. But they are trying to save the world.” It’s hardly surprising, then, that one of his five children is named after the X-Men’s Professor Xavier.

Going galactic

Musk’s first major success was Zip2, an online city guide he founded with his brother. When it was sold to Compaq in 1999, he reportedly made $22m. After personally pocketing $180m from the sale of PayPal, the shape of Musk’s subsequent investment suggests those comic books had indeed left a lasting impression.

The bulk of funds ($100m) went towards SpaceX, a company created to revolutionise space technology, with the ultimate aim of colonising Mars.

Musk believes there are two paths facing humanity today. “One is that we stay on Earth forever and then there will be an inevitable extinction event,” he says. “The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilisation, and a multi-planetary species.” Another key goal of the company is developing reusable rockets.

There will be an inevitable extinction event

The remaining funds went towards two companies aimed at reducing humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels and so counteracting the problem of climate change: Tesla Motors ($70m), a luxury electric car manufacturer that has since expanded to provide energy to homes and businesses through battery technology; and SolarCity ($10m) which seeks to offer a cleaner and more affordable energy solution.

Despite his previous success, Musk has admitted he did not expect SpaceX or Tesla to be successful. But, as he is widely quoted as saying, “If something’s important enough, you should try. Even if the probable outcome is failure.”

Yet fail they have not, although that’s not to say they haven’t come close. In 2008, at the height of the financial crisis, his companies came close to collapse. SpaceX encountered three failed rocket launches and Tesla Motors’ flagship Roadster hit production problems. At the same time Musk was divorcing from his first wife, fiction writer Justine Wilson with whom he had six boys (the first of whom tragically died from sudden infant death syndrome at ten weeks old). Musk came within inches of a nervous breakdown. But he pulled through, as did the three companies which are all doing well, despite continuing challenges (a SpaceX rocket carrying a $200m satellite to be used by Facebook exploded last September on the launch pad).

Today Musk has fingers in many pies. A number of companies are seeking to develop his vision for Hyperloop, a supersonic transportation system that will propel pods through an overground tube at a modest 760 mph. He has also joined US President Donald Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum. The two men share a passion to see more manufacturing jobs created in the US.

Could technology destroy us?

Musk also sponsors OpenAI, a nonprofit research company that seeks to “build safe AI [Artificial Intelligence], and ensure AI’s benefits are as widely and evenly distributed as possible”. While recognising the value of AI, Musk has also highlighted its dangers.

During an interview at the AeroAstro Centennial Symposium, he said, “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that.”

Both Microsoft’s founder Bill Gates and Apple’s cofounder Stephen Wozniak share Musk’s reservations. Last year Professor Stephen Hawking said, “The rise of powerful AI will be either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity. We do not yet know which.’

At a primary level, AI is commonly used by many of us today (iPhone’s Siri or Amazon’s Echo). Takeaway food delivery app JustEat has a chatbot that “sees AI integrated into the ordering experience to ensure that customers receive the best, round the clock support and service”.

Should it continue on its upward trajectory, AI will assist us in our personal and work lives and could even help eradicate poverty and disease. However, alongside its impact on jobs and potential to dehumanise parts of society, warnings have been expressed over the potential consequences of developing machines that match or surpass human intelligence, including autonomous weapons and wills that conflict with humanity.

Another concern for Musk is climate change, which had driven his projects around renewable energy and electric cars. The entrepreneur’s commitment to wean humanity off its reliance on fossil fuels and so avert the effects of global warming, is another example of his belief that technology will either kill us or save us.

Saviour of the world

Musk doesn’t claim to have any religious beliefs. In an interview with Rainn Wilson (Dwight from the US version of The Office) when asked if science and religion can coexist, Musk replied, “Probably not”. To the next question, “Do you pray?”, he answered, “I didn’t even pray when I almost died of malaria.”

Yet, despite his lack of faith in God, there is much that the Church can learn from someone like Musk. While his fears about the dangers of Artificial Intelligence may seem like the stuff of sci-fi films let’s not forget that Musk has already displayed a remarkable knack for anticipating where our tech is taking us.

Elon Musk in numbers

$1.6bn

A contract SpaceX agreed with NASA to send cargo to and from the International Space Station

2024

The year by which Musk hopes to begin sending humans to Mars

$100,000– $200,000

The amount Musk hopes it will eventually cost to buy a ticket to Mars on a reusable rocket

5,085

Number of Superchargers available around the world for a Tesla car to be charged at 18 minutes it could take to travel from Manchester to London on the Hyperloop

8 million

Number of solar panels so far installed by SolarCity (the largest solar provider in the US) 18 hours Amount of hours Elon Musk is said to work each day

7.11 million

Number of people following Elon Musk on Twitter

The concerns of those who are more informed should at least prompt us to stay mindful of our reliance on technology and how developments could end up undermining the worth, purpose and safety of human beings, who have been created in God’s image. Likewise, his commitment to counter the effects of human wastefulness and care for the earth can be celebrated by all Christians who believe God entrusts us with the care of his creation.

And in the end, like everyone, Elon Musk does have a faith. His faith is in the ability of humankind to make technology our saviour rather than our slave-master. In an increasingly secular Western world it’s an increasingly common form of faith promoted by films such as Interstellar, with its central premise that humanity must harness technology to allow us to escape our own, ultimately doomed, planet. Musk’s faith is in ourselves to save ourselves. With all his dedication and determination to seeing humanity overcome its own propensity for self-destruction (especially his dream to transcend our place in the universe by colonising Mars) perhaps Elon Musk is prompting onlookers to ask important questions that we as Christians can help answer.

As people begin to ask whether our beautiful but fragile world is part of a godless and random universe, on course for an inevitable extinction event, how can we show that it is in fact held in the hands of a sovereign and loving God? As people wonder whether humanity even deserves saving, how can we make the link to Jesus, who came not to condemn the world, but to save the world (John 3:17)? And in seeking to answer these questions – and in all our endeavours to serve Christ and tell others about him – we would do well to learn from Elon Musk’s irrepressible drive to help save humanity, even if his well-intentioned efforts have yet to appreciate the biggest issue we face. Fixing the world is one thing, fixing the people who live on it is another. As Christian preacher Adrian Rogers put it, “The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.” Even if humans do end up living on Mars, they will still need saving from themselves.

Bringing heaven to earth

Musk’s approach is by no means faultless. Cultivating a good worklife balance is apparently not one of his strengths, which may explain his unsettled love life (In 2010 Musk married British actress Talulah Riley. Two years later, they divorced. Then in 2013 they got married again, before Musk filed for divorce a year later). But he has nonetheless shown the value of taking bold risks, working hard and being innovative.

Where do we need to take more risks for Christ? Can we work harder to tell others about Christ? How can we best use our gifts, knowledge and resources to pioneer projects aimed at reaching others with the good news? If we have confidence in the gospel to truly save souls, and recognise that Christ has tasked us with going to the ends of the world with its message, then these are the kind of questions we should regularly be asking ourselves.

Until recently I knew very little of Elon Musk. Speaking to others I was apparently not alone. But the more I found out about him the more I wished I had been acquainted with him earlier. He has reminded me of something CS Lewis once said: “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.”

To Elon Musk, the next world probably means the nearest habitable planet. The Christian hope of a world to come – a renewed heavens, earth and universe – is of a different order altogether, but one which people like Musk can help bring into the reality of today. Elon Musk can’t save the world any more than Iron Man can, but his vision to make technology serve us rather than the enslave us is something we can all get on board with.

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