Mathias Döpfner, the CEO of Insider’s parent company, Axel Springer, recently met with Tesla CEO Elon Musk for an interview.
The interview took place at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California, and the men discussed Russia’s invasion into Ukraine, space travel, and what makes human beings special.
You can read a transcript of the conversation below.
Mathias Döpfner: Before we talk about the future, let’s look at the present. There is war in Europe. If you see the horrible images of Putin’s troops invading Ukraine, killing people. What are your thoughts?
Elon Musk: It is surprising to see that in this day and age. I thought we had sort of moved beyond such things for the most part. It is concerning. If you can get away with it, then this will be a message to other countries that perhaps they could get away with it too.
Döpfner: Have you been surprised by Putin’s behavior? I mean, I remember the discussions in the recent weeks when most of the Europeans thought he is not going to do it. A lot of Americans were convinced he is going to invade. What was your expectation?
Musk: My best guess was that he would seek to capture the Eastern third of the country. Frankly, if you just listened to the rhetoric, then it is clear that he was going after at least portions of Ukraine that have a significant percentage of Russian speakers. He did that already in Georgia.
Döpfner: In a way, if you listen carefully to dictators, they very often say what they want to do. You just had to take it seriously.
Musk: Yeah. They are not subtle.
Döpfner: But so far, there is a possibility that Putin achieves pretty much the opposite of what he wants to achieve. He wants to disentangle America from Europe. He wants to weaken NATO. So far, he has strengthened NATO. He has united the west. It is almost a bipartisan topic that unites democracies and open societies. With regard to the long-term outcome, are you rather pessimistic that it is going to strengthen Putin and thus, paving the way for other examples like China or elsewhere? Or are you more optimistic that it could be a turning point for a different security policy of the West?
Musk: I do think this will strike the West. I suppose of course that people realize, maybe we should not have all these internal squabbles when there are more serious threats.
Döpfner: Volodymyr Zelenskyy put it very clearly. “I need ammunition, not a ride”. Europe, particularly Germany, struggled a long time. How about the American government?
Musk: I think the American government has done more than people may realize. But it is just not been very public. But it is important to do something serious. We cannot let Putin take over Ukraine. This is crazy.
Döpfner: Parts of the world, particularly Europe, have learned the wrong lesson from the Third Reich and the Holocaust. And that lesson is: no military intervention ever again. Trying not to get involved. Now, there is the opportunity that we learned the real lesson, and that is never ever racism, never ever genocides and never ever appeasement.
Musk: Appeasement obviously did not work against Hitler. And how much better would the world had been if they had stopped him early. Better for everyone.
Döpfner: You did something very concrete, 48 hours, upon the request of the digital minister of Ukraine. And that was delivering Starlink material in order to grant internet access. What was the motivation, and how is it developing?
Musk: We did think that Starlink might be needed, and we took some preemptive actions to ensure that it could be provided quickly. When the request came, we acted very rapidly. It is worth noting that the satellite internet connectivity of Ukraine was taken offline by a cyberattack on the day of the invasion permanently. The cell towers are either being blown up or they are being jammed. There is a major fiber backbone which the Russians are aware of. It was quite likely that they will sever that fiber link. This would leave Ukraine with very few connections open. So Starlink might be, certainly in some parts of Ukraine, the only connection.
Döpfner: What happens if the Russians and Chinese are targeting satellites? Is that also a threat for Starlink?
Musk: It was interesting to view the Russian anti-satellite demonstration a few months ago in the context of this conflict. Because that caused a lot of strife for satellite operators. It even had some danger for the space station, where there are Russian cosmonauts. So why did they do that? It was a message in advance of the Ukraine invasion. If you attempt to take out Starlink, this is not easy because there are 2000 satellites. That means a lot of anti-satellite missiles. I hope we do not have to put this to a test, but I think we can launch satellites faster than they can launch anti-satellites missiles.
Döpfner: Russia said that they are going to stop the delivery of rocket engines. Is that a threat or an opportunity for SpaceX?
Musk: At SpaceX, we design and manufacture our own rocket engines. So we did not really own any Russian components at all.
Döpfner: Is it dangerous for the United States of America?
Musk: Boeing and Lockheed have strongly relied on the Russian RD-180 Engine. Which I should say, to be fair, is a great engine. They are hoping to move away from that in the future with engines from Blue Origin. There is also the Antares which uses the RD-181, I believe. They will not be able to fly as a result.
Döpfner: With knowledge, products and services, Elon Musk is almost a strategic weapon in modern warfare. How do you see your role in that context?
Musk: I think I can be helpful in conflicts. I try to take a set of actions that are most likely to improve the probability that the future will be good. And obviously sometimes I make mistakes in this regard. I do whatever I think is most likely to ensure that the future is good for humanity. Those are the actions that I will take.
Döpfner: A couple of months ago we had an exchange about Ernst Jüngers famous book “Storm of Steel”. You were very fascinated by that book, which has been published roughly a hundred years ago, about Jüngers experiences in the First World War. Why is that book so important for you?
Musk: I read a lot of books, and for some reason I am fascinated by war and history in general. It is not just history of war, but just history in general. Jüngers book is an excellent personal account of World War One. The lesson taken from that book is we don’t ever want to do that again.
Döpfner: There is a big controversy around that book. Some people are saying this is glorifying war…
Musk: It is definitely not!
Döpfner: …It is rather positive nor negative. It is just describing what happened in a terrible way.
Musk: Nobody is reading that book and says, I want to do that too. For me, it is just fascinating to read about history. I mean, learn the lessons of history, such that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Döpfner: History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. And we see a rhyme these days. Back to the big strategic picture. The terrible actions of Putin are, to a certain degree, also a result of strategic mistakes that Europe, particularly Germany, has made, the dropout of nuclear energy in 2011.
Musk: It is very important that Germany will not shut down its nuclear power stations. I think this is extremely crazy.
Döpfner: If we really want to reduce Putin’s power as well as Europe’s and Germany’s dependence on Russian energy, we have to decarbonize. It’s the only way. Is more nuclear energy the key to free ourselves from dictators and autocrats like Putin.
Musk: I want to be super clear. You should not only not shut down the nuclear power plants, but you should also reopen the ones that have already shut down. Those are the fastest to produce energy. It is crazy to shut down nuclear power plants now, especially if you are in a place where there are no natural disasters. If you are somewhere where severe earthquakes or tsunamis occur, it is more of a question mark. If there is no massive natural disaster risk-which Germany does not have-then there is really no danger with the nuclear power plants.
Döpfner: Aren’t there any safer alternatives that could have a similar effect? Solar and wind won’t do it. Do you have any other ideas in mind about future energy policy?
Musk: I think long term, most of civilization’s energy is going to come from solar, and then you need to store it with battery because obviously the sun only shines during the day, and sometimes it is very cloudy. So you need solar batteries. That will be the main long-term way that civilization is powered. But between now and then, we need to maintain nuclear. I can’t emphasize that enough. This is total madness to shut them down. I want to be clear, total madness.
Döpfner: Let’s see whether this very clear words are heard in Germany.
Musk: I would say this is a national security risk.
Döpfner: How is the climate issue going to look like in 15 years? Better than today?
Musk: From a sustainable energy standpoint, much better.
Döpfner: So we are going to solve this problem?
Musk: Yes, absolutely. We will solve the climate issue. It is just a question of when. And that is like the fundamental goal of Tesla.
Döpfner: You once said that the decrease of birth rate is one of the most underestimated problems of all the times. Why?
Musk: Most people in the world are operating under the false impression that we’ve got too many people. This is not true. The birth rate has been dropping like crazy. Unfortunately, we have these ridiculous population estimates from the UN that need to be updated because they just don’t make any sense. Just look at the growth rate last year. See how many kids were born and multiply that by the life expectancy. I would say that is how many people will be alive in the future. And then say, is the trend for birth rate positive or negative? It is negative. That is the best case, unless something changes for the birth rate.
Döpfner: That is also why we need alternatives. You have recently presented Optimus, a human robot, and shared great expectations, what that could do for the world. I assume it is not only about the first visit to Mars that could be done by Optimus, but it might also be a game changer in AI. Could you share this vision?
Musk: With respect to AI and robotics, of course, I see things with some trepidation. Because I certainly don’t want to have anything that could potentially be harmful to humanity. But humanoid robots are happening. Look at Boston Dynamics. They do better demonstrations every year. The rate of advancement of AI is very rapid.
Döpfner: Concretely, Optimus is going to be used in Tesla factories. That is one of the use cases, but what is the broader use case beyond Tesla?
Musk: Optimus is a general purpose, sort of worker-droid. The initial role must be in work that is repetitive, boring, or dangerous. Basically, work that people don’t want to do.
Döpfner: Why has Optimus two legs? Just because it looks like a human being, or is it more practical? I thought four legs were better.
Musk: Haha, four legs good, two legs bad. Kind of reminds me of Orwell. Humanity has designed the world to interact with a bipedal humanoid with two arms and ten fingers. So if you want to have a robot fit in and be able to do things that humans can do, it must be approximately the same size and shape and capability.
Döpfner: Do you think that Optimus is going to play a role in our daily life, helping us in the household and things like that?
Musk: Yes. A general focused humanoid.
Döpfner: The prototype is going to be ready by the end of this year. When is it a product that can be mass marketed?
Musk: I think we will have something pretty good at the prototype level this year, and it might be ready for at least a moderate volume production towards the end of next year.
Döpfner: You said the potential is bigger than the potential of Tesla. If that is true, then it must be really a mass market product. But anyway, Optimus is also an answer to the problem of dropping birth rates. If we have not enough human people, we need more bots to get work done.
Musk: Optimus will be helpful with respect to dropping growth rates. But if these things continue, then what happens? Humanity dies out. Is that what we want?
Döpfner: Or replaced by artificial intelligence. Human beings powered by Neuralink.
Musk: Neuralink in the short term is just about solving brain injuries, spinal injuries and that kind of thing. So for many years Neuralink’s products will just be helpful to someone who has lost the use of their arms or legs or has just a traumatic brain injury of some kind. That is what Neuralink will be useful for many years.
Döpfner: Could you imagine that one day we would be able to download our human brain capacity into an Optimus?
Musk: I think it is possible.
Döpfner: Which would be a different way of eternal life, because we would download our personalities into a bot.
Musk: Yes, we could download the things that we believe make ourselves so unique. Now, of course, if you’re not in that body anymore, that is definitely going to be a difference, but as far as preserving our memories, our personality, I think we could do that.
Döpfner: The Singularity moment that the inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil has, I think, predicted for 2025 is approaching fast. Is this timeline still realistic?
Musk: I’m not sure if there is a very sharp boundary. I think it is much smoother. There is already so much compute that we outsource. Our memories are stored in our phones and computers with pictures and video. Computers and phones amplify our ability to communicate, enabling us to do things that would have been considered magical. Now you can have two people have a video call basically for free on opposite sides of the world. It’s amazing. We’ve already amplified our human brains massively with computers. It could be an interesting ratio to roughly calculate the amount of compute that is digital, divided by the amount of compute that is biological. And how does that ratio change over time. With so much digital compute happening so fast, that ratio should be increasing rapidly.
Döpfner: Talking about speed, you have the vision that one day, Starship could be able to get from A to B in 30 minutes all around the globe. Is that correct? It’s like a global super taxi. You can just go from San Francisco to Nairobi?
Musk: The landing will be loud. So you would probably be connecting cities that are next to oceans or seas. So you can land far enough offshore that the landing noise is not disturbing to people
Döpfner: Coast to coast would be a realistic option?
Musk: Yes, it is like an intercontinental rocket.
Döpfner: You have solved so many problems of mankind and presented so many solutions. I’m surprised that one topic does not seem to fascinate you as much: Longevity. A significantly increased life span. Why aren’t you passionate about that? Aren’t you personally interested in living longer?
Musk: I don’t think we should try to have people live for a really long time. That it would cause asphyxiation of society because the truth is, most people don’t change their mind. They just die. So if they don’t die, we will be stuck with old ideas and society wouldn’t advance. I think we already have quite a serious issue with gerontocracy, where the leaders of so many countries are extremely old. In the US, it’s a very, very ancient leadership. And it is just impossible to stay in touch with the people if you are many generations older than them. The founders of the USA put minimum ages for a local office. But they did not put maximum ages because they did not expect that people will be living so long. They should have. Because for a democracy to function, the leaders must be reasonably in touch with the bulk of the population. And if you’re too young or too old, you can’t say that you will be attached.
Döpfner: Is there a kind of ideal, maximum age? How old would you like to get?
Musk: I think for political leadership, you want to be ideally within 10 or at least, 20 years of the average age of the population. And for me, I certainly would like to maintain health for a longer period of time. But I am not afraid of dying. I think it would come as a relief.
Döpfner: You may not be able to see the vision of SpaceX come true in your life?
Musk: I would like to live long enough to see that.
Döpfner: How do you feel, being – at a net worth of USD 260 billion roughly – perceived as the richest person on earth?
Musk: I do think that Putin is significantly richer than me.
Döpfner: You really do?
Döpfner: Do you know John Law?
Döpfner: John Law used to be the richest person on earth 300 years ago. He was a Scottish guy and lived in the end 17th century and the early 18th century. He was a gambler, ‘un homme à femmes’, then a very successful investor, and financial engineer. He was the biggest art collector on earth. He created a stock market bubble in France through a rush behind the shares of the Mississippi company. And was ultimately the reason for one of the first financial crises. John Law used to own roughly 30% of the United States of America then. In the end, he went bankrupt. Did you ever think about what would happen if something were to go wrong and you were to lose everything?
Musk: There have been many times when I expected to lose everything. Who starts a car company and a rocket company expecting them to succeed? Certainly not me. I had less than 10 percent chance of success. After the third failure of SpaceX in 2008, I knew that if the fourth launch failed, SpaceX would be dead. We had no money for the fifth launch. Tesla’s been on the verge of bankruptcy many times. We even closed on the last day of the financing round in 2008. Remember, back then General Motors and Chrysler had gone bankrupt and Ford was on the brink of it. So, imagine trying to raise money for an electric car startup while General Motors was going bankrupt. People were very angry that I even asked. But we were able to raise just enough money to squeak by. And closed the financial round for Tesla on the last hour of the last possible day in 2008. Christmas Eve. Had we not closed the round then, we would have gone bankrupt two days after Christmas.
Döpfner: Elon Musk is not only an entrepreneur, he is also a philanthropist. What are the goals of your foundation?
Döpfner: If you google Elon Musk, I think you would have more than 200 million search results and nearly 80 million Twitter followers. You are definitely one of the most popular people on earth. Is popularity a pleasure or a liability for you?
Musk: It makes it difficult to go buy coffee at the corner. It is hard to go around places, or at least be able to just go to the store or walk down the street. Now it is quite difficult to do that.
Döpfner: It reminds me a bit of a former chancellor of Germany, Helmut Kohl, who once told me, you cannot imagine how terrible it is to go into a restaurant and everybody recognizes you, comes to your table, asks you for an autograph. That is terrible. There is only one thing in life that is worse. And that is: if nobody comes to your table anymore.
Musk: Hahaha. I just try to find a corner table that is in a dimly light or something, where I can stay out of the way.
Döpfner: Is there anything that you most urgently want to achieve?
Musk: In the short run, and the most pressing is completing full self-driving, so that we have full self-driving operating at a substantially safer level than humans. Basically, it comes down to solving the problem of real world AI. That consumes a lot of my mind. And getting the starship to work. Not only getting it to orbit but achieving rapid reusability – which is really the holy grail of rocketry that is necessary for humanity to become a multiplanet species. And I think those things might happen this year.
Döpfner: Anything that you really would like to achieve, which you think is going to be impossible?
Musk: Impossible is a strong word.
Döpfner: You don’t like that word.
Musk: It’s a strong word. I approach things from a physics standpoint and the word impossible is more or less banned in physics. I’m really worried about this birthrate thing. That’s been troubling me for many years, because I just don’t see it turning around. Every year it’s worse. And I drive my friends crazy with this.
Döpfner: Walter Isaacson is planning your biography. He has written about the lives of Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin, and Leonardo DaVinci. Among the four, with whom would you like to meet and have a glass of wine?
Musk: I would be honored to meet any of them. I think Benjamin Franklin would be the most fun at dinner.
Döpfner: And who is the one you think you are closest to? Would it be Leonardo DaVinci?
Musk: I am pretty different. But it might actually be Benjamin Franklin. He did a lot of science and engineering. DaVinci wrote a book, seeing himself first and foremost as an engineer. Actually, in his application for the position that eventually enabled him to create all of the art, it was all about his engineering ideas. Just in the end, he mentioned doing some art. I think it’s funny that DaVinci really thought of himself as an engineer. But he was pretty impressive for his time.
Döpfner: You said that you cannot be alone. I very much share that feeling. Where does it come from?
Musk: I think it’s just a natural human reaction.
Döpfner: A lot of people are happy if they are alone.
Musk: Really? I think most people are not happy being alone.
Döpfner: Do you feel lonely?
Musk: I mean, there are times when I feel lonely, yes.
Döpfner: Because you cannot find people with whom you like to share your feelings and thoughts? You are one of the most popular and looked after persons on earth. Everybody wants to speak with you. But it seems not to work.
Musk: There are times when I’m lonely. I’m sure there are times when everyone is lonely. But it’s pretty basic. Say if I’m working on the starship rocket and I’m just staying in my little house by myself, especially if my dog is not with me, then I feel quite lonely because I’m just in a little house by myself with no dog.
Döpfner: What is your biggest fear?
Musk: What are the existential threats that humanity faces? I spent a lot of time talking about the birthrate thing. That might be the single biggest threat to the future of human civilization. And then there’s the concern of artificial intelligence going wrong. I think religious extremism is another concern.
Döpfner: What is your biggest hope?
Musk: My biggest hope is that humanity creates a self-sustaining city on Mars.
Döpfner: You have once said, if I’m not in love, I cannot be happy. Are you happy at the moment?
Musk: I think there are degrees of love. But certainly, for one to be fully happy, I think you have to be happy at work and happy in love. So, I suppose I’m medium happy.
Döpfner: Can love for projects, for work, compensate for love among people?
Musk: I tried to be as literal as possible. I would be happy if humanity has a self-sustaining city on Mars because then, probable lifespan of humanity is much greater. I think we really just got this little candle of consciousness, like a small light in the void. And we do not want this small candle in the darkness to be put out.