Elon Musk is wasting a unique gift
Innovators should innovate, not agitate.
First of all, transparency. I’ve long been a Tesla fanboy and considered Elon Musk the greatest innovator of our times. I defended him in my Washington Post columns when the New York Times was relentlessly attacking him. Musk endorsed my first book – and bumped me to the head of the queue to purchase my first Tesla.
Throughout the Era of Elon, I’ve been a vocal advocate for his ideas. Elon is indeed a genius, but as US pianist, composer, writer and actor Oscar Levant famously said, “there’s a fine line between genius and insanity.” Less famously, Levant followed his aphorism by admitting, “I have erased this line.”
I don’t want my old hero to follow in Levant’s footsteps.
That Musk has lavished billions of his fortune on buying Twitter is well documented. So too is the bizarre way he tried to administer the platform upon acquisition, sacking software engineers he needed – pointlessly triggering a time-consuming and disruptive recruitment drive. Concurrently, he has made homeworking available only by special request made directly to him – hardly the micromanagement one might expect of a multibillionaire global visionary.
Meanwhile, Musk has begun to treat Twitter as his plaything, using it to disseminate all manner of outlandish theories and crazy ideas that have little or nothing to do with his métier. The daily soap opera has provided much mirth for the press, tech analysts – and Musk’s competitors. Elon now calls himself Chief Twit – and it’s hard to find anyone who would disagree.
Yet, while others enjoy the farce, I see unfolding tragedy. Musk is the most brilliant mind of his generation, yet he risks wasting his gift on pettifogging nonsense. Musk could be putting his talent to use in curing cancer and other diseases, remedying the world’s scarcity of clean water, 3D-printing homes for the homeless, and taking us to Mars. All these things are now possible thanks to exponentially advancing technologies such as genomics and synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, robotics and sensors, and computing. We can solve the grand challenges of humanity.
Yet as the younger, ambitious Musk might have told the older, peculiar incarnation: innovation and imagination are nothing without application. The modern-day Musk is channelling his ideas and energy into the wrong places.
Humanity’s greatest problems need the world’s greatest minds. Despite his recent travails, Musk remains in that category. The genius is still in there. Yet what are his priorities? Seemingly doing more of that of which we already have too much: building purportedly artificially intelligent – factually artificially stupid – algorithms that serves people more of what they ‘like’, whether it is good for them or not.
Musk has power in his hands. He has money. Most of all, he has a unique brain with an exceptional capacity for innovation. He should put what evolution gave him to better use.
This Elon Musk fanboy has a challenge for his old friend. Chief Twit or Cancer Curer: what do you want to count as your greatest achievement, when you retire on Mars?
Vivek Wadhwa is author of The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent.