Wednesday, January 25, 2023

"Elon Musk’s Appetite for Destruction" is nothing compared to his appetite for suckers

 While a lot of people (your humble bloggers included) were skeptical from the beginning of the tech messiah narrative in general and Musk as a real life Tony Stark in particular, there were real accomplishments coming out of both SpaceX and Tesla and it was easy to get caught up in the moment. Besides, where was the harm? Rockets, electric cars, solar cells... these were all good things. Even if Musk was a bit of a snake oil salesman, his heart certainly seemed to be in the right place. 

It wasn't until four or five years ago that it became obvious to anyone even casually following the story that Musk was neither genius nor altruist. He was simply a moderately talented grifter with no background in or talent for engineering who came along at the right time. Early on he hired some very smart engineers who did produce some impressive advances at SpaceX and solved some daunting manufacturing challenges at Tesla, but it quickly became clear that not only was Musk not the brains behind these things; he didn't even have a basic grasp of the underlying concepts.

Putting aside a few sycophants and Flavor-aid drinkers, everyone on the front lines has seen through the con. Whether it's the LA Times, the NYT, CNBC, Bloomberg, Business Insider, the reporters who work this beat have learned to be skeptical of both his claims and his intentions.

 Somehow, though, with the exception of the LAT (where pretty much the whole paper was onto the guy from the beginning), word never made it up the chain to the editors and star journalists. It's true that Musk's reputation has been tarnished by infantile displays, Covid denial, and the embrace of the alt-right, but that just makes the story better. Now he's a flawed hero, brilliant but self-destructive, trying to save the world despite his personal demons. 

Which brings us to Christopher Cox's piece for the New York Times Magazine.

Peter Thiel, Musk’s former business partner at PayPal, once said that if he wrote a book, the chapter about Musk would be called “The Man Who Knew Nothing About Risk.” But that’s a misunderstanding of Musk’s attitude: If you parse his statements, he presents himself as a man who simply embraces astonishing amounts of present-day risk in the rational assumption of future gains. 


Some of Musk’s most questionable decisions, though, begin to make sense if seen as a result of a blunt utilitarian calculus. Last month, Reuters reported that Neuralink, Musk’s medical-device company, had caused the needless deaths of dozens of laboratory animals through rushed experiments. Internal messages from Musk made it clear that the urgency came from the top. “We are simply not moving fast enough,” he wrote. “It is driving me nuts!” The cost-benefit analysis must have seemed clear to him: Neuralink had the potential to cure paralysis, he believed, which would improve the lives of millions of future humans. The suffering of a smaller number of animals was worth it.

This form of crude long-term-ism,* in which the sheer size of future generations gives them added ethical weight, even shows up in Musk’s statements about buying Twitter. He called Twitter a “digital town square” that was responsible for nothing less than preventing a new American civil war. “I didn’t do it to make more money,” he wrote. “I did it to try to help humanity, whom I love.”


Autopilot and F.S.D. represent the culmination of this approach. “The overarching goal of Tesla engineering,” Musk wrote, “is maximize area under user happiness curve.” Unlike with Twitter or even Neuralink, people were dying as a result of his decisions — but no matter. In 2019, in a testy exchange of email with the activist investor and steadfast Tesla critic Aaron Greenspan, Musk bristled at the suggestion that Autopilot was anything other than lifesaving technology. “The data is unequivocal that Autopilot is safer than human driving by a significant margin,” he wrote. “It is unethical and false of you to claim otherwise. In doing so, you are endangering the public.”

There are serious debates to be had about the trade-offs between short term sacrifices and long term benefits to mankind that can come from research in autonomous systems, AI, and medicine, but none of these debates will feature Tesla or Neuralink, These avoidable car crashes and animals being tortured to death serve no purpose other than to enhance Elon Musk's super-genius brand and to directly or indirectly pump the value of Tesla.  

Musk's fame and adoration, his sense of identity, and the vast majority of his wealth all come from the perception that he is one of the world's greatest engineers and inventors, which is a big problem given that Musk is not only not an engineer, he has never shown any talent in the field even by layman standards.

Even down something like two thirds from its peak last year, Tesla is still wildly overvalued based on conventional metrics for an auto company. The stock price only makes sense if people assume that some wonderful new breakthrough is just around the corner. But the product pipeline appears to be largely empty. The company hasn't introduced a new car for years. Despite having had a head start, the cybertruck was beaten to market by multiple competitors. The semi is a joke. The humanoid robot Optimus looks like something from a science fair, decades behind what we have come to expect from Boston Dynamics, not to mention other car companies like Honda.



With the complicated exception of SpaceX, none of Musk's businesses are on the cutting edge of anything. In autonomous  driving, AI, solar cell development, brain-machine interfaces, tunneling machines, and countless other technologies where Musk has promised revolutionary disruptions, his companies are, at best, in the middle of the pack and, in some cases, not making any serious effort at all. (On a related note, despite attempts to muddy the waters with creative statistics, Tesla spends far less than any of its major competitors on R&D)

Given all this, the "rational assumption of future gains" argument is simply absurd, and anyone who still buys this or the line about Elon's love of humanity needs to talk to the people who actually cover Musk for a living.

* Longtermism: a philosophical school which argues that we should give billionaires more money and which has proven surprisingly popular with billionaires.

1 comment:

  1. Just last year, I was corresponding with an otherwise skeptical person who was still a Musk fan. I didn't get into a big argument with him because, hey, what do I know about all this?

    What if we compare Musk to other bullshitters?

    Sometimes a bullshitter is rich, and he stays rich. For example, if Musk just mouthed off a lot, invested and collected coupons, and didn't claim to build cars, etc., he could stay afloat forever: there'd be nothing to debunk. He'd be one of those rich guys who's not in the headlines but still gets default respect cos he's rich.

    Other bullshitters aren't rich so they don't get our default respect. But they can do other things. For example, no matter how much he gets wrong, Gladwell has a record of being a good writer and wrestling with interesting questions. "Blink," "10,000 hours," etc., are genuinely interesting concepts. Not just "big if true" as with ESP, but interesting even if not quite true. So no matter how much we criticize Gladwell, there are good reasons for people to continue to read him, even if with less trust than they'd usually hold for a New Yorker writer.

    Another example is David Brooks. No matter how much he confidently gets wrong, no matter how much he flat-out makes up, he's still one of the few public voices calmly expressing a certain non-ideological center-right view. As long as he has this role, there's a logic for him to be taken seriously.

    Cass Sunstein has a record of overconfidently pushing weak ideas. Also in his career he's managed to piss off both the left and the right, without really establishing a centrist ideological brand. You'd think that all this might sink him as a pundit, but it hasn't. All I can think of here is that he's well-connected and a good schmoozer. Maybe his "superpower" (as Matthew Walker might say) is his ability to write and place law review articles at will.

    As to Matthew Walker: As the saying goes, he has one job, which is to supply journal articles and news stories extolling the values of sleep. He can keep doing this forever. He can conduct this kind of study in his sleep. Yes, the occasional journalist will google his name and find out that he's misrepresented data---but NPR is just full of journalists who either don't know how to use google or who just don't care. As long as there's no other sleep advocate like Walker, he stands.

    Dan Ariely . . . I don't know about him. He's one of a zillion psychologists who've either fabricated experiments or have been very sloppy or very unlucky in their collaborations. So I don't know that there will be any reason for people to take him seriously in the future.

    Amway: That's still around. I don't know if it survives by being "too big to fail" (too many powerful people in Amway for the government to shut it down on fraud charges), or by "flying under the radar" (they can keep finding new suckers who don't know about the concept of a pyramid scheme).

    Al Sharpton: He's still around too, presumably because people think he can swing some votes against you if you piss him off?

    Boris Johnson: he had quite the political run, based pretty much 100% on being a bullshitter. I don't know what to say about this, except that so many politicians lie, that maybe they're held to a lower standard.

    Johnson is different than Musk, in the following sense. People who believed in Johnson would say things like, Sure, he's a bullshitter, but he can get things done. People who believe in Musk seem to really believe in his claims. This would seem to make the fall be even steeper when it finally happens, or maybe the cognitive dissonance is so big that they'll just keep believing forever.

    In any case, the question, how is it that otherwise reasonable people show such respect for bullshitters, is an interesting one.

    - Andrew