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Elon Musk, please leave the terraforming of Mars to scientists to work out

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Elon Musk. Sometimes he gets things right and sometimes he gets things wrong. He is first and foremost a businessperson and an entrepreneur with a very courageous and vivid imagination, but he is not a scientist. Having made a lot of money, and being a successful businessman, does not come with scientific genius in some cosmic manner.

Elon Musk came out of the closet, so to speak, and this week declared that he would not take a Covid-19 vaccination, and refused to commit to paying his staff who chose to stay at home to avoid getting the virus. He is, in other words, something of an anti-vaxxer, and probably not a nice person to work for. I could be wrong. Whatever, and wherever the truth may lie, Musk sometimes gets a bad rap. Sometimes it’s fair, other times it’s not. If we consider only his investment in technological innovation, he probably has no peers – other than perhaps Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, whom we will return to very briefly, below – and criticisms of Musk may, indeed, be misplaced.

Other than the fact that we share a birthday, I have nothing nasty to say about Pretoria-born Musk and even if I did, it’s for another discussion. It is Musk’s endeavours in the scientific realm that are intriguing and exciting, and draw out my interests in physics, astrophysics, cosmology, artificial intelligence and robotics. A case can be made, also, for an umbilical link between reports of his fraudulent and deeply problematic conduct as a businessperson, his ethical outlook with respect to AI, robotics and his obsession with terraforming and creating a type of colony on Mars. This idea or theory of terraforming Mars is up for debate – and the evidence just does not match the theory perfectly enough. In the words of the great 20th-century physicist Richard Feynman, it’s perfectly in order to have a theory, but if the evidence does not support that theory, abandon it, and move on.

Terraforming Mars is at least 100 years away

While my entry point to advances in physics, astronomy or cosmology – as well as AI and robotics – is almost always political, economic and philosophical, if only because my actual knowledge of the science is infinitesimal (I should parade knowledge and say it’s smaller than a single Planck length), I will be bold enough to say that to the extent that Mars can be terraformed, it is at least 100 years away.

The Martian atmosphere is made up mainly of carbon dioxide. This means that it is far too thin and too cold to support liquid water, which almost everyone agrees is an essential ingredient for life. On Mars, the pressure of the atmosphere is less than 1% of the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere. Any liquid water on the surface would very quickly evaporate or freeze. Potential colonists like Musk and Bezos believe that to terraform Mars, they would release gases – mainly carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapour (H2O) – from existing sources on the planet to thicken the atmosphere, and increase the temperature to the point where liquid water becomes sufficiently stable. This would create a type of Greenhouse Effect that would trap heat and warm the climate on Mars. As things stand (with the scientific knowledge and technology we have), this is simply not possible.

 

One important conclusion is that while there may be quantities of some form of liquid, say water, on Mars (as my colleague Tiara Walters reported earlier this week), it is not enough to create water vapour. Scientific inquiries have shown that by itself water cannot provide significant warming. Temperatures do not allow enough water to persist as vapour without first having significant warming by CO2. But this is the beauty of science. Scientists, which Musk certainly is not, find great satisfaction in being wrong – it gives them extra energy to keep searching.

You can’t have your cake and eat it

While scientists get a thrill out of being wrong, Musk would rather throw a tantrum if he cannot have his way. To quote Feynman again:

“We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.” 

Earlier this year, Musk took to Twitter to voice his frustrations about the ongoing Covid-19 lockdown in California, where he employs about 10,000 people. In response to the lockdown, Musk threatened to take his car manufacturing company to another state if it was not allowed to reopen immediately. This fits somewhat neatly with the anti-vaxing position stated at the top of this essay. Anyway, in May this year, Musk announced that he would be resuming production at the facility in contravention of the lockdown. Within days, county administrators caved in to Musk and announced that his factory would be allowed to resume production under government supervision. This did not endear Musk to California’s political leaders. After Musk’s initial tweet threatening to leave the state, San Diego Assembly Member Lorena Gonzalez took to Twitter (on 10 May) with a succinct tweet: “F*ck Elon Musk.” 

 

Gonzalez added: “So much of the clash our state is experiencing with the tech/Silicon Valley companies is of our own making. We let gig companies violate labour laws for over a decade. We subsidised Tesla as they operated with severe safety issues & actively union busted. They got used to it… It’s time that all companies, no matter how cool, abide by the same laws.”

As the kids would say, Elon Musk got told.

The future of AI and robotics

Musk helped found the AI research laboratory OpenAI, and has made some insightful claims and statements about the future of artificial intelligence, less so on robotics and the future of work. While I generally agree that we will mass produce AI/robots that will eventually be more intelligent than humans, I disagree that this will happen in the next five years – unlike Musk.

Our biggest fear, as humans, is Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), which will give us Terminator-type machines, and that may be about 50 years into the future. What AI can (already) do is read legal texts (lawyers beware), and accounting; in some senses what we have now is a threat to white-collar jobs.

We have, in other words, mightily intelligent machines that can think millions of times faster than the human brain, but they are purpose-built “expert machines” that are designed to do specific things. We are a long way from Terminator-type machines (AGI), that can make a multiplicity of decisions on their own, without human interface.

This brings us to the ethics and regulatory frameworks required for political-economic functioning. There are, already, robots that have displaced manual labour. There may arise a necessity to tax robots. In this situation, it may become necessary to lay down ethical regulations for robotic function, and direct taxes that are collected towards a universal basic income – especially for those people who have been made redundant by robots.

As for Musk, as mentioned, sometimes he gets things right and sometimes he gets things wrong. He is, first and foremost a businessperson and an entrepreneur with a very courageous and vivid imagination, but he is not a scientist. Having made a lot of money, and being a successful businessperson, does not come with scientific genius in some cosmic manner.

Bezos joins Musk in the quest to colonise distant planets in our solar system. Bezos is a stupendously successful businessperson, but all his wealth does not make him a scientist. In an interview with a scientific magazine, Bezos said the human brain uses 1.5 times the amount of power the rest of the body does. Scientists (in particular Sam Wang, a neuroscientist at Princeton University), explained that Bezos was simply wrong. The scientific evidence proved just how wrong he was.

I guess the conclusions from all of the above is that both Musk and Bezos are smart business people, but they’re not scientists. Their investment in space flight, Blue Origin (Bezos) and SpaceX (Musk), are the result of entrepreneurship, vision, imagination and, well, money.

There is no way that we will terraform Mars this century. There is no way that the robots, anthropomorphic robots driven by AGI, are coming, and we probably should start thinking about regulating and taxing robots (well, their owners), and use proceeds of this tax towards a universal basic income.

If there is any certainty in all of this, it is that manual work will be displaced in the very short term and white-collar jobs in the medium term. I guess when white-collar professionals become redundant AI will be taken more seriously. DM

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All Comments 21

  • As a schoolboy we were given the reasoning that proved that it would be quiet impossible to reach and land on the moon.
    However only a few years later men landed on the moon.

  • Your thinking style is old fashioned and smacks of insecurety, like a baby shouting “respect me, I have a degree”. You sound like so many small minded ‘scholsrs’ who think that it’s only possible to be a scientist or expert if you had formal training, not realising that most modern education does not teach you to think, but rather to recall, its a memory test. Being an expert or a true scientist is the application of the practical knowledge with deep understanding and exploration of ideas… You forget that the founders of science where not scientists, but rather people capable of creative thought (and more).

    You need to care less about what paper degree hangs on the wall but rather what evidence there is of creation, free thought, successes and failures and problems solved… What does your creative and problem solving CV look like in the real world? Musk’s is excellent!!

    Would you like to stop all people who run and only allow someone to call themselves a “runner” if they do a degree in running? Of course not… Because many can naturally perform the art without the formal technique training.
    Equally, you can be born a runner or a scientist, but formally learn the information to further your knowledge and hone your art. But your thinking style m was always a scientist and there are many areas of speciality in science (not all scientists know how to terraform, yet they are still scientists)

  • A scientist is someone who conducts research to gain knowledge. So, was SpaceX or Tesla created out of thin air?
    To run these companies successfully you would have to be knowledgeable about the physical science involved. In addition, to create and then manage these companies so that they are financially sound you would have to understand your market. That’s right, research the market and know your product!
    I reckon Elon Musk is a super scientist, and indeed, may be described as a “computer scientist” since that’s where he started his career.

  • I guess I could post the obvious retort of how 20 years this article would have probably gone something like “Elon Musk should leave the building of rockets to engineers”. Or maybe something even snarkier like “Ismail Lagaardien should leave the science to actual science journalists”. Or maybe I could be less facetious and post a general comment on the zeitgeist regarding speculation and building false hype around 10 word twitter posts.

    Instead, I’ll just say how surprised I am that of how nothing in here mentions the concerns (ethical, political, practical or otherwise) around a privileged white coloniser (see what I did there?) getting his hands on 10000 nukes.

    But then again, am I *really* surprised at the low quality of this piece?

  • Thanks for an enjoyable article. With an apparent re-surgence in personality cults, it is useful to remind ourselves that individuals are a mixed bag of strengths and weaknesses, requiring us to remain accountable for our own views and actions. We should therefore neither dismiss, nor follow people without a healthy degree of critical evaluation. To me Elon’s role on this topic would be to stretch our vision and challenge our thinking. Real value comes from the interactions between people like him, those with contrarian views and – of course – science.

  • Completely disagree with your assessment of Elon. First and foremost he is an engineer and a scientist NOT a Business guy. He just so happens to be pretty good at that too. He has been quoted multiple times saying that he spends 80% of his time engineering and architecting and very little time on the business side – that’s why he has a COO. He is the Chief Engineer at Space X it’s not just a title – do a bit more research before posting please.

  • Poor piece. You admit not being a scientist, then go on to make lots of supposedly scientific statements. The only purpose seems to be to critisise Musk and Bezos. Even if they often are wrong, at least they push the boundaries of our imagination.

  • An expert is someone who knows a great deal about very little. Look at the mess the experts, particularly the medical experts with their limited perspective on the effect of their advice have made of the world when faced with options to deal with a virus. I personally would value the views of Elon Musk far above scientists, and particularly journalists, many of whom have delighted in terrifying so many into destitution.

  • Elon Musk has a graduate degree in physics which most certainly makes him a scientist. On top of his qualification, he has a magnificently proven track record of building technology that works by having an uncanny grasp of the science from first principles; by this I mean he does the math, knows it will work and then sets out to find the best way to realise the technology. I don’t know what your agenda is but your rocket launched, went in a very weird direction and certainly did not manage to land safely on its platform. For that kind of thing to work, you should leave it to the great scientists…like Elon Musk.

  • It is mind boggling that you have the arrogance to assert “Scientists, which Musk certainly is not….”
    How would you know given that by your own earlier admission earlier in you diatribe, your “actual knowledge of the science is infinitesimal” .

    All those who take the trouble to read/listen to Musk’s considered opinions, and are capable of understanding same, are in awe of his intellectual brilliance – not only regarding scientific matters.

    Furthermore, contrary to the assertions of many ignorant nay sayers like you, Musk has achieved most of his objectives in the fields of Space travel and EVs in double quick time. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

    Stick around for the same to eventuate in underground travel and AI

  • Why does DM allows these types of opinion pieces. This person is regularly spouting racist nonsense.
    And let Elon must do whatever he wants. He has proven to be one of the most capable human beings humanity has produced. It seems this author is upset that he is a white male. Typical Liberal nonsense.

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