Elon Musk is known for creating forward-thinking companies. He invented online payments and cars that drive themselves, will be making commercial flights to the Moon, and is about to colonize Mars. One of his companies is even working on merging machines and humans. Word.
It sounds like science-fiction, but Musk, an engineer and entrepreneur, has a knack for making things that seemed impossible become a reality.
These are Elon Musk’s companies, and how they are propelling you into the future -whether you are ready or not.
Zip2 was Elon’s first internet company
Back in 1995 the World Wide Web was just beginning. But Elon realized it was going to be big, and he wanted a part in it.
So the 24-year-old dropped out of Stanford University, where he was starting a PhD in Physics, and created a website called Zip2 with his younger brother Kimbal.
Elon coded the website, which was sort of an early Google Maps/Tripadvisor mashup.
Zip2 visitors could use the website like a one would use the yellow pages: to look up the address of a particular business or to find all businesses listed under a category. Furthermore they could search for restaurants or movie theaters that were nearby, read reviews for each, see them in a map, and get door-to-door directions.
The innovative company also helped newspapers like the New York Times have an online presence, since at the time most did not.
Elon funded the startup with $2,000 of his money, $5,000 from Kimbal, and $8,000 from Gregory Kouri, a family friend.
Four years after its foundation, in 1999, Compaq Computers bought Zip2 for about 340 million dollars to buff up their search engine AltaVista.
And 28-year-old Elon walked away with $22 million.
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PayPal: Elon & friends revolutionize payments
The South African was just getting starting, though. With the money he earned from the sale of Zip2, Elon immediately began another online company: X.Com.
In another visionary move, X.Com was a fully online bank.
It was 1999, and there was another startup which had overlapping features with X.Com.
After a few months of fierce competition, the two companies decided to merge. And they focused on only one of their products, the one that made possible for anyone with an email to transfer money to anyone else with an email, all online. That company is nowadays called PayPal.
Two years after the merger, in 2002, eBay bought Paypal for $1.5 billion.
SpaceX: off to colonize Mars
In 2002, 31-year-old Elon was talking to a friend while they were driving. By now they were both rich and had no jobs. What could they do next?
Half jokingly they started thinking about going to space. But the idea actually took root and Elon founded, that same year, SpaceX, which stands for Space Exploration Technologies Corporation.
SpaceX mission is to get people to Mars and to popularize space travel, or “to accelerate the advent of humanity becoming a space fairing civilization,” in Elon’s words.
Elon himself has admitted that at the beginning he thought the company had about 10% chance of succeeding. His friends thought even that was too optimistic and tried to talk him out of the idea several times.
But since then SpaceX has won contracts with NASA, been the first private company to deliver supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) that orbits Earth, and has even sent astronauts to the same station on June 2020.
Missions to Moon and Mars
SpaceX is now building a rocket, Starship, which, if everything works out, will be able to take about 100 people to the Moon and Mars.
The first commercial flight to the Moon is programmed for 2023. And space-enamoured Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has already bought all the eight seats for that trip.
The Mars journey is also programmed for the early 2020’s. The rocket will take about six months to get to Mars, and the first missions will be manned by NASA astronauts.
Elon’s plan is to colonize Mars and create a city there, with commercial flights going back and forth from Earth.
And as an extra, Elon has stated that the same spaceships used to fly to the Moon could be used on Earth, somewhat like airplanes, to significantly speed up long distance travel. Any place on Earth would be reached in less than 30 minutes. So, say, a trip from Miami to Shanghai would take less than half an hour.
Elon is both SpaceX’s CEO and the chief engineer.
Tesla and a sustainable future
In 2003 Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning founded Tesla, a company dedicated to making electric cars.
The following year Elon became an investor in the company. He also became a member of the board of directors and started designing the company’s first vehicle: the Roadster, a sports car which earned Musk several design awards.
With Tesla, Elon’s aim is to make inexpensive electric cars for mass consumption because he wants the world to switch to sustainable energy.
Tesla currently has four models that start at $30,000, and will make trucks and trains in the future.
A car that drives itself
Tesla’s cars are quite fancy. Musk is known to be a perfectionists and to have an eye for aesthetics, but probably what makes Tesla stand out the most is its futuristic edge.
All the models have rear, side, and forward-facing cameras; some have a computer screen attached to the dashboard; they all produce zero emissions, and are charged with electricity or the sun, depending on whichever the buyer chooses.
But the winning feature is the autopilot. These cars really drive themselves. The owner does not even have to be inside the car for the autopilot to work, he/she can call the car and have this self-driving vehicle pick them up anywhere in a parking lot. Like Knight-Rider, if you were around in the 80’s.
Tesla’s success has forced other car companies – like Audi, Chevrolet, Mercedes Benz, and BMW- to enter the electric car market, assisting Elon’s goal to speed up the world’s transition to sustainable energy.
Elon Musk acts as Tesla’s CEO and its chief designer.
SolarCity -sustainable energy at home
Seems like Elon gets even more forward-thinking ideas than usual when he goes on a road trip. He came up with SpaceX during one, and two yeas later, in 2004, he came up with the idea for SolarCity while he was on his way to the Burning Man festival with his South African cousin Lyndon Rive.
Lyndon, who was already a successful businessman, said he wanted to build a company that was good for humanity. Cousin Elon suggested solar roofs.
Wisely, Lyndon headed the advice. So he and his brother Peter Rive founded SolarCity in 2006, with Elon as one of the investors, the major shareholder, and chairman.
Ten years later Tesla started a shopping spree, and among the companies it bought was SolarCity, for $2.6 billion.
When Tesla acquired it, SolarCity’s main product were solar panels, which are quite bulky. So Elon pushed into production the solar tiles that the company had been developing. They look like normal tiles, therefore much prettier that the panels.
Solar roofs and tiles help save on electric bills, plus they can produce excess energy that can be sold to a city’s energy grid. So, ideally, instead of paying for energy, the owner of a solar roof may actually earn money.
SolarCity is now part of Tesla Energy which develops alternative energy and, in time, may become a major clean energy provider.
OpenAI – Artificial intelligence and beyond
Elon, along with other people that have spent a lot of time thinking about artificial intelligence (AI), has come to the conclusion that when AI is too advanced it could, like in the movies, turn against humans and exterminate them.
So in 2015 Elon and a group of these people got together and founded a non-profit called OpenAI.
Now here is the twist. In order to get AI under control, what this groups does is… develop AI. The idea is to beat private companies so they do not patent it first and use it for their own commercial purposes, which could harm mankind.
OpenAI, instead, is supposed to make its code and patents open to the public. Their end game is to make AI useful for humankind, although Elon Musk himself has acknowledged that their own experiments might actually end up bringing the very situation they are trying to avoid.
Things have not been smooth running, either. The company realized they could not compete with the likes of Google, who is developing AI, without having more funding. So now OpenAI is two companies, one remains non profit, and the other is for profit.
Meanwhile, they created a software that they did not share with the public, like they had said they would,… because they realized the program, in the wrong hands, could be harmful.
Elon resigned his place on the board of directors of OpenAI in 2018 after he realized that the AI Tesla is developing (the autopilot) could mean he would have a conflict of interests in the future.
Yet he still funds OpenAI.
The Boring Company- high-speed public transportation
The name of the company is a play of words which shows Musk’s sense of humor. The “boring” part refers to tunnel-boring since this company, founded in 2016, makes underground tunnels.
The idea is to create a fast public transport system underground.
Unlike subways, these tunnels, called Loops, will be used by both private cars and ‘pods’ that seat up to 16 people. The speed inside the tunnels will be of up to 250 kmh (155 mph), which is significantly higher than the normal driving speed around a city.
The Boring Company is now making a Loop under the Las Vegas Convention Center that will transport passengers under the center.
Hyperloop: speeding up long distance travel
Elon also plans to use underground tunnels for long-distance travel, by connecting cities.
These particular system, Hyperloop, will be friction-free and about three times faster than high velocity trains. These tunnels are not for cars, they will only have pressurized pods that seat up to 16 people.
They could travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 43 minutes, which is half of the time it takes by plane.
Elon Musk first presented the concept of Hyperloop in 2012, has open sourced it, and encouraged others to further develop this high-speed mass transportation system. Companies, like Richard Branson’s Virgin have accepted the challenge and are developing Hyperloops.
There are plans to connect all Europe with these high-speed pods.
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Neuralink -robotizing humans
Neuralink creates brain implants, which are not a new thing.
Currently, brain implants are used by doctors to help people move their artificial limbs with their brain waves, to help paralyzed people communicate with a computer, and to assist people with Parkinson who have tremors.
Neuralink’s implants will do all those things too. And they will be much smaller and have further capabilities.
“[The implants] could, in principle, fix anything that’s wrong with the brain,” according to Elon. That includes epilepsy, depression, hearing and eyesight problems, and an array of other medical conditions.
Neuralink’s implants are in the development stage and are yet to receive the green light to do tests in humans.
Implants to enhance human’s capabilities and robotize humans
But Elon’s vision for this company he co-founded in 2016 does not end there. He hopes one day the implants will not only fix things, but enhance human’s capabilities.
And that further down the line they will allow for a symbiosis between humans and artificial intelligence.
Enter Elon’s fear of artificial intelligence again. Just like with OpenAI, with Neuralink too he hopes to win the battle against bad AI.
He believes that by merging AI and humans, the chances that AI will be able to turn on us is diminished.
Let’s hope the humans don’t get hacked…
Elon holds no executive position in Neuralinks. Neuroscientists and the like are its other cofounders and seat on the board of directors.
Automation: other Tesla-owned companies
Elon said he had an epiphany and realized the factory is key, because once you have the right factory, producing the car is easy.
And to build the perfect factory, Tesla has been on a shopping spree since about 2016, buying mostly companies that help automatize Tesla’s factories, like the German giant Grohmann Engineering and Perbix.