March 17th, 2011
05:58 PM ET

Elon Musk on the 3 inventions that will change the world

Elon Musk is a 39-year-old engineer and serial entrepreneur. At 28, he co-founded popular e-payment company Paypal. He then went on to start SpaceX, the first private company to launch a rocket into space, and Tesla Motors, which builds electric cars.

I recently talked to Musk about inventions he thinks will change the world. You can check out the transcript below and watch part of our Skype conversation, which encapsulates Musk’s particular brand of big, big thinking (in particular, why we should expand human life into space).

Amar Bakshi: What three inventions do you foresee changing the world in the years ahead?

Elon Musk: One of the most important things that I think that will be invented this century, hopefully by SpaceX, is the first (1) fully reusable orbital rocket. It’s the fundamental invention necessary for humanity to expand to the stars and to become multiplanetary. (Check out the video above to see why Musk thinks expanding to the stars is important for humanity.)

The cost of fuel is only about 0.2% or 0.3% of the cost of the rocket. In fact, the cost to refuel one of our Falcon 9 rockets is about as much as the cost to refuel a Boeing 747 plane.

However, a 747 can be used tens of thousands of times. And that’s the reason a ticket to London doesn’t cost a half a billion dollars (a 747 is about a quarter-billion dollars, and you would need two of them for a round-trip flight if you didn’t have reusable planes). Now you’re paying a few thousand dollars for the ticket because you can reuse the craft.

(2) Rapid, low-cost, perfect DNA sequencing will have a huge effect on humanity. Human DNA has not yet been completely decoded. The most that anyone has gotten is about 91% or 92%, and that has been with a huge numbers of errors. Trying to read our DNA is like trying to understand software code - with only 90% of the code riddled with errors. It’s very difficult in that case to understand and predict what that software code is going to do.

That’s where things are right now in DNA decoding. There’s a company called Halcyon that’s trying to solve that problem. I’m an investor, and I’m on the Board of Halcyon, but I think if Halcyon succeeds in doing perfect DNA sequencing, it will have a huge impact on humanity.

I should mention another important thing. With DNA, you have to be able to tell which genes are turned on or off. Current DNA sequencing cannot do that. The next generation of DNA sequencing needs to be able to do this. If somebody invents this, then we can start to very precisely identify cures for diseases. It will be a really huge advancement for humanity.

We’ll be able to design treatments specifically for individual people and be able to tell beforehand if certain treatments would result in negative side effects for certain individuals.

There are a lot of people that think (3) viable fusion is not possible. But fusion is the “energy forever” solution. You know all energy in the universe originates with fusion. We get our energy from the sun, so that’s indirect reliance on fusion.

Do I think it will be solved this century? It may not be possible – or at least, not on a commercially viable scale. It’s a very, very difficult technical problem, one of the most difficult technical problems that humanity will ever try to solve. But if we solve it, we will have “energy forever.”

Bakshi: Where do you think these innovations are going to happen? Around the world? Or mostly on the west coast of the U.S.?

Musk: Primarily the west coast of the U.S. It is remarkable how much is invented in California. It’s kind of ridiculous. It’s not necessarily the people who were born in California. It’s just that people come here because this is an environment that is really conducive to invention despite the high taxes and all the constraints that one faces.

I was born in Africa. I came to California because it’s really where new technologies can be brought to fruition, and I don’t see a viable competitor. It’s not to say that California is perfect – far from it. But it’s the least imperfect of any place in the world that I know of for bringing new inventions to mass market.

Silicon Valley has evolved a critical mass of engineers and venture capitalists and all the support structure – the law firms, the real estate, all that – that are all actually geared toward being accepting of startups.

You go to some other part of the world, and you know you can't get a lease because your company hasn’t been around long enough; the law firm won't give you legal advice, nobody will give you funding, you can't find the technical talent you need. But in California, all this has arisen organically.

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Topics: Innovation • Science • Technology • Trends • United States

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soundoff (178 Responses)
  1. Scott Lou

    Greetings,
    I agree with Prof. Hawkins and Mr. Musk that for the long term survival of humanity we need to have more then one planet to live on in case of global wide destruction. I also believe that since the timeline is longer then most of us will live we need to start by changing our ways of supporting ourselves and building our shelters. The main idea is to simply buy the needed time for our children and grandchildren to develop the knowledge and technology to do this while limiting the damage we are doing to the surface of the earth and possibly reversing what we have already done.
    Instead of building up, build down, by this I mean burrow into the ground instead of building sky scrapers. The reasons are limitless, geothermal energy, mineral resources, radiation protection, safety from inclement wheather, (other then earth quakes), etc. Granted we will still have a sizable population on the surface, farmers, fishermen, and folks who just don't want to live or work under ground.
    What a great way to learn to live on the moon or in other hostile environments we may find in space. The best reason is freeing the surface of earth to heal itself and letting nature regain its normal state without human intervention. Just think of the great vacations we would be able to take visiting the surface.
    We have built the channel tunnel between England and France and plans were designed for a tunnel between Europe and America along the northern rim of the Atlantic ocean. They have built the facility at Cheyenne mountain and the seed depository to safe guard genetic biodiversity. There are massive subway systems around the globe in the largest cities so it is possible to do this. Though the cost of construction is high it only has to be done once then it should last for ages.
    I am just putting some ideas out there to get people thinking in this direction and to come up with ideas of there own. I also know that I am delving into subjects that are well beyond my pay grade so any and all help will be most welcome. To finish, my thoughts and prayers are with the people of Japan, Libya, New Zealand, and humanity as a whole as we deal with the trials that come our way.
    Regards,
    Scott

    March 19, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Reply
    • root

      On Earth we rape and pollute the land for our needs and desires. We have been doing this for centuries. What makes you think that we will be any more responsible elsewhere? It is the nature of the human race to leave a trail of destruction.

      March 20, 2011 at 7:05 am | Reply
      • JMR

        ...we won't be more responsible elsewhere.... but the universe is a VERY BIG place, and we're a very rapidly reproducing species...

        March 22, 2011 at 1:27 am |
  2. lark stein

    hahaha musk, good one, the reason california is such a place for innovation is the pockets of engineering culture, that have bonded together t ohelp start ups...they are in that mindset...

    the problem is that the government of california is completely fucked up..especialyl the high taxes. seriously, f californias government man, san francisco can ksis my ass.

    if we had the california mentality with texa's low taxes, and combined that with the strict convergent engineering culture of mit (you have all the spectrums), im pretty much certai nwe would get to the singularity by 2015.

    unfortunately, you have a bunch of morons trying like apeshit to cut the nut off industry. f bunch of stupid brats, they don't DESERVE SILICON VALLEY AND ITS TALENT..

    california, the california that created silicon valley, died 20 years ago...the only reason california is still california is that there is a huge helping hand from the high tech industrial complex whose infrastructure was constructed 20 years ago.

    f san francisco, if it wasn't for silicon valley and the creative culture, that city would turn into a bohemian ghetto. sons of ...

    March 19, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Reply
    • Liberalagnostic

      Lark that is bs. Texas is an example of all that is wrong. Have you seen what your low taxes have wrought? You have a 28 BILLION dollar deficit.
      #49 in verbal SAT scores in the nation (493) and #46 in average math SAT scores (502), In top 5 teen pregnancies, top 5 lack of healthcare, etc.
      Keep up the good work Texazzz..

      March 20, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Reply
      • Pooua

        Texas does not have a $28 billion deficit. It has a $28 billion projected budget shortfall. The Texas State Constitution requires a balanced budget, so the State will not have a deficit. The next round of budgeting is going to be painful, but it won't result in a deficit.

        Incidentally, some Texas school districts, particularly those around the Dallas area, rank at the top of the nation.

        March 22, 2011 at 12:22 am |
  3. lark stein

    I have a weird relationship with that f city. I can't leave, because all the tech interests are so concentrated there, including all my bussiness interests, yet its a f whore.

    If another california sprung up elsewhere i would leave in a heartbeat...sigh...unfortunately I can't...have to deal with that whore...unfortunately there is nothing around the planet YET...quite like the californai created 20 years ago for tech. Its quite frustrating. whores got me by a leash.

    March 19, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Reply
  4. lark stein

    the thing is, whenever these hotspots are created, these f liberals infest it like a plague..

    boulder is a new place where teech is becoming hot...

    can you boneheads please create a hotspot in austin texas, at sxsw? PLEASE/

    that woudl solve most of our problems...but nooooo, you have to create on in boulder co and san fran ca? what are you nuts?

    nevermind.

    March 19, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Reply
    • Liberalagnostic

      Texas might attract people with common sense and intelligence if it stopped trying to be the mecca for all that is wrong with the rightwing.

      March 20, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Reply
    • Edi

      Thanks for posting this, it's very ienirnstetg. It's a sad indication of our world today that this has so few views. It's pitiful that a vast majority of our society is choosing to be oblivious to what is going on around them. Stupidity is so much easier than thinking for yourself.Keep up the good work and keep posting great vids. thx

      April 21, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Reply
  5. lark stein

    we have to find a palce they couldn[t possibly infest...like uh, i don't know, china..

    liberals don;t like china i bet, shanhai, yea, let go to hong kong, lets go over there.

    in fact, im going to create a hotspot in a conservativce state or country. Like an anti-latte state, thats sure to keep them away. We can plant the christian right on their ass to scare those fools out of their minds.

    March 19, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Reply
  6. lark stein

    thats what sucks, tech people like the liberal atmosphere, but not the liberal taxes...if san francisco could be like texas with taxes, but san fran in everything else except the hobos, it would be like, uh, paradise.

    March 19, 2011 at 2:42 pm | Reply
  7. lark stein

    like libertarian, yea, libertarian

    ayn rand (perfect tech mindset, producer) + liberal atmosphere + volunteering culture by TOP COMPANIES, NOT THE SMALL ONES + low taxes = f paradise

    man, why hasn't someone thought of this brilliant idea before?

    damn.

    March 19, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Reply
    • Liberalagnostic

      Ayn Rand was a delusional crackpot as are the rest of you liebertarians.. LIEbertarianism is nice to talk about but unworkable in the real world.

      March 20, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Reply
      • JMR

        ...don't think she was delusional at all. Objectivism is more coherent than collectivism in all its forms (which basically exudes emotion-based decision making at every decision point, which in turn leads to complete illogic everywhere). There are definitely flaws in Objectivism... however, if somebody's got a more coherent philosophy I'm all ears–I haven't heard one...

        Frankly I'm not sure how you could argue with "I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine." (Atlas Shrugged)

        March 22, 2011 at 1:25 am |
  8. Russell

    Two words: Fuel Cells.

    March 19, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Reply
    • Jason L.

      Fuel cells are cleaner and more efficient, but they still require a hydrocarbon fuel source such as natural gas to supply the hydrogen. Fuel cells are not a long term solution the way fusion would be, they are a band-aid.

      March 20, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Reply
  9. lark stein

    this is an idea;

    why don't we have silicon valley take a greater stake in san francisco governance?

    thats the f solution right there.

    March 19, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  10. lark stein

    steve jobs is way smarter than newsom. f clown.

    March 19, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Reply
    • cia

      if by smarter you meant he knows how to steal a kidney from another person so he lives and they die then yes you are right steve jobs you're i idol
      me i am sitting back watching it fail and see how karma can be heck :p

      March 21, 2011 at 11:59 pm | Reply
  11. lark stein

    if they simply taxed the larger companies, left the start ups alone, and only taxed them when they made it, that would be fine. But no, they go apeshit man. its insane.

    March 19, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Reply
  12. cleareye1

    My vote for a needed invention goes to a simple, safe, effective, male contraceptive. We must slow the population growth or we won't enjoy the other inventions described.

    March 19, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Reply
  13. GRIP ACE - HIDDEN DIGITAL MOTORCYCLE SWITCH CONTROLS

    California is a location that keeps the mind going due to the exposure of different cultures and climates

    March 19, 2011 at 10:42 pm | Reply
  14. thirsty6b

    My vote for a needed invention would go to a cheap low energy way to purify seawater and dirty water.

    March 19, 2011 at 11:43 pm | Reply
  15. Local

    We need to be able to store electricity cheaply. If we could store electricity wind and solar power start to make a lot more sense. We could nuclear more efficiently. If that stored electricity was in a small enough space we could use it to truly power our cars.

    March 20, 2011 at 1:05 am | Reply
  16. JoJo

    I found out that Elon Musk is African-American!
    Butt seriously, I think robots should replace humans in the workplace. We need to advance artificial intelligence to the point where humans will not be needed to do any more thinking.

    March 20, 2011 at 8:42 am | Reply
    • cia

      see i robot for how well that will shake out heh

      March 22, 2011 at 12:01 am | Reply
  17. Jonathan Fisher

    Actually all of mankind's plans and hopes for the future could be coming to a quick end.
    I feel the human experience was a journey of self-identity and spiritual reality and now that
    God has let us seen ourselves as a species and creation to the point of mass extinction,
    it's just possible his plan and desires for us all along are about to become humanity's reality. In other words he let us develop as a species to get us to the point we are now, and it's his desires and goals for us that are soon going to have the final word, air you breathe with and the planet we all walk on was never our own.

    March 20, 2011 at 8:55 am | Reply
    • JoJo

      It's also possible that this cycle has played out for eons. Whatever species comes to dominance on Earth develops to the point where it can wipe itself out, then proceeds to do so. Who knows what species will follow man once we destroy ourselves over petty differences.

      March 20, 2011 at 9:45 am | Reply
    • cia

      shut up sheesh where do you freaks come from i mean really WOW

      March 22, 2011 at 12:03 am | Reply
  18. ken

    Unfortunately California has turned to drugs! The colleges are turning out poorly educated kids in math and science. There are no ethics and no common sense in California. Innovation will come from elsewhere where conservative ideas are applied to common sense, real science, and real risk analysis. California is bankrupt for a reason!

    March 20, 2011 at 10:43 am | Reply
    • cia

      yeah because they had a republican in charge moron go look up facts dems run the nation better republicans are only better at being liars and stealing jobs money homes lifes and so on you son are a retard no offense to the mentally handy capped :p

      March 22, 2011 at 12:06 am | Reply
  19. Germaine Stewart

    Those may make a small change in the world, but my goal is to really bring peace to it.
    http://www.harmonylrv.webs.com

    March 20, 2011 at 11:13 am | Reply
    • Jason L.

      Nothing would bring more peace to the world than a cheap, clean and abundant energy source (ie. viable fusion).

      March 20, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Reply
      • Miguel

        We already have a fusion reactor. It's called the sun. Why don't we just do our best to use the clean limitless resources we already have available?

        March 22, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  20. Emilio

    Mr. Elon Musk is right about innovation in California, but the infrastructure has much to be desired such as in Riverside, California 6,000 job losses and the state firing 1,500 teachers due to budget cuts, the sheer arrogance of the "cash up front" and exuberance rediculous high price real estate( in Texas real estate is much cheaper and realistic), California can lead the nation in this. That is a bad "mental block" in tthe state. of Califronia.

    March 20, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Reply
  21. mike

    I was thinking like a New rubber ducky that lights up and quacks? or maybe an automatic golf tee setter ( like spring loaded pole with golf tees in it ...just push into the ground?)......? sorry.

    March 20, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Reply
  22. Dave

    Engineers disagree often.
    My most needed inventions are (1) more efficient solar electric cells, 15% is ridiculous, expensive, and uneconomical, c'mon chemE's invent!, and (2) in my opinion fusion is still too far away, so in the meantime make our fission products inert or recyclable. again, c'mon chemE's invent. Some of my best friends are chemE's. I'm a mech engr, so we'll make it work after you chemE's produce...

    March 21, 2011 at 12:07 am | Reply
  23. us dog

    the allied forces is only after the oil of libya.. period!!!!!!!!!!!

    March 21, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Reply
  24. Joan

    Yes, the DNA resetting which was presented to the International Congress of Medicine is now happening .......moving forward in the next ten years with leading genetic scientists Lifegen tech who was on 60 minutes ....we already have products available to the general public and Wall Street is responding very enthusiastically. DNA heat map studies and regulating the clusters back to vital status. It is a new day for sure as technology on many levels are removing forward

    March 21, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Reply
  25. Sue

    How about a car or house that can become a functioning and piloted submarine/boat? If the movies have come up with such fabulous fictional ideas-James bond- anyone? Someone should've been all over that buy now! Maybe the Japanese will design it now out of necessity.Very sad but true.

    March 21, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Reply
  26. Pooua

    (1) fully reusable orbital rocket – The cost of the rocket is still only a small part of the cost of the launch. We were promised that the space shuttles would drop the cost of orbital launches, but that didn't really happen, due to the enormous amount of manpower required to prep, monitor, control and refurbish the shuttles each launch. If we needed an army of people dedicated to each 747 flight, the fact that the 747 is reusable would be moot. The way to drop the cost is mostly through increasing the number of flights per year (something the space shuttles never came close to achieving as they were supposed to have done), and also through decreasing the amount of manpower required for each flight. Reusability is one means to that end, but is not the only or the best or sufficient means to that end.

    Mr. Musk's other choices are strong contenders for the title. Another strong choice would be new water purification, sanitation and delivery technology. New database technologies are also going to change our world in radical ways. If we were to find a way to empower the billions of people who currently live with little influence beyond their own small towns, we would also see a seismic shift in world affairs. We still haven't even scratched the surface of what nanotechnology or bioengineering could do.

    Autonomous automobiles should get an honorable mention, as it would significantly improve public safety and fuel efficiency, though I don't expect it to be as big an invention as others mentioned. An autonomous lunar excavator and processor would also be Earth-changing.

    March 21, 2011 at 11:33 pm | Reply
  27. realist

    1. Rapid fire, high velocity, kinetic energy guns. Weapon systems with integrated tracking systems that can target ballistic missiles and aircraft at long ranges, even disable orbital vehicles. They would render current nuclear stockpiles, air forces, and navies obsolete. It will be revolutionary to warfare as artillery, the machine gun, and flight were... but in one package.

    2. An organism or chemical process that produces graphene. Carbon nanotubes, the strongest substance that will ever be discovered... ever. Travel in time a million years, it will still be the strongest substance. But can it ever be grown like a tree?

    3. AI... but it will probably kill us or take what it needs to get far away from us, then crash an asteroid into the planet.

    March 21, 2011 at 11:49 pm | Reply
  28. kimo akita

    Brought to you by science: Chernobyl, Three Mile island, Daiichi and then there's global warming.

    Or is it KALI?

    As Aldous Huxley so wisely said in his beautiful introduction to the Bhagavad Gita, "There will never be enduring peace unless & until human beings come to accept a philosophy of life more adequate to the cosmic & psychological facts than the insane idolatries of nationalism and the advertising man's (Elon Musk et al) apocalyptic fairh in Progress towards a mechanized New jerusalem."

    March 21, 2011 at 11:57 pm | Reply
    • JMR

      Neat... while you're busy living in your grass hut dreaming of a mud covered Utopia, those of us still working on our "mechanized New Jerusalem" will eventually reach out into space and become cosmic travelers, thereby assuring the survival of our species. No hard feelings... we just need some elbow room... we simply have different perspectives on what humanity ought to become... It's wrong for either one of us to impose our ideals on the other...

      March 22, 2011 at 1:08 am | Reply
      • Paulf

        Trouble is a grass thatched mud hut is doable, economical space flight isn't!

        March 22, 2011 at 8:38 am |
  29. azndeuce11

    Has this guy forgotten about singularity? The computers of the future will invent things that we can't even imagine. And that future is not that far away – – Moore's Law.

    March 22, 2011 at 12:52 am | Reply
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