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 (179 Responses)
  1. From1933

    'one' of the worlds next inventions to be made available to the consumer...YES eagerly awaiting it's arrival to FREE US from fuel prices and congested smog filled highways...the driverless car, directed by GPS? Yes, it should be developed in CA of all places...does rush hour ever really end any more?

    will it bring to pass yet another prophesy from 1933....?

    March 22, 2011 at 1:30 am | Reply
  2. walter17

    nice predictions from a wealthy individual. none of his predictions are in the line of solving poverty, hunger and homelessness. pity. maybe limitless amounts of viable energy will solve them.

    March 22, 2011 at 2:25 am | Reply
  3. Phil

    Don't forget the universities. The research and education infrastructure is critical to the emergence of regions like Silicon Valley as innovation hubs. Stanford was particularly important to the emergence of Silicon Valley. Then there are the other great West Coast research and technology universities, CalTech, USC Berkeley etc. These are critical.

    The same is true in Massachusetts (the east cost equivalent of Silicon Valley) which has MIT etc.

    March 22, 2011 at 7:10 am | Reply
  4. boingboing

    Lets start with the things we need like an electric can opener that has a magnet strong enough to take the lid off.Or how about a cash register that can tell if the person waiting in line is buying stuff on credit and is over his head in debt,and the register would just stay closed.

    March 22, 2011 at 7:45 am | Reply
  5. boingboing

    the perfect invention would be a voting machine that throws your vote back in your face when it senses that the voter is either drunk,loves professional wrestling,or both.

    March 22, 2011 at 7:49 am | Reply
    • Paulf

      In a steel cage match you against the drunk wrestling fan my money is going on the other guy!

      March 22, 2011 at 8:42 am | Reply
  6. FeroMoan

    I hope the "west coast" has a backup plan for when the San Andreas fault finally gives out.

    March 22, 2011 at 9:52 am | Reply
  7. Evolution

    Listening to the Skype segment, he goes into how planetary travel can be considered on the evolutionary scale, but he also mentions that "it can't be done prior to the advent of conciousness". I wonder if he elaborated on this. I can draw my own conclusions... but I would like to hear his. To me he is refering to a NEW level of consiousness. A higher level, a level that would include a conciousness of the universe. We see ourselves as part of our world, but we rarely see ourselves as part of the universe. It is too big to grasp. We reach for this when we look at the moon, the stars, a meteor shower... but we can't maintain that "conciousness". We will, and then we will reach the stars.

    March 22, 2011 at 10:28 am | Reply
  8. david

    So we are supposed to listen to a 'visionary' like Eton Musk...that is a riot.....a guy who's invention and claim to fame was a new way to take money from you.... Right.....

    March 22, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Reply
  9. BobJ

    Musk is not the founder of Tesla. How pathetic the author of this article must be to write that incorrect statement

    March 22, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Reply
  10. Miguel

    Methinks some people have been reading too many science fiction novels.... a strange set of "world-changing" inventions for those of us still living on earth....

    March 22, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Reply
  11. ZDB

    I hope you all realize that there is no new technology in a tesla vehicle...they just look nice.

    But yes, they do look nice.

    March 22, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Reply
  12. jasmine

    as interesting as the inventions are and perhaps will be it saddens me to see all these funds set up for science and all these other nick nack projects. While we grow further into debt and while we sit back and watch families loose their homes and dinner on the table.

    March 24, 2011 at 9:44 am | Reply
  13. 4Thought

    I too have been working on a project to send my dog into space. If anyone is near completion or has ideas please call or text me on 07941 981 554. I'd love to hear your thoughts, ideas and/or successes.

    My latest exploration project involves my beloved pat and a renovated car from the 1980's.

    Ta aa – John

    April 23, 2011 at 6:37 pm | Reply
  14. Gregory

    Hi John, i've just called you but line was terrible.....could just hear barking and a lots of drilling & whining..hope you're okay. Call me back. Greg.

    April 23, 2011 at 6:42 pm | Reply
  15. Loopy Lou

    I CaLLed too. Just lots of barking an snarling. Think Jon's project might be over quicker than he thought !

    April 23, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Reply
  16. tomaz

    Maybe I could help him on energy field ...

    September 16, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Reply
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