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Can technology change the world?

Half a century ago we put a man on the moon.  Half a century before that Henry Ford revolutionised the world with the Model T, the first mass produced motor car.  And the Wright brothers took to the air, shrinking the world.

Technology, when I was a kid, was the stuff of dreams.  We devoured stories about inventors, superheroes, and imagined that one day we’d be flying around in jet packs.  Science was what the smart kids studied, and the boffins in lab coats were going to save the world.  We all wanted to be Dr Who.

But something went wrong along the way.

Science seemed to lose its sparkle.  Suddenly the technological marvels were causing more troubles than they solved.  Road deaths.  Health scares.  Cyber crime.  Climate change.

And then came Silicon Valley.  The highest concentration of smart minds, outstanding universities, capital and entrepreneurial mind-set the world had ever seen.  Sure, the Dotcom boom and bust looked a bit mad at the time.  But it wasn’t a fad, and things settled down.

Bill Gates was the undisputed boss of that early tech age, making the goliaths like IBM cower in the corner, questioning its purpose and looking for a new direction.  Back then Apple was only for geeks and fanatics.

Has that early promise delivered?  Has Mark Zuckerberg’s grand plan for sharing photos of cats and babies made the world a better place?  Is society better and happier thanks to Instagram?  Will Amazon and Alibaba solve our looming environmental and political challenges?

Hmm.

But it’s more than that.  The thing about transformational technology is not just the problems it solves.  It’s about the state of mind it generates.  If the greatest brains on the planet are pulling together, behind a shared sense of purpose, straining to make the world better – then that’s infectious.

Enter Elon Musk.  Even amongst his peers he’s not your ordinary billionaire.

Elon’s story is almost the perfect story.  I was going to say somebody should make a film about him, but that’s already been done.  Have you seen Iron Man?  There’s even a picture of Iron Man in the Palo Alto Tesla car plant.  I marvelled at it when I was last at his car plant and saw happy Tesla cars and energy storage packs rolling off the production line.

Tough childhood, brains, and drive.  Two degrees – physics and economics (at the same time).  And a rigorously analytical mind.  Elon doesn’t accept anything at face value.  In fact, much of his success comes from thinking about problems from first principles, refusing to accept ‘conventional wisdom’.

After making his millions with Zip2 (a sort of early Google Maps) and PayPal, Elon might have been expected to stick to the tried-and-tested Silicon Valley stuff.  Payments technology or social media.  Something involving code and marketing.

But no.  He did exactly the thing that any sane person would advise against.  He ploughed $70M into disrupting the car industry.  Taking on Detroit and the Germans at their own game.  Cutting out the dealers completely.  Who needs dealers when you can sell direct?  Electric cars don’t need all that dirty and expensive after sales maintenance.

At the same time, he went into space exploration, threatening to put giants such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing out of business.  Not to mention China and Russia.  In fact, he once said “My family fears the Russians will assassinate me.”

Elon is applying the Silicon Valley modus operandi – move quickly, build organisations free of bureaucracy and hierarchies (unless it’s him) – and he’s applying it to big machines and really big machines.  He’s created some of the most loyal and capable teams of people on the planet, in Los Angeles, Palo Alto and San Jose.

But here’s the really cool thing.

Elon’s not in it for the money.  He might be one of the richest men on the planet now.  But his motive is simple.  He’s going to save the world.  And this isn’t some hollow boast.

His lithium ion powered cars are pushing our planet to the point at which we may no longer need to guzzle fossil fuels.  The boffins at Tesla’s battery research labs in California know more about energy storage than anyone else on earth as they pull apart and test everyone else’s lithium battery secrets.

Now the big boys in the battery business are all scrambling to play catch up with Elon. He’s always two steps ahead of the competition. He’s even got his hands on some key new lithium sources. The world is going to need a lot more lithium as it is fast becoming the new oil.

A few years ago, people said he was mad and his Tesla cars would never make the grade. How wrong they were.  Forget bits and bytes, Elon’s agenda is about controlling the electrons that make our modern world run.  That’s the really smart part of his vision. It’s about the electrons.  Making electron storage affordable. That’s the vision of the Gigafactory and he’s going to blow away the competition on cost.

His futuristic transportation system, with solar powered – and free – charging points obviates the need even for distributed power.  We’ll even stand a chance against a zombie apocalypse!

And his space programme is a mad, sweeping, galvanising vision to create the technology to establish life on Mars.

Making money is not the point of SpaceX.  In Elon’s own words “The point is to maximise the probable lifespan of humanity.  I would like to die on Mars.  Just not on impact. Ideally I’d like to go for a visit, come back for a while, and then go there when I’m like seventy or something and just stay there.

Elon realizes if it costs $1Bn per person there will be no Mars colony.  But if its less than a $1M it becomes a possibility.  And these are the sorts of problems that keep this obsessive genius and his people awake at night.

Just as the progressive atmosphere and energy of the 60s and 70s was inspired by the Apollo missions, I reckon SpaceX and Tesla will stand as fitting monuments of our time.

To hope, and to genius.

Thank you, Elon.

Written by David Lenigas