Begin forwarded message:
From: Jonathan Post <
Subject: "Magicians of the 21st Century" -- Elon Musk's Caltech Commencement Address
Date: June 16, 2012 9:45:47 AM PDT
2012 Commencement Address
"Magicians of the Century"
Musk's Commencement Address
Friday, June 15, 2012
Campus, Pasadena, CA
A complete video recording of the Commencement can be viewed
* * * *
MUSK: I'd like to thank you for leaving 'crazy person' out of
your introduction. [Laughter].
I was trying to think what's the most useful thing that I can say to
be useful to you in the future. And I thought, perhaps tell the story
of how I sort of came to be here. How did these things happen? Maybe
there are lessons there. I often find myself wondering, how did this
When I was young, I didn't really know what I was going to do when I
got older. People kept asking me. Eventually, I thought the idea of
inventing things would be really cool. The reason I thought that was
because I read a quote from Arthur C Clark, 'A sufficiently advanced
technology is indistinguishable from magic.' That's really true. If
you go back say, 300 years, the things we take for granted today,
you'd be burned at stake for. Being able to fly. That's crazy. Being
able to see over long distance, being able to communicate, the
Internet as a group mind of sorts, and having access to all the word's
information instantly from anywhere on the earth. This really would be
considered magic in times past.
In fact, I think it goes beyond that, there's many things we take for
granted today that weren't even imagined in times past, so it goes
beyond that. So I thought, If I can do some of those things -- if I
can advance technology, that is like magic and that would be really
I always had an existential crisis, trying to figure out 'what does it
all mean?' I came to the conclusion that if we can advance the
knowledge of the world, if we can expand the scope and scale of
consciousness, then, we're better able to ask the right questions and
become more enlightened. That's the only way to move forward.
So, I studied physics and business, because in order to do these
things you need to know how the universe works and how the economy
works and you also need to be able to bring people together to create
something. It's very difficult to create something as individuals if
it's a significant technology.
So, I came out to California to figure out how to improve the density
of electric vehicles, if there's an advanced capacitor, to serve as an
alternative to batteries. That was in 1995. That's when the Internet
started to happen. I thought I could either pursue this technology,
where success may not be one of the possible outcomes, which is always
tricky, or participate in the Internet and be part of it. So, I
decided to drop out. Fortunately, we're past graduation, so, cannot be
accused of recommending that to you. [Laughter]. I did some Internet
stuff, [Laughter] you know. I've done a few things here and there. One
of which is PayPal.
Maybe it's helpful to say, one of the things important in the creation
of PayPal was how it started. Initially, the goal with PayPal was
create a conglomeration for financial services, so all financial
services could be seamlessly integrated to work smoothly. And we had a
little feature, e-mail payments. Whenever we'd show the system off,
we'd show the hard part, the conglomeration of financial services,
which is difficult to put together. Nobody was interested. Then we
showed people e-mail payments, which was easy to put together, and
everyone was interested. So, it's important to take feedback from your
environment. You want to be as closed-loop as possible.
So, we focused on e-mail payments and tried to make that work. That's
when really good things started to take off. But, if we hadn't
responded to what people said, we probably would not have been
successful. So, it's important to look for things like that and focus
on that, and correct your prior assumptions.
Going from PayPal, I thought well, what are some of the other problems
that are likely to most affect the future of humanity? Not from the
perspective, 'what's the best way to make money,' which is okay, but,
it was really 'what do I think is going to most affect the future of
humanity.' The biggest terrestrial problem is sustainable energy.
Production and consumption of energy in a sustainable manner. If we
don't solve that in this century, we're in deep trouble. And the other
thing I thought might affect humanity is the idea of making life
The latter is the basis for and the former is the basis for
Tesla and . When I started , initially, I thought that
well, there's no way one could start a rocket company. I wasn't that
crazy. But, then, I thought, well, what is a way to increase NASA's
budget? That was actually my initial goal. If we could do a low cost
mission to Mars, Oasis, which would land with seeds in dehydrated
nutrient gel, then hydrate them upon landing. We'd have a great photo
of green plants with a red background [Laughter]. The public tends to
respond to precedence and superlatives. This would be the first life
on Mars and the furthest life had ever traveled.
That would get people excited and increase NASA's budget. But the
financial outcome would be zero. Anything better would on the upside.
So, I went to Russia three times to look at buying a refurbished
ICBM... [Laughter] ...because that was the best deal. [Laughter] And I
can tell you it was very weird going late 2001-2002 to Russia and
saying 'I want to buy two of your biggest rockets, but you can keep
the nukes.' [Laughter] The nukes are a lot more. That was 10 years
They thought I was crazy, but, I did have money. [Laughter] So, that
was okay. [Laughter] After making several trips to Russia, I came to
the conclusion that, my initial impression was wrong about not enough
will to explore and expand beyond earth and have a Mars base. That was
wrong. There's plenty of will, particularly in the United States.
Because United States is the nation of explorers, people came here
from other parts of the world. The United States is a distillation of
the spirit of human exploration. If people think it's impossible and
it's going to break the budget, they're not going to do it.
So, after my third trip, I said, okay, what we need to do already is
try to solve the space transport problem and started . This was
against the advice of pretty much everyone I talked to. [Laughter].
One friend made me watch videos of rockets blowing up. [Laughter] He
wasn't far wrong. It was tough going there in the beginning. I never
built anything physical. I never had a company that built something
physical. So, I had to bring together the right team of people. We did
all that, then, failed three times. It was tough, tough going.
Think about a rocket, the passing grade is 100%. And you don't get to
test the real environment that the rocket is going to be in. So, I
think the best analogy for rocket engineers, if you want to create
complicated software, you can't run as an integrate whole, or run on
the computer it's intended to run on, but, first time you run it, it
has to run with no bugs. That's the essence of it. So, we missed the
The first launch, I was picking up bits of rocket at the launch site.
And we learned with each successive flight. And were able to,
eventually in 2008, reach orbit. Also that was with the last bit of
money we had. Thank goodness that happened. Fourth time is the charm?
So, we got the Falcon 1 to orbit. Then, began to scale it up to Falcon
9, with an order of magnitude more thrust, around a million pounds of
thrust. We managed to get that to orbit, then developed the Dragon
spacecraft, which recently docked to the space station and returned to
[Applause] That was a white knuckle event. [Laughter]. It was a huge
relief. I still can't believe it actually happened. Yet, there's more
to happen for humanity to become a multi-planet species. It's vitally
important. And I hope that some you have will participate in that at
or other companies. It's really one of the most important
things for the preservation and extension of consciousness. It's worth
noting that Earth has been around for 4 billion years, but
civilization in terms of having writing is only about 10,000 years,
and that's being generous.
So, it's really somewhat of a tenuous existence that civilization and
consciousness has been on earth. I'm actually fairly optimistic about
the future earth. I don't want to give the wrong impression like we're
all about to die. [Laughter] I think things will be okay for a long
time on earth. Not for sure, but, most likely. But even if it's 99%
likely, a 1% chance is still worth the effort to back up the
biosphere, and achieved planetary redundancy. [Laughter]. And I think
it's really quite important.
And in order to do that, there's great things that is need to occur.
Create a rapidly reusable transport system to Mars. It's something
right on the borderline of impossible. But, that's the sort of the
thing that we're going to try to achieve with .
And then, on the Tesla front, the goal was to show what electric cars
can do. We had to change people's perceptions. They used to think
electric cars were slow and ugly, with low range, like a golf cart.
So, we created Tesla Roadster, a vehicle to show that it's fast,
attractive and long range. Even though you can show something on
paper, and the calculations are clear, until you have physical object,
it doesn't really sink in.
If you're going to create a company, you need to create a working
prototype. Everything works great on PowerPoint. You can make anything
work on PowerPoint. If you have a demonstration model, even in
primitive form, that's much more effective in convincing people. So we
made the Roadster, and now we're coming out with model S, a 4-door
sedan. Some people said, 'sure you can make an expensive small volume
car, but can you make a real car?' Okay, fine, we're going to make
that, too. [Laughter] So, that's coming out.
And so that's where things are and hopefully, there are lessons to be
I think the overreaching point I want to make is you guys are the
magicians of the century, don't let anything hold you back.
Imagination is the limit. Go out there and create some magic.
DISCLAIMER: This transcript is not guaranteed nor intended to be
strictly verbatim. This is not a certified document and is not
acceptable for use in any legal matter. This is a rough-edited