Elon Musk’s brain isn’t like most people’s. When he isn’t content with how something works, he reinvents it: cars, rockets — and now, cities. This week, he announced he’s planning a new town in south Texas called “Starbase.”
The idea is to take over the unincorporated seaside village of Boca Chica, a kind of mini Texan Cape Canaveral some 355 miles from Austin, where his SpaceX already has a massive rocket facility. It’s all part of his mission to bring humans to Mars in this decade. (Even if, this week, one of the prototype Starship rockets went up in flames during a test flight, a not-unexpected part of working out the kinks.)
Now he’s using his own superpower, his intellect, to give humans a chance to be as smart as he is. He may change our minds forever with Neuralink, which aims to use implanted brain chips to improve the human body — and help us compete with AI.
Then there are his other side hustles, like the HyperLoop transportation network — sort of like high-speed rail, but with pressurized capsules — being designed by his Boring Company, or his Starlink satellite system.
There’s no doubting Musk’s intelligence, or curiosity or even his bandwidth to change the world. But as his outsize ego and Twitter explosions get him in trouble, some skeptics wonder if he’s just an ego-mad billionaire: superhero or supervillain?
“There’s definitely something superhuman or even alien about his brain,” pioneering gamer and engineer Garry Kitchen told The Post.
“Something’s happening like it’s firing on all cylinders all the time, like some kind of a mutation or DNA malfunction. The same thing could be said of Einstein who rewrote physics at age 22. But what makes Musk different is how he sees no limits and has no fear. And he doesn’t care if people think he’s crazy. That’s what makes him one of a kind.”
While his future “Starbase” and his exploding rocket commandeered attention this week, microchipped pigs with names like Gertrude, Barbara, Cleo and Dorothy were walking treadmills at his brain implant startup in San Francisco. The pigs, and at least one monkey, are the test pilots, in effect, as Musk’s team develops high-bandwidth interfaces to connect humans and computers.
Formed in 2016, Neuralink is one of Musk’s more secretive offshoots. The immediate goals of the endeavor are treating traumatic brain injuries. Musk says paralyzed people who get Neuralink’s electronic brain chip installed in their skulls, for instance, could conceivably walk again.
“Think of it as Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires,” he said in a rare video from Neuralink’s headquarters in August about the implant, which is the size of a large coin. “You can get a link in an hour without general anesthesia and leave hospital the same day. You need a great device and a great robot who puts in the electrodes and does surgery.”
Musk has said humans are “already cyborgs” because of access to smartphones and computers. Neuralink, he says, will close that gap and prep us for the future. Adding a digital layer to the brain’s limbic system and cortex may be humanity’s only hope of matching the exponential and possibly sinister rise of artificial intelligence. Otherwise, Musk said, humans may sink to the level of “house cats.”
The MIT Technology Review dissed Neuralink’s work so far as “neuroscience theater” and heavy on hype.
But Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering and a futurist credited with the idea of “the singularity,” says machines could surpass humans in intelligence by 2030 and time is of the essence for companies like Neuralink to help humans keep up.
“For interacting directly with the brain, we need more speed,” Kurzweil told The Post. “When we get to the 2030s, we will have neural net technologies at Google that go way beyond what is feasible today. These will . . . exceed human intelligence. For this to be something that makes humans smarter rather than just competing with humans, we need an ability to interact with our neocortex. But that has to be done at a fast speed, far greater than what we can do now.”
Musk bought the Neuralink name in 2017 from neuroscientist Randolph Nudo and Pedram Mohseni, an electrical engineer and Case Western Reserve professor, after the two trademarked it in 2015 for their own brain-tech startup.
“I’m rooting for him,” Nudo told the Post. “He had the money to put together a superb team of experts in brain-machine interfaces and I’m hopeful the technology he develops will help all of us.”
Neuralink’s day-to-day operations are run by a 32-year-old Duke University grad and biomedical expert, Max Hodak, who describes himself as “a general intelligence living in San Francisco.”
Like much of the Musk empire, Neuralink is in the process of relocating from Silicon Valley to Texas — which has no personal income tax, while California has the highest in the nation. Musk, who is worth $199.9 billion and the world’s richest person, himself moved to Austin last year and SpaceX is reportedly building another factory in that city.
Neuralink won’t answer queries from the media. Instead, the company has been revealing some of its inner workings in a few curated videos and spurts of intel from Musk.
Last month, he said human trials of the brain chip could start this year. In an interview on the social network Clubhouse, Musk described a chipped monkey at the Neuralink labs who’s able to play video games using only his mind.
Such implants can be inductively charged like a watch or phone — seamlessly, no wires — Musk said. They can be inserted so there’s no bleeding or noticeable neural damage. After analyzing one pig test subject, named Dorothy, Musk claimed that an implant could be taken out and either left out or re-inserted with no apparent ill effects.
In what he admitted sounded like a “Black Mirror” episode, Musk said humans could store, save and replay their memories as a backup with the chip — and even download them into a new body or a robot. He hopes the technology will benefit or cure patients with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.
When Musk first revealed his big new idea for brain tech in 2016, he described it as “neural lace.” It was the kind of sci-fi-like intel the world has come to expect from Musk — despite his flaws and eccentricities and history of odd tweeting.
Musk landed in court in 2019 in 2019 when lawyers for the Securities and Exchange Commission complained about that tweets he made about his car company Tesla — including a reference to “420” pot culture — could “move markets.” Also in 2019, a British cave explorer who helped rescue a dozen boys and a soccer coach from a flooded Thailand cave sued Musk for defamation after Musk, in a tweet, branded him a “pedo guy.” Musk supported Kanye West’s 2020 presidential run, only to backtrack.
But one longtime friend says Musk is — more than anything — a workaholic geek who barely sleeps because he wants to get stuff done.
“Elon Musk could be a fictional character,” Robert Zubrin, the head of the Mars Society who has known Musk for 20 years, told The Post. “He’s been anticipated in science fiction. Just read the old novels by people like Robert Heinlein or Allen Steele who wrote about rich businessmen recruited by visionaries.”
Two other ultra-wealthy magnates, Texas banker Andrew Beal and telecommunications entrepreneur Walt Anderson, tried their hand at the private-rocket business and failed. Musk’s longtime rival, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, has launched his own, called Blue Origin, but Zubrin says his money is on Musk.
“If Bezos wants to compete with Musk, he’ll have to get out of the hot tub,” Zubrin said. “Musk is a lot tougher.”
Musk’s grit was honed in a South African childhood that he has said was “like misery.”
He was born in Pretoria, and his parents, Maye Musk, a dietitian and model, and Errol Musk, a well-off engineer, divorced when he was young. He and his brother, Kimbal, chose to live with their father.
“He was such a terrible human being,” Musk said in 2017. “You have no idea. My dad will have a carefully thought-out plan of evil … Almost every crime you can think of, he has done.”
Musk left South Africa for his mother’s native Canada in 1989 with little money, crashing on relatives’ couches in Saskatchewan. He made his first millions with a web software startup called Zip2 and later founded the company that became PayPal.
Musk has been mocked and underestimated by experts in the industries he has tried to disrupt — only to show them up, like when beating NASA at creating a reusable space vehicle or making Tesla the world’s most valuable car company last year with a $208 billion valuation.
Even the SpaceX’s rocket explosion this week is just part of how Musk fast-tracks all his technology.
“Musk’s methodology has much more in common with the early pioneers of flight,” Zubrin said.
“Elon builds them, crashes them, figures out what went wrong and tries again. Because of his willingness to fail, he’s succeeding much faster. NASA, on the other hand, has been working on something similar to this since about 1988. All they do is analyze and analyze for decades.”
Several scientists and engineers interviewed by The Post about Musk said they envied his fearlessness even more than his brainpower.
For example, he first went to Moscow almost on a whim in 2000 to try to buy rockets (one Russian reportedly spit in Musk’s face). Then he decided to build his own rockets and launched his first Falcon 1 in 2006 off a tiny desert island in the Pacific called Kwajalein Island — one of Musk’s lesser known Jules Verne-type exploits.
Author Eric Berger, who spent time with Musk at SpaceX’s Hawthorne, Calif., plant and flew with him to Boca Chica on his private jet, told The Post that Musk’s brain is unusual.
“I’ve spoken to Stephen Hawking four different times,” said Berger, whose book, “Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX,” came out March 2.
“But Musk is absolutely brilliant. This is someone who’s thinking on a different plane.”
For all Musk’s alien-like intellect, Berger said he was struck by how normal Musk seemed with his kids. Despite reported 120-hour workweeks and bouts with insomnia, Musk manages to see his six boys weekly. (Five sons are with his first wife, Justine Musk, while the youngest, X Æ A-Xii, was born to Musk and singer Grimes in 2020.)
“He works incredibly hard,” Berger said. “But he also has his kids with him fairly regularly. When he was with them he seemed like a normal dad. And they seemed to like him a lot. He was definitely Dad to them, not the great Elon Musk.”