Elon Musk, Mars and AI: I’m intrigued by humanity’s search for a future framework

by Peter Lynas

Musk’s growing catalogue of boundary-pushing activities open huge questions for us all – and a chance for Christians to provide a much-needed framework, says Peter Lynas

Elon Musk has been described as mad, crazy and a genius. As I listen to Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Musk, he makes the case that he is all three. He is also one of the most powerful people on the planet having a massive impact on the key question our team explores – what does it mean to be human?

The future of connection

Musk has helped launch a range of significant businesses, each of which really has changed the world. Twitter, now X, is a more recent acquisition by Musk which has brought him into the media spotlight. He launched a successful take over in 2022 – via a tweet of course. I appreciate Musk’s commitment to free speech, but in my own experience Twitter has become a more toxic space since he took over. The contested and chaotic nature of public debate is a real issue that constantly undermines relationships, connection and human dignity. Twitter is not the only culprit here, and I suspect in time all the social media companies will be held liable. It’s like the issue of smoking all over again – the evidence of the harm being done is mounting but no one is prepared to take the necessary action.

The future of our home

SpaceX is Musk’s very successful rocket company, regularly launching satellites into space. It has developed the Starlink low orbiting satellite network to bring internet to unreached places. But all of this is really just to fund Musk’s ultimate goal – a sustainable human colony on Mars. [HL1] Could we as humans travel to, and survive on, Mars? What does this mean for the future of humanity? While we celebrate creation as a whole, and in particular God’s handiwork here on earth, few have wrestled with the theological implications of colonising another planet.

The future of travel

Musk is perhaps most famous for Tesla, his electric car company. Along with funding for solar power and battery storage, it is part of a much larger investment in clean energy. So, while trying to escape this planet for Mars, in the meantime Musk is helping make life here more sustainable. He is also fascinated with autonomous vehicles, promising their arrival almost every year for the last 10 years. But what are the ethics of a self-driving car injuring or killing someone? Who would be liable, and are we prepared to accept the risk? Musk always wants to push the boundaries, leaving others to work out the ethical and moral implications.

The future of AI

Musk has an interesting relationship with artificial intelligence. He helped set up OpenAI, believing this area was too important to leave to any one company. He parted ways as OpenAI became more commercial, setting up his own AI operations. Musk is a big fan of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov and co-signed a letter warning of the dangers of human-competitive AI. But he has also set up a company called Neuralink. A few weeks ago, they announced that they had successfully implanted an AI chip into a human volunteer who is able to control a computer mouse using their thoughts. As with most things Musk is involved in, there are concerns about the reliability of the data and the lack of external oversight.

Neuralink was co-founded by Musk in 2016 and its practices are particularly interesting to consider as we wrestle with what it means to be human. Musk wants to use brain implants to directly link human minds to computers. This, he argues, would allow both telepathy between people and relations with artificial intelligence and machines. Most see glasses, hearing aids or prosthetics as good things, enhancing human life. As AI is integrated into these devices, things get more interesting. Could mind-control be life-changing for someone who is blind or wheelchair bound? Or could existing inequalities be exacerbated in the way these technologies are used or distributed? And as AI potentially creates superhumans who can outpace the rest of us intellectually or physically, the conversation continues to get really challenging. Should there be limits? If so, why? What does all this mean for our humanity as the boundary between human and machine continue to blur?

Changing the world – but what’s the vision?

As eclectic as they are, each of Musk’s initiatives raises questions related to power. Musk seems to have something of a saviour complex, committing to use his wealth and power for the benefit of humanity as a whole, while his maniacal focus often ignores the needs of individual people around him. Will the new opportunities he is creating be available to everyone, or will the super-rich enjoy the greatest advantages? Or, how do Musk’s interests compare with the compassionate heart of Jesus and the ‘first-become-last’ nature of His kingdom?

Musk is a complex character and obsessively driven. “Sometimes great innovators are risk-seeking man-children who resist potty training,” Isaacson concludes in the last lines of the book. “They can be reckless, cringeworthy, sometimes even toxic. They can also be crazy. Crazy enough to think they can change the world.”

Musk has certainly changed our world. As I listen to Musk’s biography, I am struck by three things. Firstly, we are asking the right question – what does it mean to be human? Secondly, that this question and the answers to it are going to become more contested and complex, not less. But thirdly, I am excited. The questions being asked are deep and profound. There is a recognition that significant ethical and moral issues are at play and there are few credible frameworks being offered in response. The God story offers a consistent and coherent vision of life, spanning all the areas of Musk’s work and far beyond. Our challenge is often one of confidence.

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