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Musk brothers
Billionaire Elon Musk (in the black hat) and his brother, Kimbal Musk (in the white hat), join in a rendition of “My Little Buttercup” at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. (SXSW via YouTube)

SpaceX is building its first Mars transport vehicle, also known as the BFR, and “making good progress” toward short-hop test flights on Earth by the middle of next year, CEO Elon Musk said today.

“We’re actually building that ship right now,” Musk said at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, during a Q&A with “Westworld” co-creator Jonathan Nolan, a longtime friend.

Today’s conversation ranged over all things Musk — from SpaceX and Tesla, to The Boring Company, Neuralink and the billionaire’s concerns about artificial superintelligence.

Musk and Nolan showed off a video recap of last month’s maiden flight of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, including views of the mission’s Tesla-riding Starman mannequin cruising through space and the first publicly released shots of the rocket’s core booster splashing into the sea:

There was even a sing-along with Kimbal Musk, Elon’s brother, to the tune of “My Little Buttercup.” (Note to Elon: Don’t quit your day jobs.)

It was Musk’s long-range plan for sending settlers to Mars that took up most of the attention. He said he took up his drive to establish humanity as a multiplanet species in part because he was dissatisfied with the pace of space exploration.

“Where are the space hotels that were promised in ‘2001’ the movie?” he asked. “It just wasn’t happening, year after year. It was getting me down.”

The other big motivation has been to ensure that humanity would survive in the event of a catastrophe on Earth. Today he specifically cited the risk of a Third World War and its aftermath. Having settlements on Mars could “shorten the length of the Dark Ages” to come, he said.

Toward that end, Musk is shifting his focus to developing the BFR, which could stand for “Big Falcon Rocket” or “Big F**king Rocket.” (Musk coyly said that the acronym was a “bit of a Rorschach test.”)

SpaceX’s timeline calls for the first BFR cargo flights to head for Mars in 2022, but Musk acknowledged he’s been told that “sometimes my timelines are a little … optimistic.”

“I’m trying to recalibrate to some degree here,” he said.

If the fully reusable BFR is as cheap to operate as Musk expects, that would reduce the cost of spaceflight by orders of magnitude and open the way for the super-rocket’s use to send people and payloads to the moon and other destinations as well.

Musk said he expected that creating the BFR would cause other rocket ventures to “up their game” and unlock the entrepreneurial energy required to create cities on the Red Planet, complete with iron foundries, pizza joints and Mars bars.

When Nolan asked what his fans could contribute to making those Martian dreams a reality, Musk replied that their “general support and encouragement, and goodwill” was enough for now — something that the cheering SXSW crowd had in abundance.

He cautioned that the first people to head to Mars would face situations “far more dangerous” than past settlement efforts, with a “good chance you’ll die [but] excitement for those who survive.” The presentation included a stock audience-participation question: How many people would go?

“Actually, not many hands raised, by the way,” Musk noted.

Other morsels from Elon Musk’s Q&A:

  • Musk retold the tale of how he almost went bankrupt in 2008, and said that if he were to rank the most profitable business opportunities, he’d put “building rockets and cars really close to the bottom of the list.” He also admitted that “I didn’t really have a business plan” for his current ventures. Nevertheless, he persisted — and Musk’s net worth is now estimated at more than $20 billion.
  • The Tesla CEO predicted that by the end of 2019, “self-driving will encompass essentially all modes of driving” and be at least 100 to 200 percent safer than human-controlled driving.
  • Musk repeated his concerns about the potential rise of superintelligent AI agents. “Mark my words: AI is far more dangerous than nukes,” he said. When Nolan reminded him that some AI experts see his fears as overblown, Musk said such experts think they’re smarter than they really are. “I’m very close to the cutting edge in AI, and it scares the hell out of me,” Musk said. His recommendation? Governments should exert more regulation and oversight over the use of AI.
  • Musk said The Boring Company is an outgrowth of his long-held view that bringing down the cost of tunneling would be a worthy technological goal. “We’re funding the company through merchandise sales,” he said. “So thank you to anyone who’s bought our flamethrower.”
  • Nolan asked Musk what the world will look like when people born today are as old as he is now. The 46-year-old said that he hoped the world in 2064 will have a sustainable system for generating and consuming electricity, with a stabilization of climate change’s effects. There’d be bases on the moon and Mars — and there’d be “benign AI” that’s in symbiosis with humans, thanks to the high-bandwidth brain interfaces that Neuralink is looking into.
  • As for those future societies on Mars, Musk said he thought they should be governed by direct democracy, under a system that makes it harder to pass laws than to have them expire. Maybe it should take 60 percent to enact a new law, but only 40 percent to eliminate an old law. Laws should also be kept short, he said: “If the size of the law exceeds the word count of ‘Lord of the Rings’ … then something’s wrong.”
  • On less weighty topics, Musk was asked who inspired him. “Well, Kanye West, obviously,” he replied gamely. And when asked whether the HBO show “Silicon Valley” was true to life, Musk said he found that it was, starting with Episode 4 of the first season. If anything, the depiction of the tech world may not be crazy enough. “The reality is way crazier than that,” Musk said.
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