Elon Musk’s appetite for destruction
And yet, as Robert Lowell wrote, “No rocket strays so far as man.” In recent months, as scandals on Twitter and elsewhere began to mount, Musk seemed determined to squander much of the goodwill he had accumulated over his career. I asked Slavik, the plaintiffs’ attorney, if the recent shift in public opinion against Musk had made his job in the courtroom easier. “I think at least there are more people who are skeptical of his judgment at this stage than before,” he said. “If I was on the other side, I would worry.”
However, some of Musk’s more questionable decisions are beginning to make sense if viewed as the result of brutal utilitarian calculation. Last month, Reuters reported that Neuralink, Musk’s medical device company, had caused the needless deaths of dozens of lab animals through rushed experiments. Musk’s internal messaging made it clear that the urgency was coming from above. “We’re just not moving fast enough,” he wrote. “It is driving me crazy!” The cost-benefit analysis must have seemed clear to him: Neuralink had the potential to cure paralysis, he believed, which would improve the lives of millions of future humans. The suffering of a smaller number of animals was worth it.
This form of long-term wholesaleism, in which the sheer size of future generations gives them additional ethical weight, even appears in Musk’s statements about buying Twitter. He called Twitter a “digital town square” that was responsible for nothing less than preventing another American Civil War. “I didn’t do it to make more money,” he wrote. “I did it to try to help humanity, which I love.”
The autopilot and FSD represent the culmination of this approach. “The overriding goal of Tesla engineering,” Musk wrote, “is to maximize the area under the user happiness curve.” Unlike Twitter or even Neuralink, people were dying as a result of his decisions – but whatever. In 2019, in an email exchange with activist investor and staunch Tesla critic Aaron Greenspan, Musk bristled at the suggestion that Autopilot was anything other than life-saving technology. “The data is unequivocal that autopilot is safer than human driving by a significant margin,” he wrote. “It is unethical and wrong of you to claim otherwise. By doing so, you are putting the public at risk.
I wanted to ask Musk to expand on his risk philosophy, but he did not respond to my interview requests. Instead, I spoke with Peter Singer, a prominent utilitarian philosopher, to sort out some of the ethical issues involved. Was Musk right when he said that anything that delays the development and adoption of self-driving vehicles is inherently unethical?
“I think he’s right,” Singer said, “if he’s got the facts right.”
Musk rarely talks about Autopilot or FSD without mentioning how superior he is to a human driver. At a shareholder meeting in August, he said Tesla was “solving a very important part of AI, and that can ultimately save millions of lives and prevent tens of millions of serious injuries by just driving an order.” of greatness safer than people. Musk has data to back this up: Starting in 2018, Tesla released quarterly safety reports to the public, which show a consistent benefit to using Autopilot. The most recent, from late 2022, said Teslas with Autopilot engaged were ten times more likely to crash than a regular car.
That’s the argument Tesla must make to the public and to juries this spring. In the words of the company’s safety report: “While no car can prevent all accidents, we work every day to try to make them much less likely to happen.” The autopilot can crash WW times, but without this technology, we’d be OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo