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Elon Musk: "I think of the future as branching probability streams"

Elon Musk, billionaire founder of PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX, is in the news again and this time his innovative mind must have been working overtime. He introduced his concept of the Hyperloop this week, a pneumatic-like chamber that he envisions could transport humans between LA and San Francisco in about 30 minutes. 
While others have certainly suggested similar ideas, both in sci-fi stories and in sci-fact forums, Musk’s announcement, if anything, gives the public a slight insight into how a corner of his brain functions.

He never seems to stop trying to solve problems, and the problems he endeavors to solve are always in the big-time. I myself am not too surprised about this. After all, the guy is physics-educated – he holds a bachelor’s degree in the subject from the University of Pennsylvania. And as he told me in a recent interview, “physics essentially evolved a framework of thinking that was very effective for coming to correct answers that are not obvious.” Not obvious indeed.
So while others are concerned about how to make a better mousetrap, Musk is focused on how to move that mouse and its trap across hundreds of miles in about the time it takes others to watch an episode of The Big Bang Theory. He teased that he won’t be dedicating much time (if at any) to the Hyperloop project, because he has to focus his energies and efforts on his two companies. But I can’t help but wonder if he has something really magical up his sleeve with this idea and hasn’t already commissioned a corner of one or more of his enterprises to analyze it, at least clandestinely.
So speaking of corners of minds, machines and megacorps, here’s a snippet of my chat with Musk. Stay tuned for the full version of the interview in APS News this fall, where Musk talks about first principles, being a nerd and why he doesn’t like MBAs.
Alaina G. Levine: How do you approach business problems right now? Does your physics and your mathematics background help you look at business problems maybe in a different way, or think about them via a different process?
Elon Musk: It’s helpful to study physics, because the math that’s in the business stuff is so easy compared to physics. I remember I was in an advanced securities analysis class and they were teaching people what matrix math is. I was like wow, ok. If you can do physics math then business math is super easy. Probably a lot of people in the sciences front sell themselves short on this front. Because they’re actually way better than they think they are at this stuff. And I think just generally taking a physics framework to think about any problem, it’s a generalized problem-solving method, that can be applied to the economic world as well as the physical world.
L: Having studied math and physics myself, I always found that I would look at a business problem like a bifurcation tree and think about things 4 or 5 or 6 moves ahead. Do you have this as well, and if so, do you think you got this from studying physics?
M: Yeah, I think in general you always want to try to think about the future, try to predict the future. You’re going to generate some error between the series of steps you think will occur versus what actually does occur and you want to try to minimize the error. That’s a way that I think about it. And I also think about it in terms of probability streams. There’s a certain set of probabilities associated with certain outcomes and you want to make sure that you’re always the house. So things won’t always occur the way you think they’ll occur, but if you calculate it out correctly over a series of decisions you will come out significantly ahead…
L: So that’s kind of how you’re thinking on a day-to-day basis, would you say?
M: Yeah, I think of the future as branching probability streams.
L: Do you think there’s any down side to having studied physics or being a physicist in your position and in your industries?
M: Definitely not. I encourage everyone to do it. The difficulty is that physics is usually so badly taught in high school and even in junior high… There’s too much of the teaching of the tools and not enough of the “why the hell are we learning this in the first place?”
L: When you hire people, what are some of the top qualities or characteristics, aside from the technical know-how, that you look for in an employee?
M: In SpaceX, we’re obviously trying to advance the state of rocket technology with the ultimate goal of establishing a self-sustaining civilization on Mars. So in order to do that, we’ve got to hire people who are going to be really good at coming up with innovative solutions for all the elements of a rocket.  We’ll look for evidence of exceptional ability, [for example]. The grades are one assessment, but it’s certainly possible for someone to game the system in college and pick the right classes and get a 4.0 and neglect everything else. So grades are one element that could suggest exceptional ability, but often more important is what someone has done in international competitions. If someone won a national science fair or created some amazing bit of electronics or software as a teenager, something like that shows initiative, innovation and exceptional technical capability. That’s what I’m looking for on the engineering side.

-Alaina G. Levine

Alaina Levine on location at an American Le Mans auto race. Photo by Prachi Patel
Alaina G. Levine is a science writer and President of Quantum Success Solutions, a science career and professional development consulting enterprise. Her new book on networking strategies for scientists and engineers will be published by Wiley in 2014. She can be contacted through or via twitter @AlainaGLevine.

© 2013, Alaina G. Levine


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