Elon Musk sat down at a TED conference Thursday in Vancouver, just hours after confirming he had offered about $43 billion to buy social media site Twitter.
Here’s what he said.
On buying Twitter
TED curator Chris Anderson wasted no time during his interview with Musk on Thursday, asking him immediately why he had decided to buy Twitter.
“Well I think it’s very important for there to be an inclusive arena for free speech,” Musk said, echoing statements he has made over the past couple weeks. “Twitter has become kind of the de facto town square, so it’s just really important that people have the, both the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.”
He said he believes Twitter should open-source its algorithm and expressed desire to make changes around promotion or demotion of tweets accessible publicly. (One former employee of Twitter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private matters, told The Washington Post that the company has already been pursuing opening up the algorithm for years.)
Musk said in the interview that his bid for Twitter wasn’t about making money.
“My strong intuitive sense is that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization. I don’t care about the economics at all,” he said.
Despite his many suggestions that he doesn’t believe Twitter is doing enough to promote free speech, he admitted that content moderation, which has been a hot-button issue for years, is not clear-cut.
“Well, I think we would want to err on the, if in doubt, let the speech, let it exist. But if it’s a gray area, I would say let the tweet exist,” he said. “But obviously in a case where there’s perhaps a lot of controversy, you’re not necessarily going to promote that tweet. I’m not saying I have all the answers here.”
Musk also hinted that even if the Twitter board does not accept his offer, he may not back down. Anderson asked him there was a “Plan B” if his bid was not successful.
“There is,” Musk answered to laughter in the audience. He declined to elaborate.
On the SEC
Musk has had several run-ins with the SEC, notably in 2018 when he tweeted he had “funding secured” to take Tesla private. He ended up settling with the regulators for $20 million and agreed to step down as chairman of Tesla’s board.
On Thursday, he insisted that “funding was actually secured, I want to be clear about that.”
He only settled to save Tesla, he said.
“At the time, Tesla was in a precarious financial situation, and I was told by the banks that if I did not agree to settle with the SEC that the banks would stop providing working capital and Tesla would go bankrupt immediately,” he said. “So that’s like having a gun to your child’s head. So I was forced to concede to the SEC, unlawfully. Those bastards.”
He criticized the San Francisco office of the SEC for pursuing the investigation, despite his allegations that the regulators knew he had funding secured.
On the worst business decision he ever made
Musk said he wished he had started electric car company Tesla with just one of its co-founders, nodding to strife between the billionaire and co-founder Martin Eberhard that has stretched for years.
“The worst business decision I’ve ever made was not starting Tesla with just JB Straubel,” he said Thursday.
Musk said co-founder Eberhard created the “false narrative” that Musk invested in Tesla when it was an existing business. Musk insisted Thursday that he helped create the company.
Musk and Eberhard have been at odds for years — Eberhard sued Musk for libel, slander and breach of contract in 2009. Late last year, Musk tweeted that Eberhard “is by far the worst person I’ve ever worked with in my entire career.”
Eberhard said in an email Thursday that it is an “indisputable fact that Tesla was founded and incorporated as a business long before Musk or Straubel even heard of us.”
“I don’t understand why it drives Musk crazy to hear me say that Marc [Tarpenning] and I founded Tesla,” he wrote. “Musk has legitimately done many amazing things, including growing Tesla to become the EV powerhouse company. Why embellish his record with bogus claims of being the founder of Tesla?”
Musk touched on the challenges and successes Tesla has had over the past several years, suggesting the hardest part of scaling the company was creating an electric car.
“The absolutely difficult thing, which has not been accomplished by an American car company in 100 years, is reaching volume production without going bankrupt,” he said.
He said he slept on the floor of the company’s factory in Fremont, Calif., to show employees he knew what they were experiencing as the company tried to make its manufacturing process work.
“I mean, there wasn’t any other way to make it work,” he said. “There were three years of hell. 2017, 18 and 19 were three years, the longest period of excruciating pain in my life. There wasn’t any other way. And we barely made it, and we were on the ragged edge of bankruptcy the entire time.” (Musk also reportedly paid $23.4 million to buy a mansion in Silicon Valley in 2017.)
But the company came out the other side, he said.
“At this point, I think I know more about manufacturing than anyone currently alive on Earth.”
Musk also called for a more sustainable future.
“In order to accelerate the advent of sustainable energy, there must be scale because we’ve got to transition a vast economy that is currently overly dependent on fossil fuels to a sustainable energy economy,” he said.
Musk announced while hosting SNL last year that he has Asperger’s syndrome, saying at the time that he was “making history tonight as the first person with Asperger’s to host SNL. Or at least the first to admit it.”
On Thursday, he talked about his experience with Asperger’s.
“Well I think everyone’s experience is going to be somewhat different,” he said. “But I guess for me, social cues were not intuitive.”
“Others could intuitively understand what is meant by something,” he added. “I would just tend to take things very literally, just like the words as spoken were exactly what they meant.”
In some ways, he says it has proved helpful to his technology career.
“I think most people don’t enjoy typing strange symbols into a computer by themselves all night,” he said, noting that’s something he’s long done.
Musk ended his interview on a philosophical note.
“I love humanity and I think that we should fight for a good future for humanity, and I think we should be optimistic about the future and fight to make that optimistic future happen,” he said.
Faiz Siddiqui contributed to this report.