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AUSTIN — Entrepreneur Elon Musk and Al Gore, author of the new book The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, presented their contrasting visions of ways forward for humanity on Saturday at the Austin Convention Center, day two of South By Southwest’s Interactive conference, which drew a record 27,000 attendees. The former aggressively promoted the benefits that can be achieved through space travel, solar power, electric cars and other technological innovations, while the latter focused more on many of the dangers that must be overcome in the present-day – including those posed by a number of tech advancements — in order to achieve a better future.
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Musk — the founder of battery-powered car company Tesla Motors and space exploration company SpaceX and the chairman of sun-energy company SolarCity – wowed the crowd of a few thousand with a video displaying the results of its latest test of its Grasshopper rocket, which promises to dramatically reduce the cost of space travel.
The concept: create rocket ships that are reusable and self-landing, a major change from the present in which rockets are thrown away each time. The footage, played to the tune of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” showed off an approximately 10-story rocket that blasted off, rose 262.8 feet and landed back on a pad after 34 seconds, using thrust vectors, throttle control and steel landing legs. “It can land on earth with the accuracy of a helicopter. If society is going to expand beyond earth, we need to have reusable rockets,” said Musk, who compared the rockets to the ones used on the Starship Enterprise. One of his goals is to create manned missions to Mars. He’d like to take part he says and stay there. “I’d like to die on Mars, just not on impact,” he said. The test took place at SpaceX’s rocket development hq in McGregor, Tex. Earlier in March, SpaceX pulled off the successful resupply of the International Space Station with one of its capsules.
The Paypal co-founder also addressed his recent dust-up with The New York Times, which published a negative review of its latest Tesla Model S in February. Based on a test drive, reporter John Broder wrote that the battery-powered car’s range was less than advertised when in cold weather. Yesterday, Musk, who had come at swinging when the story ran, continued his criticisms of the piece, calling it “fake” and “unreasonable.” “I don’t have a problem with critical reviews. I have a problem with false reviews. It was a low-grade ethics violation that was not in good faith,” said Musk, whose company took a hit on its stock price after the review ran.
In the talk, moderated by former Wired editor Chris Anderson, Musk also promoted solar energy, saying it should be “like putting a second roof on a building” and saying that he’s never been interested in anything other than disruptive technologies. “I have not been trying to optimize on a risk-adjusted return basis,” he said.
Soon after, Gore took over the same exhibition hall to talk about many of the issues he explores in his new book in a wide-ranging discussion that touched on cloning (genetically-engineered goats that producer spider silk alarm him), the destruction of the planet, machines replacing human capital, the dangers of high-speed computerized stock trades loss of privacy and what he sees as the take-over of government by special interests. The federal government has been “hacked” he said. “The Congress today is incapable of passing any reform of any significance unless it gets the OK from special interests.”
He also described a “stalked economy” that threatens privacy and scoops up data on citizens, whether practiced by the government or corporations. He cited the recent launched of the app Snapchat — which lets users destroy photos after a recipient has viewed it – as a response to increased surveillance. The app has been used by some for sexting. “Clearly part of its appeal is that it erases the risk of that permanent record,” said Gore.
Gore sounded an alarm on the drastic changes man is effecting on the planet. “We have filled the atmosphere up with enough pollution to trap enough heat to equal the energy of 400,000 atomic bombs going off every single day.”
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Some in the audience felt though that he dodged deeper questioning about his January sale of Current TV to Al Jazeera for $500 million. Gore defended the sale. “You have heard me be very critical of American television journalism. I think that the addition of a very high-quality, 24-7 honest-to-goodness news channel that covers international news as well as national — that covers climate, that covers poverty, that cover issues that are ignored today — has the potential to be disruptive in a creative and positive way, and raise the game for television journalism here in the United State of America.”
Moderator Walter Mossberg, technology columnist for The Wall Street Journal, then pressed Gore over the fact that Al Jazeeera’s owner is the oil-producing country of Qatar. Didn’t that conflict with Gore’s calls for the U.S. to become independent of foreign oil?
“I don’t ask you why you continue working for Rupert Murdoch?” responded Gore. (The WSJ is owned by Murdoch’s News Corp.)
“Last I checked, he’s not in the oil business,” said Mossberg.
Retorted Gore, “He’s also not strictly in the news business either.”
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