Principal's Assembly 29th June 2021


“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man … space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win …”

Those are the words of one of the greatest orators in political history, President John F Kennedy. Spoken in 1962, 7 years later his dream – or should I say goal? – was achieved.

The subject of today’s assembly wasn’t born until 1971, in Pretoria, South Africa, but perhaps that speech and certainly that ambition played a part in his achievements. Like Bielsa, I knew nothing about the man until you nominated him for this assembly.

Via Canada, his family eventually settled in the US and he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Economics and Physics in 1997. By that point, he had already held two internships in Silicon Valley, a clear indicator of his later career direction.

Though he had a place for post-graduate study at one of the world’s leading universities, he quickly decided that there was money to be made: this era was the beginning of the internet boom. Through his career, he has been quick to diversify, takes risks and not be afraid of making mistakes.

I enjoyed learning about the goals of his company Neuralink. With ideas that sound more like a 1970s sci-fi movie, the company aims to allow machines to read brain activity through implanted electrodes using Bluetooth to send messages to smartphone apps. His scientists believe that this could help people with paralysis to control prosthetics or allow you to interact directly with Artificial Intelligence. He has already demonstrated the prototypes implanted in pigs.

When I tell you about his most famous achievements, it will give the game away very quickly. I am sure that some of you have already guessed through the sheer audacity as well as ambition of the Neuralink experiments; it is, of course, the entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Musk is probably more famous for his involvement in Tesla, PayPal and SolarCity as well as his love of Twitter. You might also remember the speed with which his team built and delivered a submarine to help rescue children caught in the flooded cave in Thailand in 2018; though unused in the end, it revealed a humanitarian streak in the businessman.

His story is not without controversy. Publications as significant as Business Insider and The Wall Street Journal have run stories critical of his management style, quoting employees who described his reckless and bullying behaviours. He has also been accused of spreading misinformation about how Covid spreads.

It is Musk’s ambition for space travel, however, that caught my eye. The goals have changed since Kennedy’s time. SpaceX has already sent rockets into orbit 117 times. He promises to have humans on the moon for the first time since 1972 with Mars soon to follow. Like Kennedy, however, he is determined to extend man’s reach in the universe, not because we have to but because we can. Not because it is easy – that would be dull – but precisely because it is hard.

Compared to the other leaders that you nominated, Musk is less obviously a leader of people, nations or movements, and more a businessman and driver of technological progress. But I thought he was a good choice: relentless and demanding; bold and imaginative; and, afterall, the changes that he can finance will affect the way that our communities work and think in the future.

 
 

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