In a steaming-hot, packed, VivaTech hall in Paris today, Twitter owner Elon Musk waxed lyrical on his various accomplishments, but demured over some of the bigger questions hanging over his various companies.
After walking on stage and joking that he might be a “hologram or an android”, Musk also quipped that Twitter was “expensive” and “if I’m so smart, why did I pay so much for Twitter?!”
The light-hearted but also soft-soaping interview that started as a fireside with Publicis chairman Maurice Levy saw Musk switch from jokes about himself to hypothetical questions about the future of humanity to defensive comments about how his various companies are doing. Some of it was just classic Elon facetiousness. “I’m definitely not evil,” he said, with a questioning wrinkle of his eyebrows.
Speaking about Tesla, he said the company still had a lot to do for its “core” mission: “The Tesla mission, we’ve made a lot of progress, but it’s a lot more ahead than it was. SpaceX has a big goal to make life multi-planetary.”
Elon Musk has big plans to create an everything app called X.ai that will have his newest asset, Twitter, as its beating heart, offering communications but also financial services, entertainment and more. But first, he needs to get Twitter’s current business in order.
That mission is taking on a very public and French face at the moment, with Musk’s last-minute appearance at VivaTech — a big French confab that appears to have ambitions to be the CES of Europe. It’s co-founded and still has very heavy involvement from the advertising giant Publicis.
Rebuilding Twitter will involve rebuilding relationships with the industry that had been Twitter’s beating heart: advertising. Twitter’s ad business, by far its main source of revenue, has lost millions of dollars in business since Musk acquired the social platform, with ad sales down nearly 60% and still bleeding, according to leaked internal forecasts.
Before his appearance on stage, Musk also reportedly lunched with Bernard Arnault, the mogul at the head of LVMH, whose brands represent some of the biggest ad buyers (in social media and elsewhere) in the world. It may be that the two chatted about yachts and other .000001% problems — they are the two richest men in the world currently — but all that is in aid of relationship building amongst two leaders who control a lot of levers.
All this will have another chapter later this month, when the rumor is that Musk and his new Twitter CEO Linda Yaccarino (herself a prominent ad industry veteran) will be visiting Cannes Lions, the event of the ad industry, where many a tech mogul has appeared, strategically, to pay respects and swill a little champagne with the creme de la creme of the ad world.
His actions and presence here notwithstanding, as Musk describes it, most of the work he needs do to is already done.
“With a few exceptions, most advertisers have come back or said they would come back, so I feel pretty optimistic about the future,” Musk said. “I’m not aware of any exceptions, actually.”
Rebuilding relationships with advertisers may not be Musk’s — or France’s — only agenda item at the moment over here. There has been a longstanding campaign to get Musk to plant a flag in France and to build a gigafactory in the country, creating jobs and revenues in the process, to bolster the country’s fledging lithium-ion battery production industry in the north of the country.
And that is playing out as France is, ironically, also threatening Elon’s business elsewhere: it was only two weeks ago that the French digital minister threatened to ban Twitter not just in France, but in the whole of the EU, if it continue to ignore its rules on preventing disinformation.
All the same, it feels like the ball, overall, is in Musk’s court — not the advertising industry organizer’s, nor France’s.
Hard hitting questions, awkward questions, negative questions were not really on the table here. And of course, Musk’s outsized reputation — which acted like a shot of adrenaline at the VivaTech event — needed an outsized venue. He spoke not at the conference Expo hall itself, but an adjacent venue, The Dome, with capacity for nearly 4,000, and where others in the past like Mark Zuckerberg have also appeared.
On his plans for Twitter and X.ai, Musk said that they would “hopefully be a positive force for civilization,” he said.
He also shifted to talking about his heartfelt interest in keeping the flame of the internet alive, and his earliest ambitions to make a mark in the world, and how that took a technological angle.
“It’s the philosophy of curiosity. What can we do more to find out about the nature of the universe and the meaning of life?” he said. “That is the foundation… that is my core philosophy.”
He also said that he didn’t regret selling PayPal to eBay many years ago.
“If I was still working on PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX would not exist,” he said.
On AI, he continued forward with his position that AI — despite he himself being one of the early founders of OpenAI and also working now on X.ai — needed more guardrails.
“For the record I think we should pause,” he said about the ongoing debate about AI development and whether it poses a danger. “The outcome might be positive with AI but that’s not every outcome. Something could go wrong with digital super intelligence. I’m in favor of regulation. The public is a referee.”
You’ve made a big bet on Twitter, Levy pointed out, but also asked why he bought it, and how he would fix it.
“I get a feel for how it shifted one way or the other. I was concerned that Twitter was having a negative effect on civilization, it was having a corrosive effect,” he said. “My hope and aspiration was to change that and be a positive force.” (Cue big applause.)
If someone is a regular user, most people would say their experience has improved, Musk claimed, citing the eradication of bots (90% removed) and child exploitation (95% removed, he said), and about the open sourcing of the algorithm.
Then several other interrogators were brought on stage, including Christel Heydemann, the CEO of Orange, who laid in on disinformation on Twitter. As with his other claims on Twitter, instead of answering that he deflected and talked about the importance of free speech, and that if you misuse that you would face consequences for your reach.
“We call it sort of freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach,” he said. “You can say offensive things, but then your content is going to get downgraded.”
Do you feel ad production industry will be threatened by AI?
“Not at all,” Musk said with lots of facetiousness. “It’s totally safe.” Then he turned serious to add, “AI is simply going to be a massive disruptive force… AI is way smarter than the smartest human.”
The L’Oreal chief digital officer Asmita Dubey really nailed the right question: How do you re-win trust from advertisers, she asked. Will the new CEO be able to do what she needs to do? Again, very little on specifics in his generally positive answer. It’s all about messaging, not nitty gritty. “I think she will do a great job in addressing those concerns,” he said.