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Roth: Is Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter really about free speech?

Op-ed
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Proponents of free speech and individual rights are celebrating the Twitter board’s acceptance of Elon Musk’s bid to take Twitter into the private sector. Should the deal close, there is a belief that the platform will be more open to diverse ideas and that rules and moderation will be enacted more consistently across the user base.

But I think we have to ask if something else is going on. Is Musk executing the world’s greatest Twitter-troll in buying the company? Is he really stepping up as a champion of free speech and digital rights? Or, given this futurist and serial entrepreneur’s scope of projects and interests that sometimes seem ripped from the pages of a sci-fi novel, is there something else going on entirely?

Given the material amount of Musk’s wealth that is reportedly going into the purchase — both directly and via loans against his Tesla equity — it seems like there must be another factor at play.

Moreover, Musk has a history of finding ways to capitalize on other systems and opportunities to drive demand for his products and companies. For example, government subsidies and incentives helped to create additional demand for his Tesla cars. Seeing how NASA could benefit from SpaceX, Musk landed a multi-billion dollar contract with them. While an acquisition is a bit of a different scenario, with a bold future vision, it isn’t much of a leap to think he is seeking some type of synergy from Twitter, either as a platform or via the data it produces.

In the Q1 2022 earnings call for Tesla, Musk talked about the Optimus AI powered robot (also known as the Tesla Bot) in development. He said that he was, “surprised that people did not realize the magnitude of the Optimus robot program,” and that he believed that Optimus would be worth more than the Tesla car business.

Could there be a link between the data he can mine from Twitter interactions — how people share thoughts and respond to prompts — to further develop the Optimus or other AI?

Or perhaps there is an opportunity with another one of Musk’s endeavors, Neuralink, which is described as, “Developing ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers.” Whether it is customizing user interfaces, providing other relevant data or serving as a model for a brain-connected communication system, there may be synergy here as well.

Given Musk’s varied endeavors with Starlink (Musk’s satellite internet service operated by SpaceX), there could be an opportunity to expand Twitter’s footprint at a minimum.

Musk is a true forward-thinker, so I’d be willing to make at least a small wager that there’s something besides a more open, free speech-promoting platform in his mind. And, while I admit I have a bit of Twitter addiction, I certainly don’t want its feed plugged into my mind, or my mind used to train a life-sized robot.

It’s something to keep an eye on because good intentions often lead to unpredictable outcomes. In the meantime, let’s hope we can enjoy more free speech on the Twitter platform and maybe even get an edit button.

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