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Ronan Farrow says Elon Musk has become an 'arbiter' of the war in Ukraine

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. The day-to-day headlines about billionaire Elon Musk are almost always about Tesla or changes to Twitter, now rebranded as X. But a new expose by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ronan Farrow explores the quiet growth of Musk's power and influence through his space exploration company, SpaceX, which provides internet service through its satellite company, Starlink. To put this in perspective, it's estimated that more than 8,000 active satellites are spinning around the Earth, and more than half of them are controlled by Elon Musk, providing internet connections to more than 60 countries. This past June, Musk signed a contract with the Department of Defense to continue providing service to Ukraine, which has been instrumental on the battlefield in its war with Russia.

Ronan Farrow's new report in The New Yorker explores the geopolitical consequences of Musk's growing power, including how the U.S. government has come to rely heavily on him. Ronan Farrow is an investigative reporter and a contributing writer to The New Yorker. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the sexual assault allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, which propelled the #MeToo movement. His latest film "Endangered" on HBO about the threats to journalists is nominated for an Emmy. Farrow is currently producing a film about the use of commercial spyware. His article "Elon Musk's Shadow Rule" is in this week's issue of The New Yorker.

And, Ronan Farrow, welcome to FRESH AIR.

RONAN FARROW: Such a pleasure to be here, Tonya.

MOSLEY: Yes. A pleasure to have you. And thank you for this reporting. You know, you make a point to say that there's nothing wrong with the relationship between a private individual like Elon Musk and government leadership. But what your investigation is interrogating is actually how government agencies are struggling to rein him in. And an example of this is Ukraine's reliance on Starlink. So first, can we quickly go over how Starlink came to be the backbone of communication on the battlefield in Ukraine?

FARROW: When Russia invaded Ukraine last year, there was a quick realization that this would be a modern form of warfare that entailed attacks on Ukraine's internet infrastructure. Very quickly, as Ukrainians and also Ukrainian ex-pats in the Silicon Valley community, in Big Tech grappled with what alternatives could be put in place, they stumbled on Starlink, which is a product made by Elon Musk's SpaceX space exploration company. And it's a mobile satellite station where you get a little dish and it has limited range, but you can point it at the sky and get internet access in that limited area. And the downside of this is that it's very disaggregated, and you need a lot of them to provide internet infrastructure in a country like Ukraine. But the upside is Russia, with that kind of a disaggregated network, wouldn't be able to take out their internet access in one swoop. One attack couldn't bring them down in terms of their basic communications abilities.

And that's very significant because in addition to internet access being needed for all kinds of civilian utilities - you know, everything that we all use it for, everything from the running of hospitals to schools - you know, it's also, in a war context, absolutely indispensable on the front lines. The only way you can have commanders communicating with battalions is through some kind of internet connectivity. So at first, Musk was incredibly enthused about this. There was a lot of tweeting back-and-forth where Ukrainian officials were asking him in earnest for his help, and he said, you know, right away, I'm getting Starlink units there. And there was a significant charitable outlay, you know, in addition to units that were furnished through a deal with USAID and through fundraising efforts in that community of Big Tech Ukrainian ex-pats. In addition to that, Starlink was putting its own resources into this. So that's how the story about the Ukraine piece of this starts. He seemed fully on the Ukrainians' side and willing to defend their cause.

MOSLEY: OK. So that's how it starts, and that makes sense. He was very excited at the beginning to be a part of the solution. Then there was a situation when Starlink stopped working in Ukraine. What happened?

FARROW: Essentially, as Ukrainian soldiers moved into areas in the south, most hotly contested by Russia, they just blacked out, communications-wise. They lost the ability to do that essential coordination of their ability to attack, ability to defend themselves. It was chaos. You know, I talked to both officials at a higher level in the Ukrainian government and also people on the ground, on the front lines, as this happened. And, you know, they really did just lose units. And commanders had to drive out to near the front lines and put themselves at risk. And, you know, it's very difficult in the theater of war to definitively tease out cause-and-effect relationships, right? There's always a constellation of factors that lead to losses. So I want to be careful about quantifying the impact of this. But, certainly, the feeling of both Ukrainian and American officials that I spoke to was that there were significant operational costs, and some people really did genuinely feel losses of lives as a result of this.

MOSLEY: Right. And at the time of all of this, Colin Kahl was the undersecretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon. What did he tell you about how he had to deal with Musk to keep the satellites working?

FARROW: So very quickly, as frantic calls went from Ukrainians on the ground, on the front lines to Ukrainian officials, to American officials at the Pentagon, the determination was made that this was likely the result of Elon Musk and SpaceX doing what's called geofencing - you know, cordoning off areas of internet access. You can use it over here, but you step a few feet over that way and it's turned off is the essential idea. And this was an unforeseen problem, right? When they got on the Elon Musk roller coaster, everyone just thought, wow, how great, a solution. And people really didn't think of his ability to flip a switch in this way. So the fear became not only what's going to happen if he continues to not allow connectivity in areas where Russia doesn't want connectivity. But also, what if he turns off the whole thing? Because in this same period of time, he was signaling very loudly that he was fatiguing of paying these exorbitant bills to subsidize Ukrainian internet access.

A letter went from SpaceX to the Pentagon saying, you know, basically, you need to start paying for this or we're out. So there was a moment that I capture where a variety of Pentagon officials were panicking - is one word that one of them told me - and where the official you mentioned, Colin Kahl, after a whole lot of planning conversations, got assigned the task of calling Elon Musk and basically begging for more time, asking if he would give the Pentagon, you know, even just weeks to come up with a contract where they could basically pay him to keep him from turning this thing off.

MOSLEY: Right. This is the crux of your article, 'cause what makes it alarming is that Musk can decide at any time, basically, to flip that switch to shut down Starlink. Government officials are basically at his mercy.

FARROW: Yeah, and really said as much, virtually word-for-word. This was, in some ways, an unfamiliar situation because at the time that this story started unfolding, there wasn't a deal between Musk and the Pentagon to provide Starlink in Ukraine. Nevertheless, he was a private citizen with a private company who had become the arbiter of the outcome of this war. I mean, it's really very little overstatement to say that. This was absolutely essential in the eyes of everyone on the ground. And the government found itself in the unusual position of having no levers of control over the private individual who was about to determine so much.

So the plan was made for conversations to happen with him. There was a call, as you mentioned, from this official, Colin Kahl, at the Pentagon to Elon Musk. Elon also called General Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for advice about this. They are close. They've become friends. And Milley speaks highly of Musk in this piece.

Another interesting aspect of the balance of power you're asking about is that even to this day, there is a real reluctance on the part of government officials to talk openly about how frustrated and worried they were. You know, eventually over the course of this reporting, I got people to open up about that. But there's a real reluctance because they continue to fear aggravating someone who could so acutely affect how things are unfolding on the ground just with the flip of a switch.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break, Ronan. If you're just joining us, my guest today is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ronan Farrow. He's written a new piece for The New Yorker titled "Elon Musk's Shadow Rule: How The U.S. Government Came To Rely On The Tech Billionaire - And Is Now Struggling To Rein Him In." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH SONG, "HEARTBROKEN, IN DISREPAIR")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today we're talking to investigative journalist Ronan Farrow about his latest investigative piece for The New Yorker titled "Elon Musk's Shadow Rule." It's about Musk's rising influence in government relations. Farrow is a Pulitzer Prize winner for his 2017 expose on the sexual assault and misconduct allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein. Farrow is also the author of "War On Peace: The End Of Diplomacy And The Decline Of American Influence" and "Catch And Kill: Lie, Spies, And A Conspiracy To Protect Predators."

I want to gain some clarity on something from Musk's point of view, because it is a huge task to fund for service in Ukraine during an act of war. Was it all about money for Musk?

FARROW: I don't doubt the sincerity of SpaceX's and Elon Musk's concerns about the significant costs they were incurring. However, it does seem far more likely that a constellation of different factors contributed to Elon Musk's marked change in posture over the course of that better part of a year of funding Starlink and providing Starlink units. He, over the course of that period of time, was, we've now learned and I report in this story, in conversations with the Russians. He has denied that since. But he told that official, Colin Kahl, and others that I spoke to at the time that he had talked to Vladimir Putin.

And, you know, there's a moment in this call that I describe with Colin where Musk is looking at a map of the battlefield and seeing, because he has access to all of this proprietary information, exactly where Starlink units are being used. So he can really see where the troops are moving, what's going to happen. You know, and then in the same conversation, he says, I had - as one official framed it, I had this great conversation with Vladimir Putin. And understandably, that's a cause for concern on the part of American and Ukrainian officials.

MOSLEY: So just to get this clear, Musk was on a laptop, and he could see the entire war unfolding through this map of Starlink. And he possibly had a conversation with Putin. But he has later denied that and said that that did not happen. But what are the implications of that, I mean, for a private citizen like Elon Musk to be in conversation with a leader like Vladimir Putin during an act of war?

FARROW: You know, he is within his rights to talk to whomever he wants as a private individual. But the discomfort with this situation comes from the just outsized power that he has. In that theater of war, in geopolitics right now, he is more like a nation-state than an individual in terms of the implications of his power and what happens in his diplomatic conversations. And, you know, I point out, not only does my reporting and the accounts of, you know, Colin Kahl and all these other people I spoke to contradict that later denial from Musk. You know, he later said, I have never talked to Putin during this conflict or about Ukraine. He was very clearly saying to people at the time, multiple people, that he had talked to Putin in this time period about this. Further, he was also saying that he was in more regular conversations with the Kremlin that included other officials.

And this is all consequential not just in principle, for the reasons I described - that when you ascribe this much power to an individual, who they're negotiating with, who they're hearing out, whose logic they're taking on board becomes very consequential to a lot of human lives. It also is consequential in more specific ways with respect to Elon Musk because he is, you know, in this particular context, deciding where troops can move. And he's tweeting, at the same time, pro-Putin, pro-Russia proposals for a peace plan. So he himself, through his actions, is actually, in some ways, embracing this role of being an ad hoc statesperson. We see that in a lot of settings with him. He - he'll go to China and he'll pose with, you know, officials in the kind of stuffy, smiling handshake photos that are usually the domain of the diplomat, the, you know, formerly elected official. And in this case, he also sort of took up that mantle in his way. He tweeted out a poll like, what about if, you know, there's a referendum that could potentially give Russia what they want in these specific areas? And he began saying publicly, too, in various fora, we should be talking to Putin more.

So the implications, in other words, are both general, in the sense that we have this extraordinary situation where his decisions and conversations matter so much, and specific in that he did seem to be taking on the arguments of the Russian side of this conflict. And that all coincided with real consequences on the battlefield.

MOSLEY: Playing that diplomat role, along with his relationship with China, how does his relationship with China actually play into his uneasiness with Ukraine using Starlink on the battlefield? Because we know about China's relationship with Russia.

FARROW: So China has backed Russia in this conflict, as it often does. And Elon Musk has been open about saying that when he has been in conversations with the Chinese, they have expressed their displeasure with his supporting the Ukrainian war effort. They've been alarmed at the idea that he might ever do the same in China, where the internet is very tightly controlled and censored. And they obviously don't love the idea of outside private companies coming in and dispersing free access to, you know, an internet that they can't control as much.

So they've explicitly raised this with Musk. That is important in the context of his sort of China diplomacy that we're talking about, because a huge portion of Tesla's business depends on Chinese manufacturing. I believe the lion's share of Teslas actually come out of a plant in Shanghai - a factory in Shanghai. So he needs that labor. He needs the good graces of the Chinese government to allow him to continue operating there. And you wind up in a situation where, you know, there's nothing wrong with a businessman balancing these kinds of pragmatic concerns - right? - about the bottom line. But it adds a very different dimension because he's also more than just a businessman now in these contexts.

MOSLEY: And back to the consequences on the battlefield. What would be the consequences if Starlink pulled out of Ukraine?

FARROW: Well, what we saw in miniature on the front lines, where they couldn't go into certain areas and had to pull back and it was chaos, would happen on a much larger scale. I mean, if all Starlink turned off in that country, by now, where - at which point it's become the entire backbone of Ukrainian infrastructure, both on the civilian and the military side, you know, you would see hospitals and schools shut down. You would see a paralysis of the ability of troops to move around and coordinate. It's really an untenable situation. And that's what created this moment where people were and are still so afraid of aggravating Elon Musk. Because although the outcome of this story is he gave the Pentagon more time, they eventually announced a formalized deal with SpaceX to provide Starlink in Ukraine, Elon Musk and his, you know, lieutenants, if you will, at SpaceX have been very clear in expressing continued displeasure with the fact that their products are being used in this war context.

And it's not totally clear how much of that flows from genuine moral anxiety and how much is about, you know, signaling to China and Russia that they're not - they may be being deployed in this way, but they're not thrilled about it. But it has created a situation where everyone is still a little bit walking on glass. The terms of the Pentagon deal, you know, are closely guarded. And because of the battlefield sensitivities, people are very quick to urge journalists and others not to talk about the specifics. But broadly speaking, there is still a lot of anxiety about Elon Musk's ability to - at least to some extent, curtail the services.

MOSLEY: Our guest today is Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Ronan Farrow, talking about the growing sphere of Elon Musk's influence globally. We'll be right back. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "AFTER BACH: FLUX")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And our guest today is Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Ronan Farrow. He's written a new piece on Elon Musk's rise in power, his influence in public policy and in government relations. The piece is called "Elon Musk's Shadow Rule" and is published in this week's issue of The New Yorker.

The sources you talk to on record also said - many of them - before they could agree to an interview with you, they first had to check in with Musk. We're not really talking about people who work for Elon Musk. These are independent folks or government officials.

FARROW: That's all over the community of people around Elon Musk. Everyone from fellow tech moguls to people at his companies where it might be more expected - you get the same beholdenness (ph) to him. Even when it's private, outside people who have, you know, tremendous resources and power themselves, more than in virtually any reporting process I can think of, I got a lot of, if Elon is enthused, you know, I'll do what he wants.

What you're referring to and what I was most struck by within that is that also, defense officials sometimes voiced those kinds of themes and suggested that kind of loyalty to him in a way I've never experienced reporting on national security issues. You know, when a reporter calls the Pentagon to ask questions about conversations strictly related to the war in Ukraine - right? - nothing of a personal nature here, to have those officials say, we're routing your questions through Elon, and we'll only talk if he wants us to - that's a pretty unusual courtesy to be providing a private citizen in response to questions about military and national security matters.

MOSLEY: How did NASA become so reliant on SpaceX?

FARROW: Well, it's a great illustration of some of the positive dimensions of Elon Musk's rise, right? He is someone who earnestly, I believe, identified areas in which the government just wasn't moving. And the space race is one of them. You know, access to space has tremendous implications for all of us. There's the obvious scientific ramifications of exploring the universe, but there's also national security objectives that are really immediate. You know, access to satellites, most of which are privately owned, determines our ability to surveil competitors on the world stage. It determines our ability to launch and control rockets and drones. It's really significant. And this was an area where we literally just ceded leadership. We weren't spending on this. We lost the ability to get people into space ourselves. We were sending them in Russian craft through Russian launches.

That's a sad state of affairs and one that stands to damage the security of the American people. So it's not surprising that Elon Musk, who has been obsessed with Mars since his childhood and - was dismayed to look on the NASA website and find there's no real concerted plan that certainly that met Elon Musk's standards for speed and vigor to get human beings to Mars. So he really did come into a space of state under-investment and shake it up and reinvigorate the private space race.

And the pace at which he moves, Tonya, including through Space X, is just very different from traditional, giant, hulking government contractors. You know, he is going to launch and blow up rockets at a pace that was unheard of previously and believes in iteration as a model for success. You know, you launch, and then you launch again, and you learn each time. And that's a very different philosophy from NASA's, which is, you know, all about really, really crossing every T and dotting every I. So a couple of things have played out in that relationship. I mean, one is NASA has been able to rely on Musk's growth in this area to get away from relying on the Russians, have American capacity again. That's really important. There's also been clashes with both NASA and the FAA about that speed-at-all-costs philosophy that Musk very often has.

MOSLEY: You write that Musk has been successful because he seeks out business opportunities in these crucial areas where the state has essentially failed, which basically in turn makes governmental agencies reliant on him. We're talking NASA, the Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. A source told you all of these agencies treat him like an unelected official. It is interesting that he's treated as an unelected official, but it seems murky, though, what side of the political aisle he's on. He has in the past identified as a centrist. Is that still the case?

FARROW: This is why I include a discussion of Twitter and the acquisition of Twitter in this piece because while there has been a lot of discussion of the chaotic nature of his acquisition of Twitter and what he's done to shift its direction and upend its business model, I felt like I wanted to use it to elucidate something else, which was just Musk's politics themselves - you know, the fact that both his decision to purchase this company and the way in which he's run it seemed to be so entwined with a slate of political views that, for some people close to him, is unrecognizable even relative to the views he was expressing just a few years ago.

MOSLEY: I mean, he uses Twitter, which has now rebranded as X, to say whatever is on his mind. You mention in your piece his tweets. For example, during the pandemic, he seemed to embrace COVID denialism. Have any high-ranking officials expressed concern with you about this behavior?

FARROW: The portrait of Elon Musk as a person and as a personality that emerges in this piece is not a simple one. There's a kind of Twitter contingent that reacts to pieces of journalism by, like, whooping and hollering and delighting in the abstract idea that there is some kind of a takedown or something. But really, in my view, just reading my own work here, I don't personally take that away from this piece. You know, I think, if there is a villain in this piece, it's late-stage capitalism, right? It's the systems that allowed this kind of unrestrained power. Maybe, to an extent, it's the wan instruments of government, the areas of under-investment that Elon has come to fill, and much less so about him.

That said, he's a great illustration of the perils of this dynamic because he has become so unpredictable and so given to chaotic excess in some of his decisions. And that's where, you know, Ukraine is a great example of what can result when that spirals. And we see that on Twitter in so many of his positions, where he's gone from describing himself as a centrist, even voting and donating to prominent Democrats just a few years ago, to really embracing alt-right vernacular and sentiment, becoming very anti-trans in some of his statements, very socially conservative to appearances. I think he views his stance on this as libertarian, as, you know, free speech-oriented, whatever the costs.

But really, as you parse his views, there's a lot of alt-right in it to all appearances. And there's also a strain of misinformation in it, right? He's reposting conspiracy theories and falsehoods. And he's attacking people in a kind of trolly way, using alt-right-inflected broadsides. Like, this practice of accusing everyone of pedophilia all the time, even if there's no basis for it, is something that resonates deeply in that kind of QAnon-inflected community, right? These have become dog whistles in that world. And he spends a lot of time in that world. He's on alt-right podcasts. He is following accounts that espouse these views and this kind of misinformation. So that's the specific layer of concern about Elon that, you know, goes hand in hand with the concern of principle.

MOSLEY: Is there the feeling that he's always been this way? You know, this persona that we see on Twitter that's being revealed and who he is as a businessperson, is there concern that he has changed over time? Or is this who he's always been?

FARROW: I think in the view of most of the people in his life, Elon Musk is either changing or revealing a new side, or a new side is being accentuated in ways that are unfamiliar to those people. You know, the kinds of political views he's expressing now are in stark contrast to the ways he characterized his politics just a few years ago. The kind of vitriolic nature of his political tweets - I guess now we're supposed to call them Xes (laughter) - is something that is not familiar to a lot of people close to him.

I think that this shift is down to a combination of factors, Tonya. You know, this is a person who is tremendously isolated by fame, by wealth. This isn't me editorializing. You know, he's talked about this openly, his loneliness, his sadness. There has been, you know, concern across his companies over recent years about his substance use. Tesla board members were concerned about his use of Ambien, which can cause hallucinations if you stay up on it. There's been reporting about his use of ketamine. And I do some more reporting on that in this piece. There are people around him who think or fear that that use is escalating in a way that might be to the point of excess.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest today is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ronan Farrow. He's written a new piece for The New Yorker about Elon Musk's rising influence on geopolitical relations. It's titled "Elon Musk's Shadow Rule: How The U.S. Government Came To Rely On The Tech Billionaire - And Is Now Struggling To Rein Him In." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE QUARTET'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. Today we're talking to Ronan Farrow, an investigative reporter and contributing writer to The New Yorker. His latest piece is titled "Elon Musk's Shadow Rule."

I want to talk with you, Ronan, a little bit about the rebranding of Twitter to X. Quickly, though, can you explain his affinity for the letter X?

FARROW: (Laughter).

MOSLEY: I think it was referred to in the article as an obsession.

FARROW: Yes. I mean, he has named products at his companies X. He has named multiple companies X over the course of his career. He has named at least one of his children X, followed by a long string of other characters. This is one of his children - the mother is the singer Grimes, who also now goes by lowercase C. And, you know, it's not totally clear why the obsession with X. The upshot of it is he keeps trying to revive that as a major brand in his pantheon of companies, and Twitter is the latest attempt to do that.

MOSLEY: Let's talk about that for a little bit, because what are his intentions for the site? What does he want to turn X into?

FARROW: Right. So I think that there are two goals that sit uneasily together. One is a continuation of this career-long quest to build a banking app, an online bank. That was the initial goal of x.com, this company that in the end became PayPal after a merger. That also is connected to a desire to build an everything app. And we see those two things together in the Asian market, where apps like WeChat have become very, very popular. And they incorporate, you know, a payment system. So it's a commerce platform, but also it's a messaging app. You know, you can pay your bills there. It's - like, it is kind of an everything app. This has never taken off in the Western market. Musk seems very, very bent on trying to do that. That's obviously a very different goal from Twitter - right? - which was so discourse-focused. So it makes you wonder, why acquire the company and rebrand it and try to turn it into this totally different thing at all?

I think the answer lies in the second goal that sits uneasily alongside that careerlong, pragmatic business goal, which appears to be more ideological. He wants to dominate the discourse in addition to all these other fields. He wants a platform where he can control the town square and to bring to it these sensibilities we're talking about, to respond to his frustrations with the liberal, woke intelligentsia, as he perceives it, that has been unkind to him, by building a discourse that counterbalances that. And, you know, you see him withdrawing in all sorts of ways into that thinking. There are multiple reporters that he has kind of lashed out at or retaliated against. I should point out, as of now, this piece has been out for more than 24 hours. He hasn't done that to me.

MOSLEY: You haven't heard from them yet.

FARROW: So that - right. So that is an important distinction to draw. I'm not saying that's happened in my experience, but it has happened in other cases with other journalists. And, you know, at the same time, you see him engaging more and more on platforms that are exclusively alt-right in their sensibility.

MOSLEY: You know, Ronan, as part of your reporting, you touch on all of Elon Musk's business ventures and how it intersects with government relations. As part of your reporting, you also tried to get into the making of a man. You go back to his childhood. You talk with folks who know him intimately. Then there is this other growing piece of the puzzle that we talk about, and that's around artificial intelligence. And you actually end your article talking about where Musk sits in the race to be the most powerful in the space of artificial intelligence. We know that he's been involved in the technology for several years with OpenAI, for example. But where does he sit in this space now? And what is the biggest concern that you have around it in your reporting?

FARROW: As you point out, he has a background in this field. He was one of the early supporters of OpenAI and put money into that enterprise. It has now become a significant force in the world of AI. He had a falling out with his colleagues at OpenAI and walked away from that. The other leaders in the AI field are now watching him re-approach this market. He has talked a lot about how he believes passionately that artificial intelligence presents dangers to us all and, I believe, sincerely evinced that conviction in a group letter where he got a lot of tech titans to sign on to a public statement saying, you know, there should be a pause in the development of advanced artificial intelligence while we figure out the ethical ramifications and the ways in which this might lead to the human species being replaced.

And at the same time, he was pursuing building his own company and his own new entry into the field. While there was this period of a pause that he had signed on to this public request for, he was sourcing components needed for the R&D. He was doing hiring. He was signing the paperwork. And, you know, there are some pretty big names in tech who are on the record in this piece, including Reid Hoffman, who was another early supporter of OpenAI, who talks about how having someone who, at least in part, seems to be motivated by competition to come to this field - and that does seem to be the case. You know, Elon Musk has talked about his new initiative in this field, a company called xAI, in terms that are almost purely rooted in competition. You know, he says, well, I'm a third player in this space and I'm coming to it late. But, you know, hopefully this third option can do more good than harm.

What Hoffman points out, which I thought was very astute, is a dimension that's unique to this forward-looking field is the way in which we are creating a new power and intelligence in our own image. And we've already seen, in early chatbot technology, how quickly those chatbots become racist and sexist. So, you know, we see the way in which the choice of creator can be important to the outcome of the technology. And, you know, what Reid says on the record in this piece is we need to be careful about messianic people shaping what the future of AI looks like.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest today is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ronan Farrow. He's written a new piece for The New Yorker about Elon Musk's rising influence on geopolitical relations. It's titled "Elon Musk's Shadow Rule: How The U.S. Government Came To Rely On The Tech Billionaire And Is Now Struggling To Rein Him In." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOLT VAUGHN'S "BITTER SUITE")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. Today we're talking to Ronan Farrow, an investigative reporter and contributing writer to The New Yorker. His latest piece is titled "Elon Musk's Shadow Rule."

Ronan, what is the takeaway to this piece, this big, ambitious piece? Is there a way to rein in Musk and what is the ultimate fear if he's not?

FARROW: I think the big takeaway is not so much about Musk, but about the systems around him and the economy and political landscape that we have built that puts so much unrestrained power into the hands of so few hyper-wealthy individuals. And, you know, Elon Musk is behaving like Elon Musk, right? There are certainly specific measures that can be taken to ameliorate some of the problems that people talk about in this piece. You know, Musk's peers in Silicon Valley still do - to some extent, anyway - have his ear. Musk's investors and shareholders can hold the reins even if the government has struggled to. Consumers even, in a more attenuated way, can make decisions about whether they're using his products or not.

I think that the harder problem is not Elon Musk, it's the universe of state underinvestment and diminishing trust in institutions that has allowed the Elon Musk that we've been talking about today to flourish. And that's one of those frustrating, big-picture problems where what it's going to take is fundamental political reform and, you know, voters on a massive scale realizing that this kind of unrestrained private power, while it has many benefits, also carries significant risks.

You know, one comment that stayed with me, Tonya, in the course of this reporting was there's a guy named Jim Bridenstine on the record in this piece. He's a former NASA administrator. And he's actually a Trump appointee and a really hard right former congressperson. And I highlight that political orientation because I think it makes the argument he made particularly valuable. You know, he talked about, despite his general sort of free market disposition, fearing a world in which deregulation is a bigger danger than regulation.

You know, Musk talks a lot about the evils of regulation, the ways in which it can stymie progress and innovation. And for sure, there are valid points in that argument. But what Bridenstine pointed out, which I liked coming from a conservative voice, was that he said, you know, despite the fact that I am in general a free market guy, I really want to highlight the perils of too (inaudible) regulation. You know, Elon Musk talks a lot about the evils of regulation, the ways in which government regulation can stymie progress and innovation. And for sure, there's a lot of truth in that.

But what Bridenstine talks about is equally important here, which is having the guardrails off completely, having an absence of the services governments provide to keep us all safe can present even more danger. And, you know, he makes the comparison to the recent Titanic submersible implosion. And without talking about Musk specifically says, you know, look, if we concentrate too much power in the hands of private individuals and companies, we're going to see more of that. It opens the door to tragedy potentially, eventually on a much larger scale than that submersible.

MOSLEY: Ronan Farrow, thank you so much for this illuminating piece.

FARROW: Thank you very much for a thoughtful conversation about it. I really appreciate it, Tonya.

MOSLEY: Ronan Farrow is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. His new report in The New Yorker is titled "Elon Musk's Shadow Rule: How The U.S. Government Came To Rely On The Tech Billionaire - And Is Now Struggling To Rein Him In." If you'd like to catch up with FRESH AIR interviews you missed, check out our podcast. You'll find our recent interview with the co-host of the NPR podcast Louder Than a Riot about misogyny in hip-hop and artists that are pushing back, and our interview with the author of the book about the life and legacy of the late rapper Christopher Wallace, aka Notorious BIG. Find FRESH AIR wherever you listen to podcasts. And to keep up with what's on the show and to get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram - @nprfreshair.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.