SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space exploration company, is on track to begin testing rockets capable of taking humans to Mars by next year, the billionaire businessman claims.

Musk made this claim at South by Southwest (SXSW), an entertainment conference that attracts some of the biggest names in film, music, comedy, politics and business.

Musk revealed his plan to build a colony on Mars back in 2016. According to the SpaceX website, crewed missions are planned for 2024. However, Musk believes that SpaceX will be ready to begin testing flights by 2019.

He said:

“We are building the first Mars, or interplanetary ship, and I think we’ll be able to make short trips, flights by first half of next year.”

According to the billionaire businessman, colonising Mars is vital to ensuring that humanity continues in the age of nuclear warheads and artificial intelligence.

The Tesla founder fears that the world is heading for a third World War. Given the level of weaponry that the world now has access to, he believes that this would be catastrophic to life on earth.

Musk said:

If you know that there’s likely to be – we don’t know, but there’s likely to be another dark age, which is seems.

My guess is that probably will be at some point. I’m not predicting that we’re about to enter the dark ages, but that there’s some probability that we will, particularly if there is a third World War – Then we want to make sure that there’s enough of a seed of human civilisation somewhere else to bring civilisation back.

While the rest of the world worries about the rising threat of nuclear war, Musk’s biggest fear is the threat of rapidly advancing artificial intelligence.

I think probably by the end of next year, self-driving will encompass essentially all modes of driving and be at least 100% to 200% safer than a person by the end of next year.

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We’re talking maybe 18 months from now, so the rate of improvement is really dramatic but we have to figure out some way to ensure that the advent of digital superintelligence is one that is symbiotic with humanity. I think that’s the single biggest existential crisis that we face, and the most pressing one.

I think the danger of AI is much greater than the danger of nuclear warheads. By a lot. And nobody would suggest that we allow anyone to just build nuclear warheads if they want. That would be insane.

This isn’t the first time that Musk has expressed concerns about the development of AI. The Tesla founder was the biggest name on a petition calling for the ban on autonomous weaponry last year .

Why it matters:

As the founder of Tesla, a manufacturer aiming to make the first fully autonomous road-legal car, Musk is well versed in AI and automation. While AI warfare seems some way off, his concerns shouldn’t be taken lightly.

This also sheds some light on Musk’s desire to reach Mars. SpaceX often seems like a vanity project for the $20 billion man, but Musk’s comments at SXSW suggest that there is at least some method in the madness.

Background:

The Dark Ages that Musk referred to a period of European history between 500 and 800 AD following the fall of the Roman Empire. The period was fraught with warfare and quality of life and intellect declined.

Musk’s comments came via a scheduled question and answer session at SXSW. The session was conducted by director Jonathan Nolan, who asked questions submitted by the audience via an online form.

Musk used the stage to reveal details and dates about his numerous projects, such as Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity.