When Jeff Bezos laughs, it comes from deep within. It’s a hearty laugh that starts at the belly and rises up.
The reaction doesn’t come often—the Amazon (AMZN) founder and chief executive is far too analytical for that. But when it does, watch out.
On Tuesday night, Bezos told an audience of technologists at the Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. why Blue Origin, his mysterious spaceflight company, carries so much potential.
He spent several minutes outlining his desire to develop outer space. Humans should move heavy industrial facilities off the planet and into space, Bezos argued, where energy from the sun is limitless and available around the clock. Earth instead ought to be “rezoned” for residential and light commercial use.
“We could build gigantic chip factories in space and just send little bits down,” he said. “We don’t have to build them here.”
But then, sensing the obvious next question from the audience, Bezos interrupted himself to declare:
“We will settle Mars. And we should, because it’s cool.”
His reassured audience chortled as Bezos let out a great, big laugh of his own.
The Amazon CEO (and Washington Post owner) was in top form on Tuesday night in a rare public appearance. Bezos was equally comic, candid, and clever as he offered his views on artificial intelligence, data privacy, free speech, leadership, streaming video, and aerospace in an interview with Recode editor-at-large Walt Mossberg. Here are the highlights.
(And if you’re interested in learning more about Bezos, read “How Jeff Bezos Became a Power Behind Amazon” from the magazine.)
“You don’t choose your passions, your passions choose you,” Bezos began. “I’ve been passionate about rockets and space since I was a five-year-old boy.”
For decades, the space industry has lacked the “dynamism” found in the software industry, he said. The busiest period of space launches in history happened in the 1970s. What’s happened since? Stasis, Bezos said.
Amazon’s namesake retail business took off because all of the “heavy lifting” that allowed it to exist—cashless payment systems, home delivery networks, computers and telecommunications equipment in homes—had already been created for other reasons. No startup company would have the enormous sums of capital to create all that infrastructure. That’s what he’s trying to provide for the renewed private space industry, he said.
“When it comes to space, I see it as my job to build infrastructure the hard way. I’m using my resources to put in that infrastructure so that the next generation of people can have a dynamic, entrepreneurial solar system as interesting as we see on the Internet today. I want thousands of entrepreneurs to do amazing things in space. To do that we have to dramatically lower the cost of entering space.”
Or, put another way: “I don’t want Plan B to be Earth. I want Plan B to make sure that Plan A works. And let me assure you, this is the best planet. And we will protect it. The way we will protect it is by going out into space.”
Humans need not live in a “retrograde world” where they need to reduce energy consumption and stem population growth to live sustainably on Earth, Bezos said.
“We want the population to keep growing on this planet. We want to keep using more energy per capita.” In other words: dynamism.
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On Free Speech
Mossberg asked Bezos to address the uproar over Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel’s covert funding of Hulk Hogan’s invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against Gawker Media, which threatens to put Gawker out of business. He didn’t mince words, repeating a quote often attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius:
“‘Seek revenge and you shall dig two graves, one for yourself.’ You always have to ask yourself: How do you want to spend your time and energy? Even if it’s a legitimate wrong. Is that really how you want to spend your time? I don’t think so.”
He went on. “As a public figure, the best defense to speech that you don’t like about yourself as a public figure is to develop a thick skin. It’s really the only effective defense. You can’t stop it. If you’re going anything interesting in the world, you absolutely will attract critics. If you can’t tolerate critics, don’t develop anything new or interesting.”
He added: “You always have to remember: This country has the best free speech protections in the world because of the Constitution but also because of our cultural norms. You don’t want to erode those.”
The audience responded with spirited applause.
On Everything Else
Bezos was infinitely quotable in his wide-ranging discussion.
Brief additional highlights:
On Alexa, the digital assistant in its popular Echo product: “Natural language understanding, machine learning in general, artificial intelligence—it’s probably hard to overstate how big of an impact it’s going to have on society over the next 20 years.”
On Amazon’s brick-and-mortar stores: “This is about satisfying a completely different need. It’s about browsing and discovery.”
On the tension between data privacy and national security: “I believe it is an issue of our age. We as a citizen-run democracy are going to have to deal with that.”
On Amazon’s classic retail business: “We really like that business. I encourage you to shop early and often.”
On Donald Trump’s efforts to fight journalistic outlets that scrutinize his presidential candidacy: “It’s just a fact where we live in a world where, in half the places on this planet, if you criticize your leader, you go to jail or worse….the most important office in world should expect to be scrutinized…without the cultural norms, the Constitution is just a piece of paper.”
On the First Amendment: “Beautiful speech doesn’t need protection. It’s ugly speech that needs protection.”