Meet Lex Fridman, the controversial podcaster who infiltrated Elon Musk’s inner circle

By Mason Berlinka

Published Aug 26, 2023 at 09:15 AM

Reading time: 4 minutes

What do Kanye West, Benjamin Netanyahu and Elon Musk all have in common? They’ve each graced the stage of the Lex Fridman Podcast. Some are even saying that the former king of digital talk shows, Joe Rogan, has been dethroned. But contrary to Rogan’s signature style of dope-smoking, conspiracy toting pseudo-intellectualism, Fridman promises something a little bit different: fair and open conversation with some of the world’s brainiest and brightest, regardless of controversy or political alignment. It can be hard to tell whether Fridman is a beacon for open-minded conversation, or a narcissist looking for an ego stroke.

From professional poker players and world famous AI researchers, to Israeli presidents and Palestinian thinkers, there’s a space for everyone on the mild mannered computer scientist’s podcast. The Russian-American, Jewish scientist believes that open discussion and mutual respect is instrumental in shaping our future as a species, and that everyone can and should be treated empathetically. Hence why he gave Ye a chance to talk on the podcast, a decision that resulted in the rapper doubling down on his antisemitism, actually comparing planned parenthood to the Holocaust.

Critics of the podcast host have argued that the show primarily amplifies individuals with contentious perspectives, rather than creating a balance of voices that Fridman appears to seek. Others have also highlighted that there is a sense of narcissism in what Fridman does—a desire to be in the frame of conversation, regardless of whether or not he’s fully qualified. He’s inherently logic-driven, holds himself with a scientist’s demeanour and even completes the vibe with a suit and tie—a clear attempt to nurture this image.

So, where does the line between providing a platform and excess exposure blur? And how sincere is Fridman being in his apparent quest for mutual understanding and respect?

Who is Lex Fridman?

Fridman is an ex-MIT academic researcher, who first rose to prominence in 2019 after co-authoring a glowing paper on Tesla’s controversial autopilot system. The paper concluded that humans remained focused while using the self-driving system, contradicting prior research on the topic. For many, this was the first flag raised in the suspect nature of Fridman’s credibility, who managed to levy his study for a friendship with Musk. Of course, the paper was debunked several times, and soon after, it was rumoured that Fridman’s standing with the legendary university had run dry.

However, one might wonder if the paper was just a means of getting into the Tesla CEO’s good books? Musk of course was once a glowing bastion for the intellectual internet dweller, amassing an army of Redditors who would relentlessly come to his defence online. It seems that Fridman may have also been a bit of a fanboy, given that the paper (which has since been scrubbed from MIT, and even Fridman’s own personal website) was quoted numerous times by Tesla, as validation that its mission was sound.

Of course, the research was good enough for Musk, and soon enough the two were hanging out. Fridman’s podcast, which had been gaining a modest traction since he started to upload in 2014 was now unexpectedly  pulling in views well into the millions thanks to an appearance from Musk. Success for Fridman was here. A researcher who had long been interested in artificial intelligence, neural networks and the way these intersect with humanity, finally had a place at the table of discussion—and he wasn’t going to let go of it.

Is Lex Fridman really a genius?

Today, The Lex Fridman Podcast is nearing its 400th episode, with recent guests including Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, anti-vaxx American democrat hopeful Robert F. Kennedy JR, and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

That isn’t even mentioning MrBeast, Game developer Todd Howard, and Ben Shapiro.There is no shortage of guests for Fridman, who is more than willing to facilitate anyone ready to meet him for ‘open’ discussion.

Therein lies the secret behind Fridman’s popularity, his willingness, and passion for discussion with everyone across the political spectrum. I myself watch Fridman from time to time, often enamoured by his captivating positive outlook and desire to try and make a change.

However, for many, Fridman is wood for the fire, one that has been burning brightly ever since social media became gripped by ideas of fake news and battles for free speech.This is a fight that has resulted in Musk gutting Twitter into a nightmare hellscape where hate disguised as ‘free speech’ runs rampant, and the most toxic of tweeters are now unable to be blocked.

People who frequently identify with this school of thought, tend to skew away from more progressive views on gender, race and politics. One of those people would be the ‘lovely’ Jordan Peterson of course, who has also appeared on the show.

At a surface level, Fridman appears well-intentioned, but when considering his close friendships with billionaires like Musk, and Zuckerberg, as well as meeting with the highly criticised Netanyahu, certain concerns begin to emerge. It’s hard to fully gauge the genuineness of someone who consistently provides a platform for some of the world’s most controversial individuals.

At the same time, Fridman has taken deliberate steps to offer a platform to Palestinian thinkers and  other advocates who have important marginalised perspectives, as well as facilitating debates between climate activists and sceptics. He’s also spoken extensively with pro-AI scientists and those who fear what the new technology might do to our society all appear on his show. There is an attempt to open the discussion to everyone, which is undeniably valuable.

It’s also worth noting that half of the conversations Fridman has with his guests never ever touch anything controversial, besides current affairs in science. You could argue that in the same way Rogan attracts laymens for his simple to understand, pseudo-intellectual discussions on conspiracies and drugs, Fridman is attracting the exact same audience with more of an emphasis on scientific and political conversation. Rogan is often controversial in his assertive takes and Fridman never even comes close to being as incendiary as Spotify’s favourite anti-vaxx, anti-lockdown content creator.

It’s hard to fully find the answer to Fridman. There is an air of slight narcissism that is present when digging into his work, from his long introductions, to his own mission of self-righteousness. Of course there’s something personal to be gained from all this, I don’t think this was ever supposed to be an altruistic endeavour, but it’s best to err on the side of caution of a creator who so frequently manages to rub elbows with some of the world’s most affluent and controversial individuals.

It’s also confusing when Fridman preaches one thing, but then goes on to block his critics on Twitter because they contradict him, or debunk some of his past claims. If Fridman is unable to grow from the conversation with even the softest of critics on Twitter, it raises questions about how guests and viewers should interpret the discussions that take place on his show. Fridman clearly wants to avoid the echobox, but may not realise how much he is actually contributing to it with his work.

The range of guests that Fridman offers is certainly valuable, and though sometimes he may be contributing to an already rocky internet landscape, there is a lot to be said for his attempts at cohesive conversation. Creators online, especially those with a following, can often get caught up in the world of opinion, asserting themselves wherever possible. Though Fridman doesn’t do this outright, I’d be cautious regarding  anyone who aligns themselves with egotists like Musk. I don’t know about you, but I’ll be definitely keeping tabs on Fridman’s trajectory, wherever it might take him.

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