Bill Gates on the potential (and dangers) of artificial intelligence

As far he’s concerned, the technology is every bit as promising as it is dangerous, so if we’re not careful things can get out of hand very quickly.

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Bill Gates is one of the many respected minds of the 21st century that frequently makes a point to inform us about the potential dangers companioning the rise of artificial intelligence.

“First, the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that, though, the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern.” Gates told CNET back in 2015. 


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Honored neuroscientist, Sam Harris joins him in this sentiment,  employing the term, “death by science fiction,” poking fun at the way many have become so exercised by the rapid development of various forms of virtual technology, they’re effectively blind to the scary future that potentially rests on the horizon.

“If intelligence is just a matter of information processing and we continue to improve our machines, we will produce some form of super intelligence and we have no idea how long it will take to create the conditions to do that safely.  Fifty years is not what it used to be. Fifty years is not that much time to meet one of the greatest challenges our species will ever face,” Harris explained in a Ted Talk a few years back. For the most part, the experts that augur the dangers of AI  do so with both sobriety and measured evidence.

Few reasoned minds outright condemn automation wholesale.

The responsibility of innovation

Recently, philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates spoke at Stanford’s Human-Centered AI conference. Many media outlets became fixated on a particular quote from the prolific investor, one that compared artificial intelligence to nuclear energy. This angle is certainly justifiable, though when observed in proper context, the sentiment of the quote dulls its bite a bit.

Gates fears that The United States doesn’t really have a good handle on the global AI research race. “The US was in this totally unique position for most of these breakthrough technologies. Now the US is still very much the leader, but not in the same dominant, dominant way,”  Gates explained.

As far he’s concerned, the technology is every bit as promising as it is dangerous – but if we’re not careful things can get out of hand very quickly. Here, the parallels between AI advancements and nuclear energy begin to become more clear, and less frantic sounding. It’s a hard comparison to dismiss. Although Gates believes that evidence of super intelligence dramatically improving society so far is limited, he remains optimistic about its potential.

Ladders has reported about the admirable philanthropy practiced by both Gates and his wife Melinda through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Considering this organization seems to fund the majority of his focus of late, it makes sense that the value Gate’s perceives in artificial intelligence owes itself to humanitarian concerns.

If robots are gonna do us any good, Gates motions that it’ll be in the fields of medicine and education. As verification, he mentioned the recent breakthrough in the premature birth crisis happening in Africa. AI was utilized to screen 23andMe genetic data, uncovering a link between deficiency of the element selenium and premature births.

“We expect to see about 15% reduction in prematurity, which for Africa as a whole would project out to be about 80,000 lives saved per year,” said Gates.

AI for good

Moreover, he hopes superintelligence can be contracted to figure out patterns that enable children to remain engaged and motivated in schools.

One begins to understand the thread that separates  Gates’ expectations for artificial intelligence and the breed of expectation that keeps Harris up at night. Gates seems to champion technology that nurtures human virtues: tech that keeps us well and informed, as opposed to tech that seeks to make these virtues obsolete-“a chance to supercharge the social sciences,” he said at the conference.

I think allowing our excitement for the new age of automation to be accompanied with a little caution, is more than a reasonable stipulation.


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CW Headley|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at cheadley@theladders.com.