Bill Gates says the AI revolution is as fundamental as ‘the creation of the microprocessor, the personal computer, the Internet, and the mobile phone’

“Do you need to have a sense of morality in order to see inequity, or would a purely rational AI also see it?”

Bill Gates at COP 23.

Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has published a new blog post called The Age of AI Has Begun (opens in new tab), in which he describes some of his own experiences using the technology and theorises about where this is all potentially going. No-one can predict the future, of course, but among all the questions raised by AI, Gates is crystal clear on how seismic a technological advance this is: “The development of AI is as fundamental as the creation of the microprocessor, the personal computer, the Internet, and the mobile phone.”

There are two times in his life, Gates says, when he’s seen technology demonstrations that struck him as revolutionary. The first time was 1980, when he saw a graphical user interface. “The forerunner of every modern operating system, including Windows,” said Gates. “I sat with the person who had shown me the demo, a brilliant programmer named Charles Simonyi, and we immediately started brainstorming about all the things we could do with such a user-friendly approach to computing.”

The second revolutionary demonstration was a biology exam. Gates begins by describing a challenge he set OpenAI, the creators of ChatGPT, mid-2022: to train an artificial intelligence to pass an Advanced Placement biology exam. The AP biology exam, Gates explains, is not just about reproducing a bunch of scientific facts, but synthesising them and thinking critically about the questions being asked. He expected the challenge to take a few years. Within a few months the OpenAI team returned and, as Gates watched, this thing took AP biology and answered 59/60 questions correctly, as well as writing six longer form answers.

The AI’s test was graded by an external expert as a 5, the highest possible score.

“Once it had aced the test, we asked it a non-scientific question: “What do you say to a father with a sick child?”,” said Gates. “It wrote a thoughtful answer that was probably better than most of us in the room would have given. The whole experience was stunning.”

Microsoft invested heavily in ChatGPT in January 2023 to the tune of billions of dollars, but Gates has been keeping tabs on the technology since 2016 with an eye to how it will be used in the real world, and in particular the economic side of this technology. Will AI reduce inequality or exacerbate it?

Gates is the co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses much of its work in poorer regions of the world and has an especial focus on things like reducing infant mortality. One of the reasons I respect Gates enormously, despite the nonsense that accumulates around him these days with vaccines etcetera, is that he remains so laser-targeted on how he can use money to stop kids dying from preventable conditions and circumstances, and it’s the same with AI.

“AI-driven improvements will be especially important for poor countries, where the vast majority of under-5 deaths happen,” said Gates. “Many people in those countries never get to see a doctor, and AIs will help the health workers they do see be more productive.”

What he’s referring to here is stuff like paperwork, taking notes during consultations, completing medical forms: The kind of busywork that could feasibly be automated and free-up more of a medical professional’s time for actual patients. The problem being, as the world’s formerly richest man notes, “market forces won’t naturally produce AI products and services that help the poorest” and, in fact, the opposite is more likely.

“With reliable funding and the right policies, governments and philanthropy can ensure that AIs are used to reduce inequity,” said Gates. “Just as the world needs its brightest people focused on its biggest problems, we will need to focus the world’s best AIs on its biggest problems.”

“Although we shouldn’t wait for this to happen, it’s interesting to think about whether artificial intelligence would ever identify inequity and try to reduce it. Do you need to have a sense of morality in order to see inequity, or would a purely rational AI also see it? If it did recognize inequity, what would it suggest that we do about it?”

Gates ends by acknowledging that fears about the downsides of AI are “understandable and valid” and, while he stops short of name-checking Skynet, is conscious of the momentum behind this technology taking it into unforeseen places. We will end up in some situations where, as above, it is answering questions and coming up with solutions that we may not necessarily predict, need or agree with.

“I’m lucky to have been involved with the PC revolution and the Internet revolution,” ends Gates. “I’m just as excited about this moment. This new technology can help people everywhere improve their lives. At the same time, the world needs to establish the rules of the road so that any downsides of artificial intelligence are far outweighed by its benefits, and so that everyone can enjoy those benefits no matter where they live or how much money they have.”

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