Life with A.I.

Steve Wozniak explains why he used to agree with Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking on A.I. — but now he doesn’t

Steve Wozniak speaking at eMerge in Miami on June 12, 2017.
David A. Grogan | CNBC
Steve Wozniak speaking at eMerge in Miami on June 12, 2017.

Tesla and SpaceX chief Elon Musk and renowned physicist Stephen Hawking have issued some terrifying predictions about the future of artificial intelligence.

Musk has said AI is more dangerous than North Korea. He's also warned it is "fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization."

Hawking has said "AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilization. It brings dangers, like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy."

Steve Wozniak used to agree with Musk and Hawking's foreboding about AI, but he doesn't anymore, said the Apple co-founder at the Nordic Business Forum in Stockholm on January 24.

"Artificial intelligence doesn't scare me at all," Wozniak said.

That's because in cognitive ability, machines are eons behind even a young child. He's not impressed.

"I agree with the 'A' in AI," Wozniak said. "A little girl, 2 years old, sees a dog one time and knows what a dog is forever," said the Apple co-founder.

Meanwhile, a computer has to see an image over and over again before it can recognize what it is looking at, Wozniak says.

"For machines to override human beings, they would have to do every step in society, of digging ores out of quarries and refining materials and building up all the products and everything we have in our lives, and making clothes and food.

"That would take hundreds of years to change the infrastructure," Wozniak explained.

This isn't the first flip-flop Wozniak has made on AI. For a long time, Wozniak was was unimpressed by early examples of AI and didn't feel afraid of what was to come.

Then, according to Wozniak, he was on a panel speaking with Ray Kurzweil, the famed futurist and author, who, in his book "The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology," prophesied that machines will be able to process as much as and as fast as the human brain by 2045.

Kurzweil convinced Wozniak with his explanation of exponential technologies: At first the impact of an exponential technology is imperceptible, but then all of a sudden, as with the curve, the impact of the technology is felt quickly and significantly.

"His formulas were right and I bought in! For two years, I was up on stages saying, 'These machines are going to be conscious. They are going to be having conversations and thinking for themselves. It is going to happen!'"

Wozniak kept questioning his own perspective, though, and he ended up going back to his original belief that AI is not threatening.

"I reversed myself," Wozniak said.

He kept thinking about the vast and mysterious capacity of the human brain, he said.

In the end, Wozniak decided the human brain is so much more powerful than machines, that he is not worried about the existential threat to society that Musk and Hawkings have talked about.

Wozniak's optimism also flies in the face of a report, published Tuesday, from 26 AI experts who warn humanity is not adequately preparing for the malicious potential of AI.

"It is often the case that AI systems don't merely reach human levels of performance but significantly surpass it," says Miles Brundage, a research fellow at Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute and one of the co-authors, in a written statement. "It is troubling, but necessary, to consider the implications of superhuman hacking, surveillance, persuasion, and physical target identification, as well as AI capabilities that are subhuman but nevertheless much more scalable than human labor."

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