Bill Gates Chimes in on AI

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates says that AI is one of only two revolutionary technologies that he’s witnessed in his lifetime. The other one? The graphical user interface (GUI) that turned into Windows, the backbone of Microsoft’s first two decades of success.

“I’d been meeting with the team from OpenAI since 2016 and was impressed by their steady progress,” Gates writes in a new GatesNote. “In mid-2022, I was so excited about their work that I gave them a challenge: train an artificial intelligence to pass an Advanced Placement biology exam. Make it capable of answering questions that it hasn’t been specifically trained for. (I picked AP Bio because the test is more than a simple regurgitation of scientific facts—it asks you to think critically about biology.) If you can do that, I said, then you’ll have made a true breakthrough. I thought the challenge would keep them busy for two or three years. They finished it in just a few months.”

That today’s AI advances, like the GUI, came from outside of Microsoft is perhaps relevant. In the early 1980s, Microsoft wasn’t the only company to take advantage of the GUI, but it was of course the most successful. The hope at the company today is that it can repeat that success with AI.

We’ll see. But whatever one thinks of Gates—he’s as controversial as he was instrumental in creating and popularizing personal computing—his opinion of AI is important and should be heeded. As should his thoughts about where AI is headed in the next five to ten years.

“The development of AI is as fundamental as the creation of the microprocessor, the personal computer, the Internet, and the mobile phone,” he writes. “It will change the way people work, learn, travel, get health care, and communicate with each other. Entire industries will reorient around it. Businesses will distinguish themselves by how well they use it.”

“AI can reduce some of the world’s worst inequities,” he continues. “Globally, the worst inequity is in health: 5 million children under the age of 5 die every year. That’s down from 10 million two decades ago, but it’s still a shockingly high number. Nearly all of these children were born in poor countries and die of preventable causes like diarrhea or malaria. It’s hard to imagine a better use of AIs than saving the lives of children.”

Gates also defines AI, which is interesting given all the confusion around this term.

“Artificial intelligence refers to a model created to solve a specific problem or provide a particular service,” he notes. “What is powering things like ChatGPT is artificial intelligence. It is learning how to do chat better but can’t learn other tasks. By contrast, the term artificial general intelligence refers to software that’s capable of learning any task or subject. AGI doesn’t exist yet—there is a robust debate going on in the computing industry about how to create it, and whether it can even be created at all.”

There’s a lot more to the Gates missive, and I strongly recommend reading it. But I’ll leave this overview with his take on how this impacts Microsoft’s productivity tools.

“Fully incorporated into products like Office, AI will enhance your work—for example by helping with writing emails and managing your inbox,” he says. “Eventually your main way of controlling a computer will no longer be pointing and clicking or tapping on menus and dialogue boxes [Windows 12?]. Instead, you’ll be able to write a request in plain English. And not just English … In addition, advances in AI will enable the creation of a personal agent. Think of it as a digital personal assistant: It will see your latest emails, know about the meetings you attend, read what you read, and read the things you don’t want to bother with. This will both improve your work on the tasks you want to do and free you from the ones you don’t want to do.”

A personal digital assistant. What a novel idea. I’m surprised that Microsoft doesn’t offer one.

Anyway. Interesting stuff.

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