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Gates: Computer 'Super Intelligence' Has Huge Potential, Good & Bad

Sure, technology is great. Things like smartphones have (though some argue the opposite) freed up our time, and things like precision agriculture have dramatically improved our production capacity and efficiency on grain and livestock farms around the world.

What happens if technology gets too great? The Terminator movie series chronicles a circumstance in which computers "become self-aware" and essentially turn on humankind. A lot has been said recently by people like famed physicist Stephen Hawking that the potential for computer self-awareness should be handled with great care to prevent artificial intelligence from evolving beyond human intelligence. Sound like science fiction? It's closer than you think. The recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas featured computer hardware that conducts computing tasks at a rate that will soon make this possible, enabling things like "learning" vehicles and tech tools that don't just follow human directions, but take the next step.

Yet, simple artificial intelligence as it's understood today isn't the biggest worry. It's "Super intelligence" that has people like Microsoft cofounder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates pondering the tech sector's future.

"I am in the camp that is concerned about super intelligence. First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super-intelligent," Gates said during a recent Reddit online discussion. "That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that though, the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern."

Developing this "super intelligence" won't be easy, though. A Chinese company just recently released a microchip that can conduct 1 trillion computer operations per second; though that's a huge step in general computing capacity, the hardware is far from up-to-snuff with what will be required to reach this level. Still, the advancement of this type of computer technology will continue to offer massive benefits to industries like agriculture that depend in many ways on manual labor.

"There will be more progress in the next 30 years than ever. Even in the next 10, problems like vision and speech understanding and translation will be very good," Gates said during his recent online chat. "Mechanical robot tasks like picking fruit or moving a hospital patient will be solved. Once computers/robots get to a level of capability where seeing and moving is easy for them, then they will be used very extensively."

In the meantime, Gates says he and others in the technology sector are focusing on tools that can help make you, the computer operator, more efficient and effective in the tasks on which you apply that technology.

"One project I am working on with Microsoft is the Personal Agent, which will remember everything and help you go back and find things and help you pick what things to pay attention to. The idea that you have to find applications and pick them and they each are trying to tell you what is new is just not the efficient model -- the agent will help solve this. It will work across all your devices," Gates says. "Technology is not making people less intelligent. Technology is letting people get their questions answered better so they stay more curious. It makes it easier to know a lot of topics, which turns out to be pretty important to contribute to solving complex problems."

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