Will robots take our jobs and overpower us? Bill Gates has some concerns

Technically Incorrect: The Microsoft co-founder is uneasy about the speed of technological change and the possibilities it opens for robots to simply dominate us.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

When anyone speaks of a twin threat, I tend to hear portentous music just behind my head.

When that person is Bill Gates, a thumping begins inside my head.

Double trouble from robots? Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

The Microsoft co-founder is another, you see, who worries about Robotworld. He is concerned that too many things might go wrong. For humanity, that is.

Speaking to Re/Code after a TED talk Wednesday, Gates offered two threat scenarios, both of which are deeply uncomfortable.

The first, he said, "is simply the labor substitution problem. That, in a certain way, seems like it should be solvable because what you are really talking about is an embarrassment of riches."

But when humans and their enthusiasm for putting their hands in fires is involved, what seems solvable can end up painful. So he added: "But it is happening so quickly. It does raise some very interesting questions given the speed with which it happens."

Every time you look at Silicon Valley companies that make vast amounts of money, but employ relatively few people, it's inevitable to imagine that pattern spreading. It could be that some people will watch the rise of productive machines and simply give up on the notion that they can contribute anymore.

Humans have, though, traditionally shown a certain personal ingenuity in the face of technological change. The question Gates poses is whether the sheer speed of this era will catch too many people unprepared.

His second threat scenario is even more threatening. He called it "the issue of greater-than-human intelligence."

That is an issue, isn't it? When every new gadget demands the word "smart" before its name, one can't help but think that perhaps we seem ever dumber.

Gates, though, presented it like this: "I'll be very interested to spend time with people who think they know how we avoid that. I know Elon [Musk] just gave some money. A guy at Microsoft, Eric Horvitz, gave some money to Stanford. I think there are some serious efforts to look into could you avoid that problem."

In his words, he sounds methodical, scientific. One can't help wondering, though, whether he also feels a a genuine fear that it's unavoidable -- that the more powerful a robot you create, the more potential there is for humans' own demise.

Gates has expressed his concerns about AI before, in a Reddit AMA. Then, he seemed to believe the threat of labor substitution could be managed. Now he seems less sure about that.

Just as the law has trouble keeping up with technology's speed, so do other aspects of human life. And even if, as robots advance, there will still be considerable employment for humans, will those jobs be (even) more mind-numbing than the jobs available now?

In ads and movies, the future is very rarely presented as a happy place. When technologists and scientists also present a picture of Robotworld that is as troubling as dinner out with Godzilla -- Stephen Hawking is just one who fears for humanity -- where are the voices of reassurance? Save for in some of the cheery labs at Google.

Is it the fear of the unknown that bothers us? Or is it the fear of what we already see?