Bill Gates' first grandchild was born in 2023, so the year will forever be special to him, he says. It was also the year that artificial intelligence went mainstream, spurred by the arrival of ChatGPT. And that got Gates thinking about how the world his granddaughter is coming into will change in a positive way because of AI.
The co-founder of Microsoft and a guiding figure of the PC era across several decades, Gates knows a thing or two about technological revolutions. He sees 2024 as a monumental year for artificial intelligence, with the technology becoming especially important in global health, where Gates and his namesake foundation have been working for decades.
"We now have a better sense of what types of jobs AI will be able to do by itself and which ones it will serve as a copilot for," Gates wrote in a lengthy post on his GatesNote blog this week. "And it's clearer than ever how AI can be used to improve access to education, mental health, and more. It motivates me to make sure this technology helps reduce -- and doesn't contribute to -- the awful inequities we see around the world."
The year of AI
It's been quite a year for AI, and more specifically, generative AI. Gen AI goes a step further than other AI methods. It can create new materials, such as text, images, speech or video, based on its own understanding of the patterns it recognizes in data.
Gen AI became known thanks to the launch of OpenAI's ChatGPT in late 2022, although smart home controls and AI-powered virtual assistants such as Alexa had already made inroads into homes and popular culture.
ChatGPT, the frontrunner in the onslaught of generative AI tools released over the last year, allows anyone with a smartphone or a laptop to use AI for generating information or images. These tools been trained on huge swaths of data that allow it to come up with original responses to our queries -- with varying degrees of success. More than 100 million people use ChatGPT each week, OpenAI chief executive Sam Altman said in November. Microsoft is a significant investor in OpenAI.
Other companies aren't ceding territory to Microsoft. In early December, for instance, Google began updating its Bard AI chatbot with a new AI model called Gemini that provides improved text-based chat abilities. Tech companies are continuing to add Gen AI abilities into programs and devices of all kinds, from search engines to smart phones.
In 2023, investors poured nearly $10 billion into gen AI startups, more than double the $4.4 billion invested the year before, according to GlobalData.
But even as Gen AI explodes in popularity, many users are still cautious. In addition to concerns that AI could replace human employees, many worry about it putting forth inaccurate information. Dictionary.com selected the AI term "hallucinate," describing what happens when AI produces false information, as its word of the year.
Gates thinks mainstream integration of AI is coming soon.
"If I had to make a prediction, in high-income countries like the United States, I would guess that we are 18-24 months away from significant levels of AI use by the general population," he wrote.
But he also sees 2024 as a turning point.
What Gates sees on the AI road ahead
Since stepping down as Microsoft CEO in 2000, Gates has focused on philanthropy, founding the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with his now-former wife. It's in areas related to his foundation's work in global health where Gates sees AI becoming helpful in 2024.
Fighting antibiotic resistance: He cites an AI-powered tool under development at the Aurum Institute in Ghana that helps health workers prescribe antibiotics without contributing to antimicrobial resistance, where pathogens learn how to get past antibiotic defenses. The tool can comb through all the available information about antimicrobial resistance and suggest the best drug plan for a patient.
High-risk pregnancy help: A woman dies in childbirth every two minutes, Gates says. He's hopeful that AI can combat this horrifying statistic. AI-powered ultrasounds can help identify pregnancy risks, and the Gates foundation is working to fund that process. Also, AI researchers at ARMMAN, an India-based nonprofit organization, are working on a large language model – the technology that underlies ChatGPT and other AI chatbots – that can help health workers treating high-risk pregnancies.
HIV risk assessment: Many people aren't comfortable talking to a doctor about their sexual history, but that can be vital for assessing risk for diseases like HIV. Gates is excited about a South African chatbot called Your Choice, being developed by Sophie Pascoe of Wits Health Consortium. The chatbot acts as a nonjudgmental counselor that can provide round-the-clock advice, especially for vulnerable populations.
Quick access to medical records: While people in rich countries may have their medical records easily available, in other countries, many people don't have a documented medical history, Gates says. This can hinder their medical treatment because their doctors need to know about allergies, past health issues and more. A Pakistani team is working on a voice-enabled mobile app that could make this easier, asking a series of questions and filling out a patient's medical record with the answers.
Beyond global health advances
Gates also sees AI assisting in education, calling AI education tools "mindblowing," as they are tailored to individual learners, and says they will "only get better." He's excited about how the technology can be localized to students in many different countries and cultural contexts.
Not everything on Gates' mind is AI-related. He's concerned about climate change, saying he's "blown away by the passion from young climate activists," and hopeful that 2024 will see more investment in innovations that will help those who are most affected by the climate crisis.
And he even plunges into the debate over nuclear energy. Gates notes that high-profile disasters such as Chernobyl in the 1980s and Three Mile Island in the late 1970s have spotlighted the risks, but over the past year, he's seen a shift towards acceptance. He sees the once-bogeyman of the energy world as necessary to meet the world's growing need for energy while eliminating carbon emissions.
From skeptic to enthusiast
A New York Times in early December noted that Gates was "long skeptical" of what AI could do. That changed in August 2022, when he saw a demonstration of OpenAI's GPT-4, the large language model underlying ChatGPT. That sold Gates on the concept, and he helped Microsoft "move aggressively to capitalize on generative AI."
Although Gates left Microsoft's's board in 2020, he's still an adviser to its CEO Satya Nadella. Microsoft has plunged full-bore into the AI world, The company invested heavily in OpenAI, the creator of ChatGPT, earlier this year. And it's been adding the technology across its online services, including its Bing search engine.
The company also reimagined Windows 11 with the addition of Microsoft Copilot, which puts AI assistance always available on the Windows 11 desktop taskbar. Microsoft vice president Yusuf Mehdi calls it the most significant update to the operating system so far, and it works across multiple apps and mobile phones.
Even Gates struggles to adapt
Gates' year-end letter compares the rise of AI to that of the internet, email and search engines, noting that it wasn't long ago when many people were unfamiliar with these things, and now they are part of our daily lives. Gates sees the same kind of sea change coming with AI.
But he admits that it won't be smooth, giving an example from his own life.
"I thought I would use AI tools for the foundation's strategy reviews this year, which require reading hundreds of pages of briefing materials that an AI could accurately summarize for me," Gates says.
But that didn't happen.
"Old habits are hard to break, and I ended up preparing for [the reviews] the same way I always do," he writes.
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