In a wide-ranging, free-form chat on Tuesday night in San Francisco at the 2018 Fog World Congress, legendary computing figure Steve Wozniak discussed the future of technology and its role in making the world a better place.
Taking the stage alongside the senior director of Cisco’s corporate strategic innovation group, Helder Antunes, Wozniak took the audience through his personal history with technology, from phone hacking in the late 1970s, through his up-and-down relationship with Steve Jobs and Apple, to his current role as a sort of ambassador for the good that technology can do for the world.
Despite the burgeoning hype around newly decentralized computing technologies like edge and fog, Wozniak said that these true paradigm shifts don’t happen overnight – and they don’t happen without a lot of failure along the way.
“Look at all the things the Internet does for us in our lives – all the companies proposing those things in 2000 failed! OK, not all of them, but most of them failed,” he said, and added a quip, “Best time of my life – you could drive anywhere in the Bay Area.”
While cautioning that AI, and machines in general, have been beating human opponents for a long time – dating back to the Industrial Revolution, solving games like checkers and beating out the best humanity has to offer at chess – Wozniak stated that we’ll never really be supplanted by AI in the near future.
“Neural networks can do amazing things, and they can learn things much better than things could in the past, and machine learning is beautiful,” he told the crowd. “[But] the next wave, are we going to get machines that have real thoughts and feelings and care about things and all that, … I don’t think it’s going to happen in my lifetime.”
Machine-to-machine communication – the forerunner of the IoT – has been on Wozniak’s mind for decades, he said. He described a long-ago experiment with crash avoidance technology on airplanes, noting that the most successful technique involved simply letting the airplanes’ computers communicate directly to avoid collisions.
“Of course, it didn’t get implemented, but I think the same thing applied to cars is going to be more successful – these roads were, unfortunately, built by humans, and you can’t change the roads,” he said. “It’d be nice if we had train tracks for cars.”
Wozniak argued for a degree of caution in the deployment of new technologies, however. Saying that the urge to implement the latest and greatest tech is a powerful one, he stated that security often gets treated as an afterthought, something to be added after a technology is already out there.
“The right way to move forward with new technology is one step at a time,” he said. “You take your step forward, other people will take their own step forward, but you have to keep moving forward and making the world a better place for humans.”
- On the subject of mind/machine interfacing: “I don’t really believe in the reading-the-mind stuff. I’m not sure we’re going to get to the point where, as fast as you can think, you can communicate ideas. A lot of people want that, and I can see why they want it … but we don’t really know how the brain actually works.”
- On focus, while working at Hewlett-Packard on designing scientific calculators: “I didn’t have a college degree, but I’d taught myself in high school to design any kind of computer on paper with no knowledge at all from the chips available. So all I would do is design calculators during the daytime, and I was such a geek that I didn’t have girls and parties and drinking and stuff like that at night – I came home, I had a TV dinner, I watched Star Trek, and then I went back to work.”
- On electric cars: “I’m an electrical engineer. Of course, I took some mechanical courses, back when engineering was analog – heavy-duty mathematics and differential calculus and so on, so I love it when the cars all-electric, finally. … seeing cars go electric, in all these companies and all these countries around the world … it’s something I’ve hoped for my whole life.”
Wozniak didn’t comment any further on allegations made against his Woz-U coding classes. CBS News recently published allegations that the company’s US$13,200 flagship product (a 33-week online course) didn’t live up to expectations – everything from pre-recorded, out-of-date lectures instead of the live ones that were advertised, typo-ridden content, and unqualified instructors to deceptive, high-pressure sales tactics were described by former students and staff. A follow-up email to Wozniak’s handlers didn’t receive a response by the time this article was published.