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What Steve Wozniak is missing about our future robot overlords

Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak.
Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak is the latest technology luminary to predict that computers will eventually take over the world and relegate humanity to a subservient role.

"Like people including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have predicted, I agree that the future is scary and very bad for people," Wozniak said in an interview with Australian Financial Review. "If we build these devices to take care of everything for us, eventually they'll think faster than us and they'll get rid of the slow humans to run companies more efficiently."

This argument is superficially plausible: humans are the smartest species on earth, and we also dominate all other species. So if you built machines that are smarter than humans, they'd be able to dominate us just as easily.

But if you think about who has power within human societies, the theory that intelligence leads to power seems more dubious.

If this theory were true, societies would be run by their scientists, philosophers, or chess prodigies. Instead, America — like most societies around the world — has been run by men like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. These men became powerful not because they were unusually bright, but because they were well-connected, charismatic, and knew how to offer the right combination of carrots and sticks to get others to do their bidding.

It's true that brilliant scientists have played an important role in creating powerful technologies such as the atomic bomb. And it's conceivable that a super-intelligent computer would conceive of similar breakthroughs. But building new technologies and putting them into practice usually requires a lot of cash and manpower, which only powerful institutions like governments and large corporations can muster. The scientists who designed the atomic bomb needed Franklin Roosevelt to fund it.

The same point applies to intelligent computers. Any plausible plan for taking over the world would require the cooperation of thousands of people. There's no reason to think a computer would be any more effective at enlisting their assistance for an evil plot than a human scientist would be. Indeed, given that persuasion often depends on longstanding friendships, in-group loyalties, and charisma, a disembodied, friendless computer program would be at a huge disadvantage.

Correction: In the caption I misidentified Steve Wozniak as Apple's CEO rather than its cofounder.