Bill Nye: Worrying about the Robo-pocalypse Is a First-World Problem

Television Host and Science Educator

One of the most popular genres of the day is science fiction. Stargate SG1 ran for 10 seasons, and Star Wars and Star Trek are some of the strongest franchises to ever hit screens. One of the most popular ideas throughout these fictions, ranging from Ex Machina to the Terminator films, is that one-day humanity could engineer a high-functioning machine that could out-think a human and turn its back on humanity to destroy the whole species. That’s why some people unplug their appliances at night – they say it’s for the energy bill, but we see right through that act.

Bill Nye (science educator, author, and executive director of The Planetary Society) has a different opinion. People already use automated trains, elevators, and most planes have some kind of autopilot system. In the more developed countries, that is. In less developed countries, the idea of robots taking over isn’t nearly as scary. Outside of major cities there are no automated trains, or plane trips to Hawaii, or fear of Nutribullets getting revenge in the night.

Bill Nye reminds us that humanity controls electricity, which is what controls animatronics. He believes that if things get haywire we will always be able to pull the plug, and that while the robo-pocalypse is morbidly fun to discuss, perhaps we should be discussing how to get electricity and clean water to everyone across the world, so they too can have the luxury of one day fearing being rammed in the ankles by a spiteful vacuum cleaner. At the end of the day, Nye is totally cool in the face of robotic mayhem, knowing that humanity has been using technology to sort out the more tiresome, boring problems for decades. Technology isn’t bad or evil. It’s only smart.

Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.

  • Transcript


Bill Nye: So when it comes to artificial intelligence it is fabulous science fiction premise to create a machine that will kill you. And I very much enjoyed Ex Machina where the guy builds these big robots and then there’s trouble. There’s trouble. And I can’t help but think about Colossus, the Forbin Project where they have these computers that control the world’s nuclear arsenals. And then things go wrong, you know. Things just go wrong in science fiction sense. But they remind us that if we can build a computer smart enough to figure out that it needs to kill is we can unplug it. There are two billion people on earth who do not have electricity. They are not concerned about the artificial intelligence computer that decides to crash subway cars and kill people. That’s not their issue. And they don’t even have electricity or clean running water. So while we’re worried about artificial intelligence I hope we also take the bigger picture that none of this happens right now without electricity. And so we still don’t have anything but really primitive means of generating electricity. And I look forward to the day when everybody has clean water and a supply of quality electricity.

And then we can take these meetings about the problems of artificial intelligence. However, are there any viewers, listeners here who have not been to an airport where the train that takes you from terminal B to terminal A is automated, is not automated. Everybody’s been on an automated train, okay. In the developed world, especially the United States. Okay, that’s artificial intelligence. Everybody has used a toilet that’s connected to a sewer system whose valves are controlled by software that somebody wrote that is artificial intelligence. So keep in mind that if we unplug the trains or the sewer system valves the thing will stop. We still control electricity so this apocalyptic view of computers that people write software for to do tasks, repetitive tasks or complicated tasks that no one person can sort out for him or herself. That is not new. I do not see that it’s artificial – I mean that it’s inherently bad. Artificial intelligence is not inherently bad. So just use your judgment everybody. Let’s – we can do this. I worked on three channel autopilots almost 40 years ago. The plane lands itself and humans designed the system. It didn’t come from the sky. It’s artificially intelligent. That’s good. We can do this.