Innovation

Steve Wozniak on artificial intelligence, virtual reality and his favorite new tech

Apple's famous co-founder discusses everything from AI and VR to what Steve Jobs was really like and what he expects to see emblazoned on his tombstone.

There was no single moment that everything changed for Steve Wozniak.

Instead, it was years of creativity and work that led to his development of the Apple I and the Apple II computers. "I look back now and wonder how did I think of doing things that no one thought of back then?" Wozniak said, speaking at an Alltech conference.

Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer Inc. and chief scientist at Primary Data, received the Alltech Humanitarian Award at a conference in Lexington, Ky. Watching Wozniak talk is like seeing a brilliant orator at work, as he talks about numerous subjects at a lightning fast speed and gives insightful commentary on each topic before the listener can sometimes even process what has been said on the previous subject.

Despite his whirlwind mind, or perhaps because of it, Wozniak is a fascinating speaker and at the conference, he touched upon everything from AI to VR and many things in between.

On the early days

Wozniak said he knew, inherently, that computers would change the world. "I felt that was great, geeks are going to be more important than anyone. I was driven by those inspirations. I knew my talents. I could design any computer in two days if I knew its description. My goal was to design a new computer that never existed before we used the word revolution."

"I wanted to be a part of it. I gave away my design of this computer. I would show it off every two weeks at the club. There was no Steve Jobs around. He didn't know what was happening. I'd pass out my designs for free. I'd tell everyone, 'here's how you can build your own useful computer for $300.' But I believed in it. We have to start with the people who want to make the social change."

He said even the formula for the personal computer was new, since at that time there were no computers with a keyboard and video screen. "I'd built an ugly computer a few years early. But I didn't want to build those ugly ones. I wanted to build a useful one. So I went and did it the right way. I was forced in part because I had no money. When you have no money you think, 'how can I do this affordable.'"

"We were in our young 20's, we were just trying to learn and think well. We had no money. No savings accounts at all. To start this company with a few hundred bucks, I had to sell the most expensive thing I owned which was a Hewlett Packard computer," he said.

"I just wanted people to see my engineering. More than anything else in the world I wanted people to see my engineering and say, 'how did he think of that.'"

Wozniak said it was his need to avoid confrontation that led to the creation of the floppy disk. During the intense days of development in the early days at Apple, he felt inspired.

"I did a number of great products. The disk where you could type run a program. That was an incredible development of mine. Where did it come from? Did it come from smarts? No. We were in a meeting, and Apple was going to be allowed in the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and we were going to bring three marketing guys," he said.

He desperately wanted to go to Vegas, but he said, "I was too shy to raise my hand and say, 'I'm a founder, I'd like to go to Las Vegas. So I raised my hand and I said, 'if we have a floppy disk, nothing like that existed, could we show it at this show in two weeks and Mike Markkula said yes, so I thought, if I can develop a floppy disk that would normally take a year, and I can do it in two weeks, they'll have to take me to Las Vegas with them in two weeks."

On the Lisa and the Macintosh

After the Apple I, II and III, there was the Lisa.

"The Lisa computer was the first mouse based computer. It cost $20,000 in today's dollars. But that's because Steve Jobs didn't know how to build a computer, he didn't know how much it would cost," Wozniak said.

"Then there was the Macintosh. The Macintosh wasn't a computer. It was a program to look like a computer and didn't have an operating system per say but a disk system. The Macintosh was a little lower in cost but it had so many problems. It was a huge failure."

"We'd lose money on these sales calls but we had to get sales on Macintosh going," Wozniak said. "Steve didn't want to put in the work. The company never fired him. He could have been given billions of dollars to do anything he wanted. He could have been inspired to do anything he wanted. John Sculley is the one who worked for three years to make the Macintosh work."

Apple then decided to bet the whole company on the market for inexpensive computers, he said.

"The world market for cheap computers grew ten times. Microsoft got the whole growth because we believed in doing what Steve Jobs had inspired us to do - the mouse based computer."

They were simply ahead of their time. "Five years later we could have shocked the world with it."

"At least Steve did one thing. He said, 'We'll show this computer to Microsoft and tell them you build the computer we'll build the operating system.' But it didn't work that way," Wozniak said to the audience, which laughed with the hindsight that Bill Gates would use the information from Jobs to build a computer that would nearly shut Apple out of the market.

At least Jobs learned from his mistake. "When Steve Jobs came back to Apple, he didn't show the iPhone to Bill Gates."

On social goals

It was his social goal that drove him to create the Apple I. "I didn't think out, 'oh, what would computers be good for.'" Wozniak explained that it was his co-founder, Steve Jobs, who suggested that a computer would allow you to type things into it and then, within an hour, have 100 people reading your message. Acknowledging that was an extremely low headcount of potential people reading a message within an hour, compared to today's numbers, Wozniak laughed and said, "this was the old days. When enough memory to hold one song would cost $1 million. That was a long time ago."

Working with students was one of Wozniak's early goals. "I had two goals in life. One was to be an engineer and the second was to be a 5th grade teacher. I always paid attention in psychology classes to how a human mind develops. I always wanted to be a teacher."

When Wozniak was designing what would become the Apple I, he said he worried that kids would soon surpass him with their intelligence, because they'd be relying on the computer. He said he thought, "all these kids will be smarter than me in a few years and I'll be out of business because smartness was what I had."

In the mid-70's, he wanted to donate the first Apple I to Liza Loop, who was giving students their first glimpse at a computer by rolling a huge computer into classrooms to show students in the North Bay area in California. Wozniak said that Jobs refused to give it to Loop for free, and insisted that Wozniak pay him $300 for it. Wozniak did, and donated the Apple I to Loop. For much of 1976, that Apple I was the only Apple I in the North Bay area.

Teaching was always a love of Wozniak's, so after he left Apple, he spent several years teaching children in grades 5 through 9. He said he thought he could save some children from dropping out of school if he could generate an interest in computer learning.

On virtual reality

As for new tech, Wozniak said one of his favorite new items is the Samsung camera that takes a picture when you say "smile." He also likes to use Apple Pay, even on his Apple Watch. "These are things you'd show off even to friends."

Virtual reality is another area of interest to him. He said he particularly enjoys the Samsung Gear VR. "It takes you to other worlds. It's so real. It's everywhere you look. That one gets me emotional."

"Virtual reality is going to have a big future. It could die like 3D TV. But there will be a lot of games possible and that's enough to make the market work. Today the smartest electronic chips are made for video games."

"When I was a child, the chips that could actually do something, they were only affordable for the government and the military. If there was a little something left over that is what we consumers would get to make our home life better. Now it's reversed, the military has to use the chips designed for video games because the scale makes it cheaper."

Wozniak said he's not privy to what Apple is currently working on, but, "I hope Apple is working on a VR that's advanced compared to the ones we're seeing."

On artificial intelligence

As for artificial intelligence, he said, "if a computer is 100 times better than our brain, will it make the world perfect? Probably not, it will probably end up just like us, fighting."

When asked about Google's big push into AI and the concept of a personal digital assistant for everyone, he said, "I don't think it scares me. It's a thing you can like or not like. Google is a company that makes its money off of knowing you and advertising. No one likes advertising and it becomes the status quo. Everything we develop it's to help us in some way so we can do less mental work."

"What is a person? What are you? You are all the connections in your brain. What if all those things have been mapped out on the web and it remembers better than your own mind does. Are you here, or are you out there more. It's a scary thought. Where is humanity going? It doesn't bother me because it's the new way. You can't stop it. If you try to stop a big steam roller you get squished."

On startups

Wozniak said the advice he would give to young adults today is that it doesn't take money to create something. It takes ideas. "Work on things that have no value and you think are fun. New techniques on your phone are a starting point. If you're a programmer, develop little programs for your phone."

"When you get close to a point where you get an idea that might make money, that someone might want as a startup, you should have three main qualities in a tiny small startup," he said.

First, "you should have somebody who wants a business that's going to be successful and makes sure you take the steps to be successful. This is more a person who wants and believes a product is not successful unless it makes money."

"Second, you need marketing. This might be the most important of all. Marketing is not knowing what people will want and buy, it's wanting it yourself and knowing exactly what's right and what's wrong and what is simplicity and elegance. Steve started that. And it's me building a computer for myself, and the iPhone, Steve wanted every single tiny detail for his own use."

"Third, you need the engineering talent. You need somebody who has the skills and they should be thinking out what your product should be. Get the engineer involved so you an know what you can and can't do. Engineers are solving problems their whole lives. Find a good engineer. Not one with academic credentials, but an engineer who is a maker and who makes actual things."

On social media

Wozniak said he didn't initially think social media would be a big deal. "It's brought us closer to maybe the ideas of democracy but it brings out a lot of negativity because anonymity is a big part of it. It's been good. It's really funny. When I first heard of the social web, I didn't think it would be a big deal. It doesn't apply to someone like me. I have 5,000 Facebook friends and I don't know them."

On his return to college

One thing Wozniak doesn't talk about often is when he went back to Berkeley to finish his degree.

"I had an airplane crash when I was working on a Macintosh group. I came out with a type of amnesia. I didn't know time was passing. It was five weeks later. I called Steve Jobs, I said the Macintosh team is in great shape, I was going back to college to get my degree for one year."

While at Berkeley, he used the name Rocky Raccoon Clark. "I didn't want people to know it was me. I used a fake name. If you're going to make up a name, why use John Smith?"

On Steve Jobs

Wozniak talked about Jobs, giving labels to each part of his career. The first part was Steve Jobs I. "Steve Jobs I was mean and taking control and doing things no human being would do and you'd say, 'how could a human being do it.'"

"When he returned to Apple, that was Steve Jobs II."

Wozniak said, "I knew a Steve Jobs before that. Steve Jobs 0. Five years before Apple. We were out there playing pranks together, we're going to concerts together. The first day I met him I brought him over and showed him Bob Dylan liner notes. He'd never seen those. We had a really good time. We'd go back, even up to his death, to those fun times."

On the end

When asked what he thinks will be on his tombstone, he said, "Steve discovered this cemetery on Foursquare and he decided he had to be there because he became the Foursquare mayor of it."

More seriously, he said, "I do not want to live forever. I've had ten lives. I don't think it's right to deprive the world of one spot for newcomers."

See also:

Wozniak talks: Self-driving cars, Apple Watch, and how AI will benefit humanity

Apple's first employee: The remarkable odyssey of Bill Fernandez

Swarm AI predicts the 2016 Kentucky Derby

wozniak-alltech-2.jpg
Steve Wozniak talks to Alltech founder and president Dr. Pearse Lyons in Lexington, Ky.
Image: Teena Maddox/TechRepublic

About Teena Maddox

Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including Peo...

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