Campus & Community

Gates looks into the future

4 min read

Microsoft chairman relaxed in talk as he encourages students

Microsoft Chairman William H. Gates III delivered a relaxed, sometimes humorous talk to about 350 students, faculty, and administrators at Lowell Lecture Hall Thursday evening (Feb. 26), outlining a software future that features smarter,

Gates demo'ing a smart
Gates displays on his wrist – as well as the big screen – one of his latest toys, a watch that is always connected to things like weather forecasts, stock quotes, and instant messaging. (Staff photo Justin Ide/Harvard News Office)

more secure machines and encouraging students to develop computing’s next big idea.

Gates, who dropped out of Harvard in 1975 to found Microsoft, told students that the computer industry needs new energy and fresh minds. He said that despite advances in the past decades and the prominence of the computer in today’s society, people are still underestimating the power of advances on our doorstep.

“What we have today will seem quite limited compared with what we’ll see in five to 10 years,” Gates said. “It’s almost ironic that today people are underestimating computer science more than ever before.”

Through the course of his talk, Gates poked gentle fun at his own history, in one case highlighting what he described as a solvable problem of spam e-mail by showing on a large screen behind him three e-mails he’d received recently: get out of debt, get a college degree, and get legal advice.

Gates identified computer security as the biggest threat to his vision of a wired future, saying that if people don’t think their financial and personal information is secure, they won’t use applications that could otherwise make their lives easier.

He also pointed to artificial intelligence as an area awaiting a big breakthrough. Ironically, he said, fewer people are working in artificial intelligence today than 20 years ago and urged students to enter computer science, which he said needs new energy and ideas.

Gates visited Harvard as part of a five-campus speaking tour, also making stops at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell University, Carnegie Mellon University, and at the University of Illinois.

Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences Dean Venkatesh Narayanamurti introduced Gates, eliciting a laugh from the crowd when he described Gates’ famously shortened stay at Harvard, saying “He spent precisely as much time as he needed to.”

Gates ponders a question from one of the students filling Lowell Lecture Hall.

“You have a unique opportunity tonight to hear from someone who not too long ago was where you are now,” Narayanamurti said.

In his talk, Gates predicted sweeping changes in the impact of computers on ordinary lives over the next few years, as research conducted in the late 1990s moves into the mainstream. Despite the dot-com bust that characterized the time, Gates said a lot of valuable research went on that is just beginning to bear fruit.

He pegged speech recognition and wireless networking as two technologies that will have a big impact in the future. Speech recognition, he said, is still imperfect, but may have a big impact in rapidly modernizing China, where the large number of characters in the language make a keyboard cumbersome.

Wireless technology will continue to expand, he said, and wires between monitors, hard disks, and computers will be replaced by wireless transmissions. He described the home’s personal computer as a device that wirelessly manages all kinds of media, directing music to speakers and video to televisions, all through a home’s wireless network.

The music industry today, he said, may be missing an opportunity by fighting the file sharing that goes on with digital music files. Instead of fighting to protect rights under the old system, they should be embracing new possibilities and taking advantage of technology to get people to listen to more music.

Gates unveiled several new bits of hardware and software, such as a portable media center that would store all kinds of media, including music, movies, television shows, and photos, and a smart watch – which he had on his wrist – that displays information in real time, ranging from the weather to traffic reports to recent stock data.

His speech was sprinkled with reminiscences of his time at Harvard. Though he left without earning his degree, he said he had fond memories of the place. It was at Harvard that Gates wrote his first breakthrough code, a version of the Basic computer language that could be used on an early personal computer, the MITS Altair.

While at Harvard, he lived down the hall from Steve Ballmer, now Microsoft’s chief executive officer. He spoke of his childhood friend and Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, who repeatedly urged him to leave school and found Microsoft before the revolution in personal computing passed them by.