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The Ultimate Change Agent

Forget the dotcom bubble, says Bill Gates-rapid progress in computing will drive far deeper changes this decade.
February 27, 2004

It’s a paradox, declared Bill Gates.

The Internet buzz is long gone and enrollment is down at university computer science programs, but according to Gates, “we’re making some phenomenal progress.” In fact, he says, “the impact of computer science advances over the next 10 years is being totally underestimated-the impact on computing, the impact on biology, the impact on how learning is done, and the impact on business productivity.”

The Microsoft co-founder and chief architect traveled to universities across the United States this week, rallying the troops for the next challenges in computer science. Meeting yesterday at Harvard University with a small group of journalists that included Technology Review Editor in Chief Robert Buderi, Gates dropped hints about how Microsoft Research is attacking the challenges and how he expects global technology competition to unfold.

At $6.8 billion a year, “we have the biggest R&D budget of any technology company,” Gates noted. Microsoft Research invests for the long run, with projects typically running three to nine years to commercialization, he said.

One recent success is in machine translation of national languages, which Gates said is showing excellent results in translating Microsoft product documentation from English to Spanish. “We’re saying, Wow, we’re going to use this thing. But nobody knew when it would come along. It’s just serendipitous.”

Gates gave search technology as another example of a long-term challenge. “Search today is very low-level; there’s no natural language understanding being applied to it,” he said. “Search today doesn’t understand location and it doesn’t understand personalization. You ought to be able to type in, Why is the sky blue?’, and get an answer-not just a bunch of people who want to sell you blue paint. That’s one of the great frontiers of computer science.”

Another marathon: The quest for improved user interfaces. It seems intuitively obvious that interfaces enhanced with a three-dimensional appearance could present onscreen material more clearly, Gates said, and Microsoft has worked on this problem for a decade.  “And boy, did we have a lot of prototypes and put them through usability tests. None of them worked.”

While improved search and interfaces would offer an obvious appeal to ordinary computer users right now, other Microsoft research efforts have more esoteric goals. Take the company’s quantum computing group. Most likely, Gates said, this work “won’t result in anything in the next decade–and there’s a reasonable chance that it won’t result in anything at all. Now if it does result in something, it’s mind-blowing, because it’s just a different paradigm for computing.” Quantum computing could tackle certain extremely difficult computational problems, he said. It also might “drive the crypto guys crazy, because we’re only beginning to invent algorithms that would be immune to that type of computing.”
Microsoft is also tackling ambitious projects in biology, astronomy, and other basic research. “Our view,” Gates said, “is that in many of the sciences, the next step forward will come from people that have a computer science understanding and use the tools of computer science to create models about these things in a pretty deep way.” He cited as one example a Microsoft team studying the prospects of creating an AIDS vaccine with research driven by machine learning techniques.

Unsurprisingly, the world’s richest man (with a net worth that Forbes estimated this week at $46.6 billion) took a global view of technology employment-and his words may be of little comfort to the U.S. professionals whose work has been outsourced to Asia. “There’s no activity in the economy that isn’t subject to being done anywhere else in the world,” he said flatly. “Technology is making that more and more feasible. In terms of the quality of products that people buy, and improving the wealth of the world, this is a great thing. In the same way that manufacturing gets done very efficiently, now all these other jobs will be done efficiently.”

Tapping global talent, Microsoft Research has opened up branches around the world.  He pointed with particular pride to the five-year-old research facility in Beijing. “Our China lab is a phenomenon,” Gates said. “When you have a billion people and a reasonable education system, and you’re lucky enough to be the first one with a really serious research lab there, the known geniuses want to come work for you. And there’s an attractor function-geniuses like to work with geniuses.”

Still, Microsoft will keep its most complex work in the U.S. “Some of our growth will happen in China, some will happen in India, but for our core development work, the vast majority will be done here,” Gates emphasized. “Partly because of the great universities here and partly because the U.S. draws in talent from outside the U.S., we think we can do that work here the best way.”

Mindful of the job anxiety felt by today’s computer science students, Gates sought to spin the situation optimistically.  With a computer science degree from a leading university, he said, “you’re going to have massive opportunities. In fact, you’re going to be able to live anywhere in the world you want. You’ll have more opportunity in the U.S., but if you really want to you can go to some island somewhere and work remotely, because that skill is in great, great demand.”

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