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Bill Gates speaks on farewell tour

Bill Gates wrapped up his farewell tour on Thursday in Rangos Ballroom, speaking about big changes in the future of software and his new role as a world leader in philanthropy. Gates, who is taking a part-time post at Microsoft to devote himself full-time to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, spoke on the ways in which users will interact with software, paying particular attention to software’s role in the developing world.

Earlier in the day, Gates had the opportunity to speak to faculty and students in computer science about the direction in which software is headed and who will have access to technological advances.
“[We discussed] how we do a better job of using computer science to reach out of people around the world so they get the benefit of the very rapid innovation,” Gates said. “People are underestimating the impact of software and the ways that it can improve a wide range of things.”

Evolving software

Gates spoke about new technologies that have the potential to change the way people access information through emerging touch, pen-stroke, and visual interfaces.

In the next few years, Gates said, screen technology will be cheap enough that users will be able to interact with information projected on walls and tables in the home, office, and educational settings. He is also optimistic about tablet PCs, which make use of touch and pen technology. The impact on education could be enormous.

“All of the reading and note-taking activity will move to the digital realm,” Gates said, adding that print-based encyclopedias, like his friend Warren Buffett’s World Book, have been made obsolete by digital rivals and “all textbooks will clearly go that way.”

In a press conference after the event, Gates indicated that he still reads from many print sources, though their days may be numbered as Microsoft and other companies work with experts in display technology.

“We don’t have this nice thin tablet yet,” he said. “As soon as we have that, I won’t do much paper-based [reading].”

Online learning

Gates also sees great things in the future of online learning. Himself a consumer of online coursework, Gates hopes that university curriculum can be augmented through online access to lecturers and better accreditation or through testing that measures the effectiveness of different teaching models.

Of course, when Gates runs into trouble with his online solid state physics coursework, he can call genius physicists, but he believes there is strong potential to digitize learning at the college level, not just for top tier institutions like Carnegie Mellon, but also for community colleges and high schools.
“Take the intro biology course [for example]. Should they take Nowicki, who is a brilliant biology lecturer at Duke, and just have his lectures play and then the people they hire are good at the discussion group, not trying to do what he does? I think there will be a change there,” Gates said.

The developing world

Gates devoted much of his time to discussing how the world’s poor will experience these technological advances. Dividing the world into thirds based on income, he argued that software has the ability to dramatically improve the lives of the poorest third, about 2 billion people, though work in behalf of this group is often unprofitable for the companies behind it.

“The market directs itself to solve problems based on economic signals,” Gates said, “and the top 2 billion [people in the world] can send very strong economic signals.”

Through the Gates Foundation, Gates plans to commit himself to promoting the application of technology to problems of education, development, and public health among the world’s poorest inhabitants.

“I left the university without any awareness of the conditions of the poorest 2 billion,” Gates said. “I didn’t really understand the trap that exists and the nature of those problems.”

Gates encouraged students to be aware of both problems and successes in the lowest 2 billion, using worldwide eradication of malaria as one such example of the success that future generations of computer scientists can help facilitate. Embedding these examples in the curriculum may require further dedication to hands-on learning.

“What you really want to do is take a few problems and have the student go in depth and have them understand that one problem,” Gates later said in a press conference after the lecture. “Designing a curriculum that can have that broad exposure is not an easy thing.”

Carnegie Mellon and Microsoft

Both the lecture in Rangos and the simulcast in McConomy were filled to capacity with students, staff, and faculty eager to hear the software legend. Tickets to the lecture were in such high demand that some students started camping out in the UC on Wednesday night.

Carnegie Mellon was the last stop on Gates’ tour of five universities, and the school has a numerous ties to both Microsoft and the Gates Foundation. The company has recruited 57 Carnegie Mellon students and funds numerous prizes and research fellowships. Gates personally sponsors 12 Millennium Scholars at Carnegie Mellon and, in 2004, donated $20 million for the Gates Center for Computer Science, currently under construction.

“Carnegie Mellon has made huge contributions to computer science overall, and Microsoft has had a great relationship [with the university],” Gates said. “We get great students. Great collaborative research goes on. Helping the university to do more seems very fitting.”