Gates: The Golden Age for Computer Science Is Now
For several people, that’s exactly what happened July 15 in the opening keynotes of Microsoft Research’s 14th annual Faculty Summit, and all those topics were addressed—and more.
More than 400 academic researchers from around the world got a rare opportunity to hear Gates, chairman of Microsoft, discuss a wide variety of topics, including all of the above, during a freewheeling session lasting more than an hour, most of which was spent answering questions from the assembled academics. He kept the audience enthralled, fielding the inquiries with thoughtful responses both illuminating and intriguing.
After introductory remarks from Tony Hey, vice president of Microsoft Research Connections, which puts on the event, Eric Rudder, Microsoft executive vice president for Advanced Strategy and Research, took the stage to introduce Gates, who spent about 10 minutes discussing the work the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pursues to assist the world’s poorest people and save lives in developing countries.
But first, he briefly surveyed the current state of the art in computing.
“I think it’s fair to say that we’re in a golden age of computer science,” Gates began. “The original vision of Microsoft was that we had a dream about what software could do if we had infinite computing and infinite storage. That almost is our reality today. It’s amazing to me to see how that’s being applied, whether it’s user interface with vision, speech, pen; with modeling in rich data; areas with machine learning.
“It really seems like that … the progress we’ll make in the next five years, the next 10 years will be really unbelievable.”
He proceeded to discuss how the work his foundation pursues, in the twin interests of education and global issues focused on the poorest in the world, are enhanced by software and digital approaches. These interests are manifested in areas such as disease prevention, agriculture, finance, and sanitation, and in each, Gates said, digital technology plays a critical role.
Then Rick Rashid, Microsoft corporate vice president and head of Microsoft Research for 22 years, joined Gates on stage to moderate a question-and-answer session that lasted nearly an hour. Not surprisingly, given the audience, education was one of the most popular subjects.
One attendee asked about the growing popularity of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and how they will change the nature of teaching.
“Teaching has many different aspects, and one aspect is the big lecture,” Gates said. “There’s definitely a view that that will become less like individual performances like music and more like recorded music, where there’s a set of people who do it extremely well. … Taking that, and raising the quality of it, and making it available for free—that’s clearly going to happen.
“But, of course, if we think of it as the only part that goes on in learning, we’d be missing where kids are doing problems, where they’re in labs, where they’re in study groups, where they’re discussing topics. Many things don’t fit that big-lecture format. How we take digital technology to those other aspects is fascinating to me.”
On the other hand, he added, for MOOCs to succeed, they’ll need to be addressed with care.
“Just sticking a camera in front of somebody who’s got a captive audience, “Gates said, “doesn’t measure up to what’s really going to be necessary in terms of being one of these lectures that contributes on a very broad basis.”
Another attendee asked about intellectual property and how commercial software and open-source software could co-exist. Gates’ response was spirited and playful.
“Thank God for commercial software,” he said. “It funds salaries, gives people jobs—terrible stuff like that. And thank God for free software. Free software lets people get things out there. You can play around, build on. The two work very well in a nice, common ecosystem.”
He then noted that his foundation has saved about 10 million lives to date, with a goal of 50 million more over the next decade.
“We never would have been able to do that except for our partnership with the pharmaceutical companies,” he explained. “So thank God for patent laws that allow them to invest in drugs that they get to sell. And then they get to hire researchers.”
Gates also got a chance to discuss the genesis of his interest in philanthropy.
“I was certainly inspired by the first generation of big philanthropists: Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie,” he said. “They did an amazing job. They funded research, they funded schools, they went around the world and did some good things. It was really surprising about how smart they were about the topics they picked.
“I do think we’re in a second golden age of philanthropy.”
Gates had the audience chuckling again when he was asked about the unintended consequences that could result from some of his foundation’s work, such as the biological effect of killing millions of mosquitoes or of building a digital economy for a poor country that could lead to the centralization of that information.
“Well, I’m always glad there are people around to dampen my enthusiasm,” he quipped. “I have a tendency to overly see the good side of these things.
“If you go out into the developing world, and you see kids dying of malaria, then when you see the malaria vaccine come along, when you see a woman who can send her kids to school because she has better crops, it’s hard to feel too bad about the general arc.”
The morning’s final questioner asked about the continued inability to deploy ultra-large-scale systems, such as for national-scale health information or national electric-power-generation distribution. That gave Gates an opportunity to leave the crowd with a takeaway thought.
“We still have a lot to do,” he said. “I hope some of you can surprise us with faster advances in those areas.”