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Gates Urges Students to Pursue Careers in Math, Science and Technology

Bill Gates
Credit: Jackie O. Pavlik

Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft and one of the world's wealthiest and most generous philanthropists, visited the Columbia campus on Oct. 13 and spoke with President Lee C. Bollinger, computer science faculty and students about the future of computers and software, urging them to set their sights on an industry that will create products that are "even more revolutionary and far faster than anyone anticipates today."

The highlight of Gates' visit was an appearance before some 1,400 students at Roon Arledge auditorium. Bollinger introduced the casually dressed Gates praising his achievements at Microsoft as well as the philanthropic work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses on world health issues.

In a half-hour speech accompanied by rock music, a humorous video spoofing Microsoft recruiting practices with himself in a starring role, and a cache of soon-to-be released products, Gates described his vision of a world where computers interact with nearly every human activity.

He added that industry progress over the past 30 years had produced memory capacity a million times greater than previously, as well as placing personal computers in the hands of over 1 billion people worldwide.

Appealing to students to work in the software field, Gates said that in the near future computers would be within reach of 3–4 billion people—a growth rate that would depend in part on innovative software developments.

"We need young, open-minded people from your generation who will come in and look at this foundation we have built over the past 30 years and take it to a whole new level," Gates said in a speech interrupted by boisterous applause and laughter, especially when the most famous Harvard dropout joked that "dropping out worked for me." He later qualified that statement by explaining he's "on extended leave" from Harvard so he could "always go back if things get bad."

Far from recommending that students follow his path, Gates said that studying computers and math were the way forward if students wanted to have an impact. In his speech, which is part of an annual tour of college campuses that Gates makes to promote computer science and engineering careers—other stops included Princeton, the University of Wisconsin and Howard—he suggested that education was the key to keeping software products in the research and development pipeline. Education, he argued, would help feed the cycle of creating high-capacity, affordable software that is reshaping the industry and influencing how computers are used in everyday life.

Previewing a wireless future world according to Microsoft, Gates demonstrated a display-table device equipped with an infrared camera that recognizes and interacts with a mobile phone. The device would allow a user in, say, an airport, to read and edit computer files, scan the information back to the mobile phone, and then take off on a flight.

Meanwhile, computer screens would shrink to Dick Tracy-sized watches, Gates predicted, and pocket-sized, camera-equipped devices like cell phones would be used for everything from translating signs in a foreign language to instantly uploading a restaurant bill to an expense account.

The music CD format, as we know it, would disappear as instant streaming of information from the Internet to hand-held devices becomes the norm, said Gates, who also demonstrated a new version of his company's Xbox 360 gaming console.

Moving on to the home environment, Gates talked about houses with cameras and microphones and display areas on walls and countertops. "Wherever you are located, information will move between these devices," he said, forecasting a time when "paper-based activity across the board" will be eliminated.

To reach these goals, Gates reiterated his appeal to curious and creative students to get involved in software, an industry that he said "has changed the world."

During the question-and-answer session, Marc Johnson, a Columbia College student and Gates Millennium scholar, asked Gates what he considers his greatest achievement. Besides starting the personal computer revolution, Gates answered, he finds his part-time foundation activities equally rewarding and gratifying. "It's a lot like being on the Microsoft team," Gates said about the foundation. "Not many people are lucky enough to have both these things."

Afterwards, many students described Gates and his speech and presentation as inspiring, and also remarked that he is a good marketer. "He's a smart guy and besides all the billions, he looked quite normal," said Carlos Usandivarus, an M.S. student in computer science, noting that Gates spoke a lot about new Microsoft products that are not yet on the market.

To view, the entire speech in full, go to http://www.microsoft.com/events/executives/billgates.mspx.

Published: Oct 14, 2005
Last modified: Oct 17, 2005

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