Bill Gates and Zvi Galil
Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft and one of the world's most generous philanthropists, visited the Columbia campus on Oct. 13 and spoke with 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 in Roone 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's recruiting practices with himself in a starring role, and a cache of soon-to-be released products, Gates outlined his vision of a world where computers interact with nearly every human activity.
He explained 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 the statement by explaining that 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 students should study computers and math if they wanted to have an impact on society's future. In his speech, which is part of his annual tour of college campuses 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 and then scan the information back to the mobile phone before hopping on a plane.
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.
During the question-and-answer session, Marc Johnson, a Columbia College student and Gates Millennium scholar, asked Gates what he considers his greatest achievement. Gates answered that he finds his part-time foundation activities as gratifying as the role he has played in leading the personal computer revolution. "Not many people are lucky enough to have both these things," he said.
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.
Zvi Galil, dean of the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, one of the event's hosts, said it was a tribute to Columbia's computer science faculty and students that the University was included on Gates' itinerary. "Columbians are already leading the drive to extend computer technology into almost every academic discipline,"