February 22, 2008

Bill Gates talks tech at GSB

[img id="80351" align="alignleft"] In the future that Bill Gates envisions, technology will enable the seamless flow of information between a wide assortment of sources and media, and scientists will be able to make sophisticated calculations that will change our understanding of the universe.

The chairman and co-founder of Microsoft addressed an overflow crowd of over 450 students, faculty, and staff at the GSB’s Harper Center Wednesday, detailing the future of software, his charity work toward improving the lives of the world’s poorest, and the collaborations between his company, foundation, and educational institutions.

“I’m so excited about the role that software can play, and the kind of entrepreneurialism, new thinking, innovation, particularly those of you here who are young and just thinking through your new ideas and how you’re going to change things. It’s a wonderful time to be doing that, and I look forward to seeing the great things you can do,” Gates said.

Gates demonstrated one such technological innovation, a program called HD View that allowed professors at Harvard to create a detailed 3-D model of a mouse brain. The software enabled the researchers to zoom in and out of the digital model quickly and run advanced pattern-finding algorithms to discover new connections between different parts of the organ.

“The goal is quite simple,” Gates said. “It’s to have the domain expert[s] in the brain be able to state their theories, state their ideas about how things work, and try them out against this system without them having to write a single line of code.”

He also reiterated a call for students, educators, governments, and charities to devote time to problems that often go overlooked but dramatically affect many.

“Speaking for myself, I went through the amount of college education I had…and I had no awareness of the conditions that the poorest were living in,” Gates said. “I had no sense of that at all, and it was literally about 15 years later when I heard about a disease called rotavirus that kills half a million children a year, and I said, ‘no, that’s not possible.’”

Still, Gates feels optimistic about the power of technology and human intuition.

“I talk, whether it’s to students or businesses, about some of these ideas of getting the exposure and getting the innovators to think about solutions that apply to these areas; I see a very positive reaction. In fact, if we just took universities and made sure people were exposed as part of their education, if we just took businesses that had the average business do as well as the best are doing today, whether it’s food companies, pharma-companies, cell-phone companies, technology companies, that would make a dramatic difference.”

His presentation also included a humorous, star-studded send-off video—Gates will be stepping down as Microsoft chairman in July to focus on his foundation—and after his address, the one-time-richest man in the world fielded questions from students from across the University. Topics included the rehabilitation of New Orleans, privacy in an increasingly digital world, and creating incentives for drug companies to devote talented researchers to difficult projects.

“I found him quite affable and correct in his assessment of technology’s potential to bridge the [gap between the] poorest and wealthiest members of our society,” said fourth-year Hollie Gilman, who asked Gates about Internet security and the role of government, in an e-mail interview. “He was very knowledgeable about a broad range of issues yet failed to touch on any of the perhaps-nefarious consequences of technology and regulations and their impact on transnational identity.”

Gates’s visit to the University was part of a five-campus tour aimed at promoting the importance of digital innovations and the way they would interact with advanced research. The lecture stemmed from a request by Gates to meet with Ian Foster, director of the Computation Institute and sssociate director of the mathematics and computer science division at Argonne National Laboratory.

“Having leaders from diverse sectors visit and engage in dialogue is important for the University and the GSB,” said Ted Snyder, dean of the GSB. “We were pleased to host this event on behalf of the whole University, and I really enjoyed having students from many parts of the University at the event.”

The speech was somewhat of a coup for the University, which has traditionally shunned celebrity speakers in favor of lesser-known academics and businessmen.

“It really reinforces, in my mind, the value of bringing big speakers like Bill Gates to campus, as it lets students get exposed to the people who are changing the world,” said Scott Duncombe, president of Student Government. “It brings these speakers down to our level, it made Bill Gates seem like just a normal guy—granted, a normal guy with an enormous I.Q., several billion dollars, and a lot of really famous friends. I think the students here do a great job questioning these speakers, and Bill, unlike some other speakers we’ve had, meaningfully engaged on each question.”

Duncombe presented Gates with a Maroons baseball hat on behalf of the student body at the conclusion of the Q&A, and wished him “the best in future endeavors.”

Administrators, for their part, seemed excited about the success of the event.

“The discussion between Bill Gates and our students provided a great exchange about the future of technology and the important role that today’s students will play in the future of innovation and impacting society,” said Bill Michel, assistant vice president for student life.