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MOVING ON: Bill Gates discusses his transition away from Microsoft to the foundation he began with his wife, among other topics, in a chat with Scientific American. Click here to watch a video of the interview. Image: © MICROSOFT
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LAS VEGAS—Just hours before addressing a ballroom packed with thousands of consumer electronics junkies, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates sat down for an interview with Scientific American. The Consumer Electronics Show served as the backdrop, though the truth be told, the event could just as easily have been called "Microsoft World," given that the bulk of the gadgets on display here incorporate, are compatible with or were designed using some Microsoft product from Windows to Microsoft Auto.
Gates has now been the CES keynote speaker a dozen times, cementing his and Microsoft's strong connection to the consumer electronics marketplace. But, come this summer, Gates will step down from his post as Microsoft chairman to work at his and his wife's philanthropic Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses on improving the health and education of the world's very poorest populations. During our chat, Gates discussed developing technologies, such as touch and speech recognition–based interfaces and robotics as well as his transition to working with the developing world.
SciAm: About a year ago, you wrote a story for Scientific American titled "A Robot in Every Home." In that article, you contrasted the robotics industry of today with the PC industry 30 years ago. Do you see robotics exploding just as the PC industry experienced a quick acceleration in development over the past three decades?
Gates: The PC, you can call it quick or not—1975 to 1981 things were actually not so much in the mainstream. It was kit computers in 1975 and then, in 1979, we got a few TSR80s. Apple had come along by then—the Commodore. So, people weren't sure what they would do with the devices. People took our Basic interpreter, which was sort of the first thing that all those machines had in it and wrote a variety of programs. Some of them were just games, goofing around, some of them were more serious things. And that's certainly where we are with robots today.
There's no single application like word processing or buying online or watching video or organizing your photos that everybody says, "Oh, I've got to have a robot." I mean maybe the niche of the Roombas is, a tiny bit, but most of the activity is people trying out things where they themselves get hands on and do some of the programming. Some of it's just fun, kinda contest stuff or a toy that kinda marches around. And there are other people who are saying, "Okay, we can do security surveillance or we can move little packages around in this nice way." And so, it's one of those wonderful periods where many different things are being tried.
You have markets like Japan and Korea that I'd say are particularly intense at trying these things out. The new hardware designs and the energy are probably stronger in Japan and Korea than anywhere else in the world. That's fine. And once they find a solution, then the products will tend to be used on a global basis. For the personal computer, Japan was one of the early founding markets; the U.S. was, as well.
So, you can't predict that it's going to have the same shape that PCs did, but it has a lot of the same character. Take watching video on a PC. That was more than 30 years from when the PC started to when it's kind of been, "Well, obviously, I watch videos on my PC. Why not? It's way better than my TV—I can choose different things, I can organize this stuff in different ways."
So, when does the robot help in health care, so it can move people around and such? That's very hard. When does it really clean up your apartment? It turns out that's really a tough problem. Like many things in software, when we try to match human capabilities, the first decade or so, we gain more respect for the incredible control system, the learning system, [that] the human brain represents. Now, it doesn't mean that we don't ever get there. On things like visual recognition, speech recognition, the progress is very, very concrete. It'll be the same in robotics.