Thursday, February 21, 2008

Bill Gates Comes to Austin

Before, I get to the topic at hand, there are a couple of other exciting news items I need to briefly mention. There are rumblings that the Writers' Strike is over. I don't think official press releases, but it sounds like it is effectively over; the details are still unclear. Shows like Heroes, Desperate Housewives, and the Office will be back on within the next couple of months. If I see more details, I'll post them here. Also, Barack Obama has taken Hawaii and Wisconsin, which gives him a 10 state winning streak over Clinton. Early voting started in Texas yesterday, and apparently the caucus is on March 4. Anyway, the debate is tomorrow night and I hope I can make a post on that soon (though I'm going on a retreat Friday evening to Saturday afternoon).

I've been excited for a few weeks now because that's how long I knew that Bill Gates would be coming to UT; I just didn't have the details until last week. I may not like all of Microsoft's products or agree with their tactics, but I still idolize Bill Gates because he pioneered an industry, he is a phenomenal visionary, and he's really a fantastic philanthropist. Say what you will about Microsoft, but Bill Gates is a better man than Steve Jobs probably ever will be. So I felt honored that before my time was up here to have been able to see him in person. Even President Powers and Dean Rankin came (as well as Turing Award winner Dr. Allen Emerson). I believe this was the second stop on his 5 campus tour, and high-profile tech people always seem to overlook Austin so I was really glad that he recognized that some talented people definitely come out of UT Austin. This was semi-technical talk aimed at CS/CE majors so you're not likely to have gotten a whole lot out of it if you didn't care about technology. That having been said, it was also not a Steve Jobs keynote. It wasn't glamorous or flashy, it was pretty frank. He's not the best public speaker, but he's not too shabby at putting his thoughts into words either. He also doesn't say "uh" or "um" or anything like that. Anyway, if you want to see it in it's entirety, it'll be online this Friday.

He was introduced by the winner of his own scholarship, which I thought was kind of neat, and then went right into the popular video from CES of what he'll do when he retires. The CES version is a little different; the joke with Clooney in this one was that Gates wanted to be in Ocean's 14 and Jon Stewart had an additional joke that he had stolen the mic he had on him the last time he was on the Daily Show. There were a couple of other minor changes as well, plus a bloopers reel. The next 10-15 minutes was stuff I already knew about, but it was still nice to hear it from his mouth. He emphasized the trend of processors to multiple cores rather than faster clock speeds and the need for programmers to design with that in mind, as well as how he was gladdened by the research going on at UT in this area. The other topic he talked about that wasn't really anything new was ways for natural input. He had a term for it that had the word "natural" in it that I can't remember, but he mentioned Surface and the Wii and how the keyboard and mouse may never go away but advances still are being made and are important in more intuitive human-computer interaction.

Now the good stuff started (or what I thought was the more interesting stuff). He started talking about linking business with research, and how excited he was 15 years ago to start the Microsoft Research group. He really loves collaboration with universities, not just CS departments. And he actually went into a specific example with neurobiology. Apparently, it takes something like 1 million petabytes (1 PB = 1,000 TB) to model an entire human brain, and it's more manageable for a rat brain (1,000 PB), but they managed to fit a small cube of a rat brain in 1 petabyte. So Bill was just playing around with visualizations of it on the screen and it looked pretty cool. I always knew that computer science had applications in Biology, but I don't think it really set in until Bill Gates shoved it in my face how important and how incredible this sort of interdepartmental collaboration can be.

The next part of his talk was equally engaging: attending to the lowest 2 billion people of the world. As he rightfully claims, spreading technology to the world is regarded as only diffusion to those who can afford it. If you don't have money then your vote in what happens in the world simply doesn't count, and he recognizes this imbalance. This is the second time this semester that I've been inspired by people doing this kind of work. He talked about how they took DVD players and TVs to farmers, showed them better ways of doing things and how they're done in other places, and the farmers really took to it. In fact, they were rather competitive about it and wanted to improve further so that they could be on the DVD as well for making some new breakthrough in farming technique. He also talked about how ridiculous it is that there's more research done into baldness than into malaria. That kind of goes more with the not having a vote if you don't have money. If you're poor and dying of malaria, it's alright to the world, but if you're moderately wealthy and have money then it's a really big deal. He recognizes this disparity and his Foundation tries to help alleviate these issues wherever it can, is my understanding.

That was the end of his formal talk, but then there was the ever-painful Q&A. I knew that we'd have some people asking stupid questions, though I was definitely surprised that no one took a jab at Microsoft's antitrust litigation. When one guy said that he had a comment rather than a question I was a little worried, but he just proclaimed China's love for Bill Gates and gave him a present (security was surprisingly laxed, so I'm glad it wasn't a bomb or something equally bad). The guy who gets my award for worst question bragged about helping with the Obama campaign, how he interviewed with Microsoft last month (by the way, that means he got turned down because their interview turnaround time is real tight), and how he's applying for a job at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and was wanting interview advice and a recommendation (what a cute joke). His answer to this question was actually good though: the foundation apparently focuses on 3 areas - infectious diseases, propagating technology to those who can't afford it, and spreading knowledge. People that die every day because those who can make a difference don't care to or can't afford to is a big deal, and so that's a big deal. There's always this dispute that there's no point in spreading computers to villages who can barely feed themselves, but I disagree with that because technology can help these societies function better and lead to a better quality of life. That goes hand-in-hand with learning though. The overarching value of the Foundation is that every human life should be treated equally, and I like that. It's simple and to the point. The girl after him actually asked the best question (about the issue of women in CS) and started out by saying, "I felt really bad that I didn't bring a gift, but that last guy just made me feel a lot better." I wish I could've shook her hand. Anyway, his response to that was pretty standard: it's a huge issue, and the attrition rate among women for science (and, more significantly, for CS) grows with age. Maybe the problem is that men aren't encouraging women enough, or maybe the field just seems more intimidating because it's male-dominated. Whatever the case, he's definitely behind diversity.

There was actually another markedly ridiculous question: someone has the gall to ask how far Microsoft was willing to go to acquire Yahoo and how much money Bill thought that they were worth. That deserves a slap to the face, in my opinion. What an insult. Does this guy hold stock in the company or something? How's it any of his business. Bill took time out of his busy schedule to talk about what's going on in technology right now at our little corner of the US and what he feel really matters in the world right now, outside of just Microsoft's little microcosm, and this guy asks a question that Bill obviously can't answer. As I've said before, I believe that they'd be willing to go as far as a hostile takeover, but I hope Yahoo wouldn't be so naive and just take the generous buyout offer. Amazingly enough, Bill had an interesting answer: search engine ads are the one form of advertising where you have to pay without getting anything in return, really. Each one of us contributes $80 a year (on average) in revenues to Google and get nothing in return. Of course, he's kind of overlooking the fact that we get to use their search engine and other free Google services, but I think I see his point. With television the benefit is immediate to advertising: being entertained with engaging or funny or scary stories. Google holds kind of a monopoly and, as a result, doesn't really have to give us anything extra for staring at their ads. Competition is important in this field. I know it's a funny thing to hear from Bill Gates, but competition is important and I wholeheartedly agree that Google cannot stay the uncontested king of search for much longer or else we probably will see a degradation in quality from them. He wrapped up the answer by saying that Yahoo has smart people and Microsoft is giving them time to look at the offer and evaluate what they want to do. Very diplomatic, but he shouldn't have had to answer the question at all, in my opinion, so I'd say he did pretty well. I wonder if this is some precursor to how MSN plans to compete with Google search? Is there something big they have planned for consumers to reward them to searching with MSN? It's cool to think that maybe there is, but it'd be presumptuous of me to suggest that some master plan lies in a simple answer to a dumb question. I guess we'll see what happens though.

All in all, it was an interesting talk. Or maybe you found this post boring and are glad you didn't see it or catch the live webcast. I definitely drew on some inspiration from it and I honestly felt like Bill was pretty down-to-earth. My friend disagrees with me, but I just didn't see a facade about him. He's the same geek I read about when I was 11 years old and dreamed of monumental success like that. He'll probably always be that same guy in my mind though unless he does something really drastic. When you consider him in the context of Microsoft, you should realize that all corporations do bad things whether you want to believe them or not. Apple and Google do bad things whether or not the press tells you about them or you choose to read about them (e.g. litigation against fans and censorship), so don't hate Bill Gates for the actions of Microsoft. Instead, realize that he did something pretty amazing for this industry and continues to give back to this world and his vision never stops. As old as he is he spoke like he was much younger in terms of his use of modern technological jargon and concise understanding of what was going on in the world (when you see the CEO of Sony speak, you feel embarrassed for him). I think the one thing to take away from this talk is that we have to work together in this world to make progress, and we should never lose hope as long as we continue to do that.

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