Bill Gates gave the keynote at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit and took the opportunity to reflect on what can be achieved in the Golden Age of Computing by the magic of software.
Bill Gates' theme was
“Innovation and Opportunity—the Contribution of Computing to Improving Our World"
and in his opening remarks he looked back at the time when he and his early collaborators at Microsoft dreamed of a time when there would be infinite computing power coupled with infinite storage - the situation he feels has been almost achieved today in our current "Golden Age of Computing".
However. he pointed out that despite its "magic":
software has only achieved a small portion of what we want it to do ... what we need it to do
going on to refer to climate modelling, energy innovation and solving broad science problems.
Gates devoted the remainder of his opening remarks to describing four aspects of the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that are using a software or digital-oriented approach.
Firstly he talked about education - referring not only to the current upsurge of MOOCs but also to the fact that the USA has the highest drop out rate in higher education in any rich country.
He went on to health and disease modelling, an area in which the foundation, with the help of powerful servers that track the spread of malaria and polio, has helped save about 10 million lives that wouldn't otherwise have been saved.
Agriculture and the Foundation's success with crop genetics including developing a strain of rice that can survive being submerged was the third area.
Finally he talked about financial initiatives to aid progress in the developing world including a digital currency in Kenya that is boosting the economy.
He concluded this section of the session by telling the audience of more than 400 academic researchers from 200 institutions and 29 countries:
Progress for the 2 billion most in need is really dependent on the rich computer science and software-driven advances you work on, The opportunities are quite phenomenal, particularly as commercial companies like Microsoft work with you to take your great work and put it into products that can help millions of people.
In the rest of the session, which can be seen in its entirety here, he answered wide ranging questions from the audience, one of which gave him an opportunity to reminisce about Microsoft Bob, the digital assistant in Windows 95 who tried to assist users with hints and suggestions.
Asked how computing will help the average user and not just the "uber geeks" Gates discussed the promise of personal agents that help us perform daily tasks, saying that he believes the Microsoft Bob-style user interface will make a comeback and that:
“We were just ahead of our time, like we were with most of our mistakes.”