But for all of Gates' future-looking remarks, he also echoed statements made just last week by the man who replaced him as Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer.
Gates' keynote focused chiefly on ways his Gates Foundation is using technology to improve social inequality, and how this process is affecting culture at large. In education, he said online resources such as the Gates-funded Khan Academy have the ability to address education gaps in the United States, where the high percentage of people who attend college is subverted by high drop-out rates and escalating student debt. Gates said online education will change the nature of physical classrooms; the role of professors will have to adapt as lectures become a less relevant source of information than alternatives students find on the Internet, he said.
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But Gates also made clear that the world's problems are complicated, and that strategies must be tailored to specific needs. Online learning is sometimes described as a panacea that could bridge the education gap between first- and third-world countries, for example, but Gates said such a view is quixotic. He noted that the average IQ of children in some impoverished countries is less than that of children in more affluent countries. The disparity, he said, is not because of any genetic discrepancies but because ill children can't develop as well as their healthy counterparts. Online education could help these children, Gates said, but unless the solution concurrently addresses disease and poverty, the impact will be muted.
Beyond philanthropy, Gates, who has remained Microsoft's chairman since stepping down as CEO, also said several things that evoke the "Transforming Our Company" memo Steve Ballmer issued last week when he reorganized the company.
In one section of the document, Ballmer wrote, "Our machine learning infrastructure will understand people's needs and what is available in the world, and will provide information and assistance. We will be great at anticipating needs in people's daily routines and providing insight and assistance when they need it."