"golden age" of computer science, with software poised to solve the world's problems on an unprecedented scale. Gates also hinted that Microsoft Bob, the cartoonish and widely-panned Windows assistant from 1995, might return, at least in spirit if not in name, as a competitor to Apple's Siri and Google's Google Now.
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."
Elsewhere, writing specifically about Windows 8, he elaborated that the "UI will be deeply personalized, based on the advanced, almost magical, intelligence in our cloud that learns more and more over time about people and the world. Our shell will natively support all of our essential services, and will be great at responding seamlessly to what people ask for, and even anticipating what they need before they ask for it."
On Monday, Gates similarly stated that "infinite computing and infinite storage" are "almost a reality," setting up a cloud-fueled future in which software is "a powerful assistant that can help us get things done, and help us derive deep insights."
Microsoft's investment in this idea is evident in its development of Azure, and its desire to infuse apps with big data and, via Bing, the Internet's collective knowledge. These efforts are currently in incipient stages; Bing APIs, for example, were just introduced a few weeks ago. But critics have questioned Steve Ballmer's leadership, with successes such as Office 365 overshadowed by discontent over Windows 8. As a result, it's noteworthy that the man who built Microsoft's world-beating past sounds so much like the man tasked with architecting the company's future.
Devoted tech observers might point out that Gates and Ballmer aren't the only people who use this sort of rhetoric. In January, for instance, Intel CTO Justin Rattner told InformationWeek that devices will soon "anticipate [our] needs" because they will able to sense and understand a user's relationship to events, other users, locations and time. With this data, he said the devices will be like a "best friend."
In a sense, then, Ballmer and Gates' respective remarks can be viewed as a faith in an objectively disruptive technology, rather than evidence of a winning Microsoft strategy. That said, Gates suggested the company is taking specific steps to realize this futuristic vision.
In a Q&A, the Microsoft co-founder said the original Microsoft Bob failed but that the concept might "re-emerge, just with a deeper sophistication." The remark implies Microsoft could launch some sort of personal assistant, perhaps in the vein of Siri or Google Now, but with Bing and Azure on the backend to provide -- or so Ballmer would argue -- better personalization and more accurate query returns.
In June, a lost Nokia prototype running an early version of the next Windows Phone update contained references to "Cortana," the artificially intelligent character from Halo. Some speculated that this reference telegraphs the release of a personal assistant app. If such a product appears, Windows Phone 8 is a logical place to start. Based on the way Ballmer and Gates talk, though, the technology will eventually pervade the entire Windows ecosystem, translating from device to device via the cloud.
Given that Siri will rely on Bing in iOS 7, Microsoft's technology might even translate across platforms. The iPad still doesn't have a native version of Office, but Ballmer has said that the new Microsoft must bolster Windows while also intermingling with other platforms, so the intended scope of any project remains to be seen.
The even bigger unknown, though, is whether Bing, Windows 8 and Azure will be the assets that tie everything together. Ballmer, Gates and others agree about aspects of the tech industry's trajectory, but it's not a given that Microsoft will execute the right moves to navigate obstacles along the way.