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Originally published Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM


UW helped nurture computing ideas, Gates says

As teenagers, Paul Allen and Bill Gates wandered the University of Washington campus, trying to pilfer free computer time. They let their minds...

Seattle Times technology reporter

As teenagers, Paul Allen and Bill Gates wandered the University of Washington campus, trying to pilfer free computer time. They let their minds wander to a future when computing power would essentially be free.

Gates, in the final stop of his last university-speaking circuit as a full-time Microsoft employee, told students and faculty at the UW on Friday about what they imagined then and how much of what they dreamed of is becoming reality.

While much remains to be done, Gates said, exponential improvements at the microchip level have made possible speech recognition, computer vision and natural user interfaces, such as the iPhone and Nintendo Wii, and Microsoft's Surface tabletop computer.

"We actually think it's time to amend our slogan of a computer on every desk, because with this kind of technology, we want to put a computer in every desk," Gates said. "We want the desktop or tabletop, we want the white board to be something that's completely intelligent. ... You can create a very pervasive sense of computing."

Gates, on a five university speaking tour he has made regularly during his Microsoft career, sought to inspire students to enter the field. The Microsoft chairman and co-founder, transitioning later this year to full-time work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, wove together the chapter he's finishing and the one he's starting.

A common thread is the UW itself. Gates acknowledged the important relationship he, Microsoft and the foundation have with the university.

It starts with his parents, who met there as students, he said.

He took an algebra class there, but the main benefit was finding time to practice his skills on unused mainframe and minicomputers around the campus — before the PC era he helped create.

"The best one was one that was in the physics building," Gates recalled. "They ran particle analysis runs most of the day, but they always had three or four hours at the end, just in case things ran long. We'd go up there as soon as it was done. ... We started stealing computer time and now I'm giving it back."

He said the UW has received more Gates Foundation grants than any other university.

Microsoft, in a typical year, hires about 100 people from the UW, making it the top source of talent for the company, Gates said.

"We want that to be even more," he said.


He also highlighted work at the UW on collaboration software and an innovative photo-viewing technology that became a Microsoft product called Photosynth.

Gates said the next challenge is to take the breakthroughs in software and all the sciences, particularly medicine, and make them available to everyone.

One factor preventing that is "the interests and needs of the richest have the most powerful voice in the marketplace," he said.

Malaria and AIDS research receive substantially less focus than baldness or erectile dysfunction, Gates said.

"The same thing is true specifically in computing," he said.

Personal computing and mobile phones benefit fewer than a third of the world's population, Gates said.

One challenge, which Microsoft has researchers working on, is finding ways for technology to benefit the world's poorest 2 billion people.

"Direct application isn't as important as thinking through what it means for their health activities or agricultural activities or learning activities," he said.

Gates, making a recruiting pitch, perhaps a bit wistfully, suggested the students in the room would take the industry much further than he and Allen imagined.

"I'm very optimistic about software," Gates said. "I can't imagine why software is not the most overcrowded field in the world. What could be more interesting than working on these tough problems and being able to have this kind of impact? ...

"In fact, what I and my generation got to do these last 30 years really pales in comparison to what you'll be able to do in the next 30 years ahead."

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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