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Updated 3:00 PM October 12, 2005




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Goff Smith Lecture

Gates encourages students to enter 'amazing' field

The impact of the field of computer science on the world can be seen in people’s everyday experiences, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Engineer Bill Gates told a capacity crowd at Rackham Auditorium Oct. 12.

“Think of all the cool things that you have used and experienced during the past 10 years—computer science probably created every one of them,” Gates said. “This is an amazing field that is revolutionizing the world more than any other.”

Dressed in a characteristic green sweater and dark slacks, Gates took the stage to tell a packed house about his company’s latest innovations and the exciting opportunities that await students in the field of computer science.

Flanked by two large video screens, Gates fiddled with several remote controls, played a short film featuring himself with popular “Napoleon Dynamite” star John Heder, and showed that his driving skills in the latest racing video game need a lot of practice. After previewing the latest and greatest cell phones, Gates said it all is possible because of computer science—a field he dropped out of college for and took by storm.

Gates was on campus to receive the Goff Smith Prize from the College of Engineering (CoE) and deliver the annual Goff Smith Lecture. His talk to U-M students, faculty and staff, as well as a contingent of high-achieving high school juniors and seniors invited by the University, kicked off a three-day university tour of some of the nation’s best science and engineering departments.

In his talk, “The Impact and Opportunity of Technology: Why Computer Science? Why Now?” Gates showed off cutting-edge technology, discussed his vision for the future and briefly answered questions from the audience. He was to give a similar presentation later in the day at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

There are 1 billion computers in use in the world today and a population of 6 billion people, Gates said. A ratio that makes computers available to only one-sixth of the world’s population will change, he predicted, and there will be a demand for the best thinkers and problem-solvers to join the computer science field.

Computer science is entering its golden age, he said. “There are a lot of research problems that need to be solved and it requires getting the best people to come in and work on these problems.”

Gates said the frontiers of computer science are fantastic, especially in the areas of translation software and what he called the Holy Grail of computer programming—speech recognition. Both will be mainstream in the next few years, he said.

Gates provided a demonstration of the new Microsoft X-Box 360 that will do more than just play video games. Among other functions, it will play music when attached to an MP3 or similar player.

“It can be connected to an iPod, if you are curious about that,” joked Gates, in reference to the popular music storage and playback device developed by Microsoft’s chief competitor, Apple Computer.

He said Microsoft is working on a writing tablet that someday might make paper textbooks obsolete, and predicted that high-definition TV and video will be everywhere in the coming years. The key to all of the new technology will be software.

“Software will be a service that you connect to, not just buy,” he said. “The way people get in touch with you from your phone numbers to multiple e-mail addresses will change. You will take for granted that you have information available in this way.”

Microsoft hires approximately 30 people from U-M every year, Gates said, and he hopes the strong relationship will continue. He encouraged students to find an area they enjoy and also to experience many things.

“I think computer science is the most fun field to be in; and this is the most interesting time to be in it,” Gates said. “I will be interested to see what you do to bring this field to a new level.”

The Goff Smith Prize and Lecture is the highest external honor bestowed by CoE, given for outstanding achievement in science and engineering. The award was established by alumnus Goff Smith, who retired as chairman and CEO of Amsted Industries in 1982.

CoE Interim Dean Ronald Gibala presented Gates with the Goff Smith Prize and told the audience that Gates had donated the $10,000 honorarium to students who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina and are attending U-M.

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