The Quantum Pontiff

Bill Gates, in his transition from Mr. Big at Microsoft, to Mr. Big at the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, has been going around to various college campuses and given a talk “Bill Unplugged.” You can watch the video here if you are so inclined.

Notes from the talk.

First of all no one asked the question I wanted him to answer: how is he going to commute to work. You see Gates’ house is on the “east side” which is separated from Seattle by floating bridges (I kid you not.) The commute across these bridges, is, well, lets just say, not the most pleasant experience. The new offices for the Gates Foundation will be near where I live, just north of downtown Seattle, in lower Queen Anne. So the obvious question to ask Bill is how is he going to commute? Is he going to take a helicopter? A boat is certainly doable, since his house is on Lake Washington and Lake Union extends right down to where his new offices are. Or, maybe he will build us all a new bridge? He’s certainly the only one around here who can afford it. Actually this is a rather serious question: what is a corporations responsibility to the load it imposes on local transportation.

Quantum computing also appeared in the talk. He mentioned it as one of the high risk endeavors undertaken by Microsoft. High risk, but then again, they have a Fields Medalist working on the problem, so all should be fine (see this article in Nature for an update on anyon based quantum computers. I still think models with particle excitations are doomed to fail, but I also think they are a much more rational mode for attacking the problem than the traditional quantum computing road map. Call me a heretic!)

The other way quantum computing came up in the talk was that a certain graduate student who may or may not have written a few papers in quantum computing, asked Bill a very good question about, if computers are everywhere, what will the environmental cost of this be on, and is it too steep. The question was a good one, and certainly you could tell that Gates took it seriously and new he didn’t have all the right answers, in the sense that I think no one has all the right answers. Interestingly I wonder if the fact that he is a “software guy” influences thinking less about environmental impacts. For example, correct me if I’m wrong, but my recollection is that the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation gives more to environmental causes than the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Is this because Moore is from hardware, and Gates from software?

The best line delivered during the talk came as a result of a question. A student asked, roughly, what was it that convinced him, after a few years at Harvard, to drop out and pursue Microsoft with Paul Allen. The president of UW was the moderator, and he wanted to make sure that the student wasn’t going to drop out. While he was mediating this, Bill said, kind of under is breath, “Well if you have an idea like Microsoft…” Even a Haaarvard degree isn’t worth as much as founding Microsoft, I guess :) .

Another interesting note was that Gates mentioned that he wanted to work on fusion, but was glad he didn’t because its still “fifty years away.”

Finally he also mentioned that he thought that vision would be a huge player in interfaces in the coming years. His suggestion was that computational power along with algorithmic breakthroughs are at the sweet spot, and cameras are getting cheap enough, that systems which really know what is going on in their environment are coming soon. An interesting vision, I think, for where human computer interfacing is coming.


  1. #1 mick
    April 26, 2008

    Sounds like an interesting lecture.

    Computers with vision scare me… It’s only a matter of time before the computers learn how stupid we are and then we are totally screwed!

    In all seriousness I did once read something somewhere about certain companies that were exploring software that could monitor the performance of their employees by monitoring them with webcams and logging keystrokes etc. As a serial procrastinator I found this prospect somewhat horrifying.

  2. #2 Stephen
    April 27, 2008

    Why do you think that models based on particle excitations are doomed to fail?

  3. #3 sean
    April 28, 2008

    Can I just say I’m also interested in the answer to Stephen’s question. Is it the usual objection to the planar codes in 2-D? Or something more genral?