Bill Gates Looks Back on “The Road Ahead”

Posted on November 24, 2020 by Paul Thurrott in Microsoft with 16 Comments

25 years ago today, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates published his first book, The Road Ahead. Today, he takes a look back at what he got right … and wrong.

“These days, it’s easy to forget just how much the Internet has transformed society,” Mr. Gates writes. “When The Road Ahead came out, people were still navigating with paper maps. They listened to music on CDs. Photos were developed in labs. If you needed a gift idea, you asked a friend (in person or over the phone). Today you can do every one of these things much more easily—and in most cases at a much lower cost too—using digital tools.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Gates saw most of that coming: The book includes an entire chapter about video on demand, for example. (Plus one about “pocket computers.”) But Gates didn’t get everything right.

“One thing I was probably too optimistic about is the rise of digital agents,” he says. “It is true that we have Cortana, Siri, and Alexa, but working with them is still far from the rich experience I had in mind in 1995. They don’t yet ‘learn about your requirements and preferences in much the way that a human assistant does,’ as I wrote at the time. We’re just at the beginning of what agents will eventually be capable of.”

Also interesting are the predictions that Gates made that still haven’t come true. He said that that the Internet would “affect the structure of our cities,” but that has not happened, and if anything, cities have become more out of reach, financially, for more people. That said, the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a decline in commuting, which makes it more attractive to live further from the office. This could reduce the cost of living in cities, he says.

Gates has a new book coming out next year called How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, which he says is similar to The Road Ahead in that both about how technology and innovation can help solve important problems. But climate change is a much bigger topic, of course.

“As passionate as I am about software, the effort to avoid a climate disaster has a whole other level of urgency,” he writes. “Failing to get this right will have bad consequences for humanity. But you can also see the glass as half full. There are huge opportunities to solve this problem, eliminate our greenhouse gas emissions, and create new industries that make clean energy available and affordable for everyone—including people in the world’s poorest countries.”

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Comments (16)

16 responses to “Bill Gates Looks Back on “The Road Ahead””

  1. behindmyscreen

    On the cities.... We are in the midst of a change there. The pandemic has accelerated movements to fully remote work for jobs that can be done remotely. People that lived in cities for these jobs are now moving out of cities or planning to move out of cities. This are going to be changing significantly.

    • JerryH

      In reply to behindmyscreen:

      It will indeed be interesting to watch how this unfolds. We are already seeing "countering forces" come into play - for instance stories about cities that were formerly known as "bedroom communities" (as most everyone but service workers commuted to other places) salivating at the potential to tax home based workers. And of course the companies themselves trying to figure out how to handle remuneration. This was fairly simple when people had to come in - you paid a premium for certain areas since it cost more to live there and paid less in other areas. They will struggle with how to appropriately handle this when their employees are spread all over.

    • nine54

      In reply to behindmyscreen:

      The pandemic will cause folks to re-examine what they're willing to tolerate in return for the "allure" of big-city life. We all know that when we travel to crowded areas and take planes, subways, and other public or commercial transportation, there's a chance we'll catch a cold or maybe the flu. But, it's been a risk we're willing to take for the hustle and bustle of the big city. But now? Even if we're willing to take that risk regardless of covid, there is no reward with these lockdowns. Instead, the tiny apartment that made sense when you barely were home now feels like a prison--probably an expensive one at that.

  2. murray judy

    Somewhat off-topic, but I know several people that truly believe that Gates has funded a chip that will be embedded in us with the Covid vaccine. What ever happened to critical thinking?

    • Paul Thurrott

      You may want to "unknow" anyone that dumb. It freaks me out how stupid people can be in the face of facts.
    • illuminated

      In reply to murray judy:

      Why do you expect critical thinking from people with mental problems? Sorry to hear that you know several. That must be truly depressing environment.

    • tboggs13

      In reply to murray judy:

      Social media and the internet happened. It is the great equalizer and unfortunately, that includes fact and fantasy. Truth and disinformation. It is the echo chamber effect, surely if enough people believe it, it must be true. And it's not just the US, you see people tearing down 5g towers in other countries and anti-mask / quarantine protests.

      All of us believe some falsehoods that are contrary to the current scientific consensus. Sometimes it's because our knowledge is out of date, sometimes it is because of religious beliefs, sometimes due to anecdotal personal experience, but we all have blind spots. Some of it is due to the deluge of information and media's making a big deal out of new discoveries prematurely before they are properly peer reviewed. This gets into the mainstream, but no one ever bothers to find out the study was flawed. Some believe conspiracy theories because governments and businesses have done their fair share of nefarious deeds that it makes it easy to believe the worst.

      The thing that disturbs more than any of that is the lack of empathy from the people that think they are smarter than everyone else, calling people "dumb" or that they have "mental problems". As with anything involving humans, it's more complex than that. You are very unlikely to educate people by insulting them. In fact, you are more likely to drive them further down their rabbit holes. There are studies on this effect and if your intent is to make the world a better place you might to look into the best way to help people get out of the conspiracy trap.

      Insults are what I expect from followers of certain orange complexioned leaders, not educated people with any sense of empathy.

  3. scottib62

    Ya just can't fix stupid.

  4. reefer

    He is a visionary, to bad he didnt grow that culture of visdom in to the products when he was CEO and then chief software architect with Microsoft.

  5. bbold

    I think Gates is a much better philanthropist than he was leader of the world's #1 company. The amount of businesses that Microsoft gobbled up and incorporated, all in the name of success and power, left the company open to Anti-trust and many other regulations. This handicapped the company from strengthening it moving into the phone industry, or taking it seriously early enough to make a difference in the long term. I wonder if Gates and co had focused on those areas (and Ballmer) how much the company would be worth these days? Probably twice as much. However, moving forward, I feel that Gates is a great philanthropist and I think he is doing some great work with his Foundation. However, is it enough to untarnish his image? Probably not, but I welcome he and his wife's efforts anyhow. Any help for this planet it GREAT in my book, no matter the source.

  6. Craig Smith

    In reply to proftheory:

    It didn't really get out of the ground naturally, though, did it? And then burned in power stations and cars and planes, etc. If things were happening naturally, the carbon would still be in the ground.

  7. ramblingverser

    I thought this was a cool book when it came out. I worked at a bookstore back then and managed to snag our store copy. It had a an interactive CD-ROM and actually excited me about where things could head. This was back in a time when we were just moving away from microfiche, so it was a great look ahead...:).

    While we’ve taken some different turns with technology as Paul points out, I appreciate the work for the nostalgia and the push for possibilities.

    While it may not be Bill Gate’s time to run a technology company now, I do agree that he was the right person when he was there. I also appreciate that he continues to do something with his success rather than just sitting back.

    I know my post is more out of a positive point in my past, but thank you for the space to reminisce.

  8. mattbg

    In reply to proftheory:

    True, obviously, but if we are ignoring the pace at which natural processes occur then fossil fuels are technically a renewable resource.

  9. behindmyscreen

    In reply to proftheory:

    Athroprogentic warming isn’t natural, it’s driven by our burning of fossil fuels.