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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