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Gates Speaks on Spam, Searching, Jobs

By Waseem S. Daher


William H. Gates III described new innovations in spam filtering, image browsing, and portable media to an audience of over 1,000 MIT students yesterday.

Gates’s speech, given in Kresge Auditorium, is part of a larger three-day speech mini-tour of five colleges across the United States: the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on Tuesday, Carnegie Mellon University and Cornell University on Wednesday, and MIT and Harvard yesterday.

“Software Breakthroughs: Solving the Toughest Problems in Computer Science,” the title of Gates’s speech, was essentially a brief history of the development of software and a prediction of what future software will do for us.

Following the speech, John V. Guttag, the head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, opened the floor up to the audience for questions for Gates.

Portability not limited to music

One of Gates’s key points in his speech was that a major component of the new software revolution will be the increased portability and manageability of video, picture, and audio content.

As evidence of this, Gates showcased a device that Microsoft is scheduled to release this fall, known as a Portable Media Center.

The device, essentially a portable multimedia player, has a “40 gig disk, a beautiful LCD display, and you can just connect this to a PC that’s recording TV shows or has your movies, and it automatically downloads the movies, videos, photos on to this device that you can carry around and use anywhere you want,” Gates said.

Another device showcasing mobile content that Gates demonstrated was the Smart Personal Objects Technology watch. The watch, which has a built-in processor, can receive short text messages, weather, news, and stock information and can send information as well.

“We can download arbitrary programs to this device,” Gates said, which means that new programs for the watch can be loaded as soon as they become available.

The watch represents another trend in software that Gates refers to as “glance-able information.”

Intelligent searching and viewing

Gates also showcased new technologies developed at Microsoft Research, designed to manage images and movies better. The interface attempts to sort the images intelligently, orienting them all the right way and allowing users to view them in a variety of different ways.

For example, a person can pick to see images that contain faces, are indoors versus outdoors, or are similar to other images in the database within varying degrees of strictness.

In a press round table yesterday morning with reporters from The Tech, The Crimson, The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, MIT Technology Review, and the Harvard Business Journal, Gates also discussed intelligent searching in an even broader fashion.

“Search today doesn’t understand locality, it doesn’t understand personalization,” Gates said. “You ought to be able to type in ‘Why is the sky blue?’ and get an answer, not just get a bunch of people who want to sell you blue paint, and that’s one of those great frontiers of computer science,” he said.

‘Desegregated’ computing

Gates also predicted that the way we interact with computers will change dramatically. Tomorrow’s computer will no longer be a device sitting at someone’s desk, but a combination of peripherals working together to create the computing experience.

First of all, as the resolution of liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors improves, they will become more common in the workplace.

“In the future, we can assume a 30-inch LCD,” on the desk of your average office, Gates said. “Three 22-inch displays, which is the configuration I’m using right now, lets me work with information in a more meaningful way,” he said.

Furthermore, new technologies will change the way we work with computers. “As we get things like ultra-wide-band wireless, the idea that you connect the computer to a screen will become obsolete,” Gates said. Instead, as you walk by a monitor, you gain control over it, and it becomes the interface to your computer.

“We’ll see the desegregation of the PC that way. The idea that the computer and the storage have to be associated with each other will be obsolete,” he said.

Smarter computer input

Another integral component of the future of software is more natural human input. “All the natural interface techniques, vision, speech, we’ll come to take those for granted in a very strong way,” Gates said.

Speech recognition will play an even more central role in new software, thanks to advances in the field over the past decade, especially in situations where “the keyboard is relatively less effective,” Gates said.

“We can already beat the fastest typists of Chinese with a Chinese speech recognition system,” he said.

In addition to speech recognition, handwriting recognition --which Gates referred to as ‘Ink’ technology -- is expected to become chic and commonplace.

Smarter code, security, games

Another field of research being developed at Microsoft Research coming into fruition is machine learning. Specifically, researchers are attempting to get machines to diagnose themselves more robustly.

One such example is proving properties of computer code. “Over 25 years ago, this idea of proving program correctness was in vogue,” Gates said, but as code grew larger and larger, it became unreasonable to continue to prove that programs will function as they should.

However, with new machine learning software, computers will be able to prove, or disprove with a counterexample, that code is not altering memory that it is not supposed to, for example. “We want to take everything that the programmer knows, and express those in as high a level as we can,” Gates said.

Gates also foresees machine learning being used to diagnose problems in a system. Machine learning techniques can build a model and then use it to see if things are unusual. Such a model could analyze traffic on a network, for example, to measure whether the current behavior is normal. If it is not, it can block the abnormal components, preserving the system’s integrity and security, said Gates.

Another application for machine learning, in the future, is in gaming. Gaming is “one place we’re using our machine learning technology a lot,” Gates said. Monitoring the actions of players on X-Box Live, the on-line multiplayer network system for Microsoft’s X-Box gaming console, “we can take all the play styles that we’re seeing across the network, and create any sort of level of difficulty or fashion of play,” allowing for a dynamic level of challenge, he said.

Enhanced anti-spam tactics

Gates also discussed tactics that Microsoft was planning to implement to combat spam. “Letting people send billions of pieces of mail very very cheaply devalues the time” of the recipient, Gates said.

To address this problem, mail “needs to be authenticatable. We announce on Tuesday a way to do that,” Gates said.

If mail comes in from what the spam filter thinks is a stranger, some type of proof is required. This proof comes in a variety of forms. One type of proof requires the sender’s computer to perform a computer-intensive computation to verify its identity, Gates said.

The reasoning behind this is that for mail with a few recipients, the computation is not a huge problem, but for mass-mailing it becomes virtually infeasible.

Another type of proof that Gates proposed was that, for each e-mail that is suspected to be spam, the sender must put “a little money at risk.” If the recipient deems that it is spam, he or she at least can elect to keep the risk money that came with the message, thereby making spam a much more financially difficult business strategy to use.

Finally, the third type of proof is just sending a message back to the sender that contains a problem that is difficult for a computer to solve, but easy for a human to solve (such as reading text), to verify that the mail did indeed originate from a human.

Decade of software innovation

Despite the boom in technology-related industries in the late part of last decade, Gates claims that this is the decade of software innovation.

“I think there's this paradox that computer science was very hot between ’98 to 2001,” Gates told the press round table yesterday morning.

Ironically, during those years, “there wasn't that much progress in computer science. If anything, that period revealed some of the things we haven't solved, in terms of scaling, reliability, security, privacy, and making these things pervasive,” he said.

Now, such technologies exist, but “the impact of these computer science advances over the next ten years are being totally underestimated,” he said.

Since both the technologies and the ideas are now present, software will experience a huge boom with significant advances. Now, it is time for “bringing the methodologies of machine learning and modeling and rich data mining into all of the hard sciences,” he said in his speech.

He went on to cite an example of how computer science and the hard sciences, traditionally fairly separated, would converge, thanks to this new technology. Specifically, he referred to a project done by Microsoft Research which linked several repositories of astronomical data together.

This new tool then allows astronomers to search for phenomena and test hypotheses, using the massive collection of data. Astronomy is no longer about “being up at three in the morning with your eye to the lens when a supernova explodes,” Gates said.

High-end CS jobs not threatened

Gates assured the press round table that, despite the fact that many high-tech jobs are being moved overseas, there will still be a market for high-end jobs in computer science in the United States.

“One thing I can say for sure is that the most complex work in computer science is one of the few things I can say that will stay here in the United States, overwhelmingly,” Gates said.

“We're going to be doing the lion's share of our work here in the United States. We do very complex development work, partly because of the great universities here, partly because the U.S. draws in talent from outside the U.S., he said.”

He then went on to assure MIT and Harvard graduates that they would have no trouble finding work in the field of computer science. “Getting a job, from any one of these top universities in computer science, there won't be some lack of job opportunities.”

However, he said that only the higher-end technology jobs would remain in the United States. “If you're just training to be somebody who answers the phone, you might wonder if your job will be in India and China,” Gates said. “Global competition is happening in all job categories.”

Gates: patents reward invention

At the end of Gates’s speech, one student asked Gates what he thought about software patents, in light of the fact that Microsoft lost a $521 million dollar lawsuit against Eolas, a decision which was later upheld on Jan. 14, 2004 in a federal district court, according to The New York Times of Feb. 2.

Eolas’s patent covers automatically executing plug-ins in a web browser, something that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser, and most others, does.

The Tech also asked Gates whether or not he felt that patents were an effective way to reward software innovation, earlier that morning.

Gates, despite the lawsuit, was still optimistic about the patent system. “The patent system is not perfect, but it’s a system that has worked amazingly well,” Gates said after the speech.

Gates went into more detail with The Tech, saying that patents were necessary to encourage people to invent. “There’s gotta be a system that rewards invention, and the patent system has done a great job over hundreds of years in rewarding invention,” Gates said.

The patent system is one which “people tend to look at isolated cases and say ‘Ok, well what about this case.’ But what they don't really look at is, that’s why people fund research. That’s why all this invention is taking place,” he said.

Gates encourages risk, innovation

Another listener asked Gates if he were currently 19 years old and an MIT student with a brilliant new idea, whether he would continue his education or drop out and create a company, as he did with Microsoft.

“I loved going to school. There were very smart people around to talk to every day, they fed you every day, you didn’t have to go to classes, if you worked a little bit they’d give you this positive reinforcement,” Gates said.

However, “if I were a student today, I’d certainly be looking for some paradigm shift that could make a dramatic change,” he said. “I’d say that anyone who has in mind a deep paradigm shift for an industry, go ahead, take the risk, go away for a couple of years,” he said.

Anti-Microsoft handouts

Before the speech began, some students of unknown affiliation distributed double-sided yellow leaflets to the audience.

One side said, “If yoU eVer WAnt to sEe yOur cOMPutEr vIrUs-freE aGaiN, foLloW tHe inSTRuCtioNs oN thE otHER siDe of THis CarD veRy cArefUlLy.”

The opposite side contained the “URGENT Windows Vulnerability Notification” message sent to MIT students early in the Fall semester, telling people to upgrade their computers to protect against the Blaster worm. This message had the text “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” stamped on it, in all caps and in red.