During a visit to Hong Kong, Gates attended a forum on August 12 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Microsoft Research Asia, the company's regional research lab, which was founded in 1998 in Beijing, and has provided training for more than 2,000 interns from universities in the region.
This was Gate's first official speech in public after he stepped down as Microsoft Chief Executive in July 2008 to move to a full-time philanthropist role at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
This digital icon discussed likely technology breakthroughs in the next decade with the presidents of three local universities - Paul Chu, of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Lawrence Lau, of The Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Tsui Lap-chee of The University of Hong Kong.
Gates told the 1,600 academics, IT representative and students that software breakthroughs would approach faster than they imagined.
He said one significant innovation will be the Natural User Interface (NUI) which had been underestimated. In the future it will "encompass all the new interaction techniques", such as touch and speech. He predicted extensive application of NUI in the robotics field, so that future robots can "drive cars, pick things up and understand visual scenes".
"Breakthroughs in hardware are definitely happening, as are breakthroughs in software," said Gates.
The former Microsoft chief maintained that programs will drive every part of human life, with television and the Internet likely to fuse together. He said future televisions could all connect to the Internet, perform search functions, and locate videos using voice recognition.
"The devices that will be software-driven won't stop at the personal computer, the full-screen device or the pocket-sized device, the phone. It will really be pervasive," Gates said.
Microsoft Research Asia is currently conducting research on such televisions, where couch potatoes will key in search words with their remote controls, and the TV will search related videos using speech recognition technology. Users will also be able to customize channels with the search function.
Gates stressed that the Internet TV will only be part of the enormous change brought by technology within the next decade. "...the frontiers of software are constantly changing and that's why this is an industry that's so exciting," he said.
Innovating for the better
Gates also shared his views on technology as solutions to global problems with university leaders, and stressed that innovations can change the world. He gave the example of the personal computer, describing it as "the best tool mankind ever created" when connected to the Internet, and said that many biological advances are achieved with the help of computers.
Chinese University of Hong Kong president, Lawrence Lau, highlighted the importance of the Internet in terms of knowledge distribution. He said access to broadband was crucial to overcoming poverty.
Two other local university leaders, Paul Chu and Tsui Lap-chee, agreed that properly managed technologies can solve global issues such as genetic diseases and even the energy shortage.
This trip is Gate's first visit to Hong Kong in nine years. He had watched the Olympic Opening Ceremony before attending the forum in Hong Kong and meeting the city's Chief Executive Donald Tsang.