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4 predictions Bill Gates got wrong 25 years ago

Jessica Yun
·4-min read
Bill Gates, Co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Bill Gates, Co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Bill Gates, Microsoft co-founder, philanthropist and the world’s second-richest man, is considered a global thought leader.

On Twitter, the Gates is followed by nearly 53 million people – which is more than double the entire population of Australia.

So even though the world listens when he speaks, the man isn’t perfect.

Twenty five years ago, Gates published The Road Ahead, his first book ever, which made a few predictions about the future – some that he admits he got wrong.

“I was too optimistic about some things, but other things happened even faster or more dramatically than I imagined,” Gates wrote in a recent blog post.

When The Road Ahead was published, the Internet was still in its infancy.

“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),” he wrote.

But Gates indicated he underestimated how quickly these changes would happen. “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.”

And he was probably thinking too far ahead about digital assistants, or ‘agents’, as he calls them.

“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,” he said.

Gates made another prediction about the way the Internet will affect the structure of our cities. And while it hasn’t happened yet, he’s banking on the fact that it will.

“Today the cost of living in a dense downtown, like Seattle’s, is so high that many workers (including teachers, police officers, and baristas) can’t afford to live there. Even high earners spend a disproportionate percentage of their income on rent,” he said.

“As a result, some cities are arguably too successful, and others are not successful enough. It’s a real problem for our country.”

We’re seeing the beginnings of this, thanks to the world’s biggest work-from-home experiment that the pandemic has forced on us.

People are living further away from the office, where homes are bigger and traffic is lighter. “Over time, these shifts would mean major changes in the ways our cities work and are built.”

Working from home will become the norm, he added. “I think this trend will accelerate in the coming years.”

Now, 25 years after publishing The Road Ahead, Gates is on the cusp of publishing a new book: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, which will be released on 16 February next year.

The two books have a lot in common, he said. “Both are about how technology and innovation can help solve important problems. Both share glimpses into the cutting-edge technology I get to learn about.”

But there’s one big difference. “The stakes are higher with climate change.”

“As passionate as I am about software, the effort to avoid a climate disaster has a whole other level of urgency. Failing to get this right will have bad consequences for humanity,” said Gates.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities – we can still see the “glass 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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