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DEVELOPING A CLEAR PICTURE OF THE FUTURE

Q: In my college computer class we're studying the revised edition of your book "The Road Ahead" (Penguin, 1996). I can see your vision coming true but I want to know where you get your ideas about the future.

A: I think a lot. Sometimes I take a whole "Think Week" away from my office routine. I have a lot of people working with me who ponder the future, too. Like many businesses, ours is built on looking down the road and preparing for what we foresee.

Most ideas about the technological future come along when they're completely impractical.

That's why, when you read or listen to somebody talking about the future, you have to decide whether they really envision how the elements will fall into place or whether they're just painting a futuristic picture.

People who write science fiction almost invariably do the latter. They often have remarkbly farsighted visions. The proof of this is that there aren't many important inventions -- from space travel to hand-held communications devices -- that weren't foreseen in one science fiction book or another.

But these visionary books generally are divorced from today's time frame; they don't describe the specific path that leads to tomorrow. If you look back at science fiction books written a few decades ago, they predicted some things that eventually happened and some that haven't yet, and they often got the order quite wrong.

But then, science fiction is meant to entertain and stimulate. It's not meant to be a road map.

When I think or write about the future, I'm trying to draw a map that connects the present to the future. I'm in an unusual position because my company is doing a lot of the work to define future software. We monitor technological development closely, and when we see progress in an important area, we can be pretty sure that some company will bring it to market.

My key messages about the future -- that everybody will be connected, and that computers will see, listen and learn -- have all been said before by other people.

But when somebody says this kind of thing in a science fiction book or even in the cover story of a newsweekly, it's different from my saying, "I've got thousands of smart people working toward this goal, and I really do believe, in the next decade, that it will come to pass."

If he had it to do over again

Q: What's the one thing you wanted to do but never got the chance?

A: I never got to spend a decade thinking about economics. I never got to be a biochemist. I never scored 72 in a game of golf and it's unlikely I ever will, though I hold out faint hope (my best score is 87).

More than book learning

Q: Did you ever take a class in college that made you think to yourself, "When will I ever need to know this?" I find myself saying this every day when I study. Do you have any good advice on how to get through these courses?

A: You may be bringing the wrong expectations to the classroom. The point of school is not to fill your mind with facts. The goal should be to learn how the world works, the underlying principles. You must study specifics in order to do that, but the specifics aren't what you're learning.

The basic idea of organic chemistry is super-interesting to me, but the worst class I ever took was introductory organic chemistry in college. The instructor just kept giving specific chemical reactions without explaining the principles behind them. It was just a bunch of memorization, and it seemed totally irrelevant because I wasn't learning much in the larger sense.

Inorganic chemistry, on the other hand, was great. It's based on equilibrium equations and principles of physical chemistry about why things bond, how they bond, different elements. The instructor taught the principles as well as the formulas. I loved inorganic chemistry.

Most classes that seem boring at first can be made interesting if you look at the subject in the right way. This may take some inventiveness on your part, but it's worth it if only so that you learn how to learn.

Learning to learn and wanting to learn are much more important than most of what you are actually taught in college. The specifics of what you learn will soon be out of date in many fields, but the ability to learn new ways of thinking and working is of timeless value.

There's no corporate immortality

Q: How do you intend to ensure the immortality of Microsoft?

A: I don't. Microsoft won't be immortal. All companies fail. It's just a question of when. My goal is to keep my company vital as long as possible, of course.

Questions may be sent to Bill Gates by electronic mail. The address is askbill@microsoft.com

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