If You Invent a Breakthrough in Artificial Intelligence So Machines Can Learn, That Is Worth 10 Microsofts

Bill Gates? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I saw an advertisement on the “USA Today” website that claimed Bill Gates once spoke about a technology that was ripe for invention and would be worth 10 Microsofts. The ad did not identify the technology. Did Bill Gates really make a remark of this type?

Quote Investigator: In the early 2000s many companies with business models intertwined with the internet saw their stock prices collapse. Wary students observed this dot-com crash, and the number of computer science majors declined. In 2004 Bill Gates visited a series of universities to encourage students to pursue a career in computing which he believed still held marvelous opportunities. “The New York Times” reported a shrewd forward-looking comment made by Gates. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Mr. Gates scoffed at the notion, advanced by some, that the computer industry was a mature business of waning opportunity. In one question-and-answer session, a student asked if there could ever be another technology company as successful as Microsoft.

“If you invent a breakthrough in artificial intelligence, so machines can learn,” Mr. Gates responded, “that is worth 10 Microsofts.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The next month, April 2004, “Investor’s Business Daily” reported on Gates’s remark: 2

How much promise remains for entrepreneurs? Plenty, Gates insisted during a tour of several top universities this year. In a stop at MIT, a student asked Gates if another tech company could ever match Microsoft’s success. “If you invent a breakthrough in artificial intelligence so machines can learn,” he responded, “that is worth 10 Microsofts.”

The remark continued to circulate in January 2009 when it appeared in the “Minneapolis Examiner” of Minnesota: 3

It is worth noting what Bill Gates said at an artificial intelligence conference. “If you invent a breakthrough in artificial intelligence, so machines can learn, that is worth 10 Microsofts,” he commented.

Just one Microsoft made Gates the wealthiest person in the United States. It would take a super-intelligent computer indeed to grasp the potential in 10 Microsofts.

For several years the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funded machine learning research under the rubric Personal Assistant that Learns (PAL). Robert Kohout was the program manager. “InformationWeek” mentioned the effort in a July 2009 article: 4

One of the reasons the PAL project has been able to maintain funding, Kohout says, is because Bill Gates once said that a breakthrough in machine learning could be worth 10 Microsofts. In fact, several companies have been launched based on findings from PAL, including “virtual personal assistant” provider Siri, whose iPhone app will be launched this summer.

In conclusion, Bill Gates should be credited with the quotation given in the 2004 article in “The New York Times”. The 2009 citation shows how the remark is sometimes streamlined.

Image Notes: Microsoft logo accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Photo of Bill Gates circa 2015 cropped from photo of Gates meeting with UK International Development Secretary Justine Greening. Author: DFID – UK Department for International Development. Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

(Great thanks to the anonymous investor whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 2004 March 1, New York Times, Microsoft, Amid Dwindling Interest, Talks Up Computing as a Career (Continuation title: Enrollment In Computing Is Dwindling) by Steve Lohr, Start Page C1, Quote Page C2, Column 6, New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 2004 April 26, Investor’s Business Daily, Article: Next Wave Of Advances In Tech Will “Surprise Us,” Gates Predicts; Software’s only begun to impact how we live, work and learn, he says, Author: Patrick Seitz, Quote Page A01, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest ABI/INFORM)
  3. 2009 January 27, Minneapolis Examiner, Section: Business Technology, Article: Computers more intelligent than human beings, Author: Forler Massnick, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (NewsBank Access World News)
  4. 2009 July 6, InformationWeek, Issue 1235, Feds On The Edge by J Nicholas Hoover and John Foley, Start Page 19, Quote Page 23, Manhasset, New York. (ProQuest ABI/INFORM)