Bill Gates looks back at ‘The Road Ahead’ after 25 years and some hit-and-miss tech predictions

Bill Gates is spending plenty of time these days looking forward to the solutions that will get us out of the COVID-19 pandemic or begin to address climate change meaningfully. On Tuesday, he looked back at “The Road Ahead,” 25 years after his first book captured his predictions and enthusiasm for where digital technology was going.

In a GatesNotes blog post, the Microsoft co-founder said he was “too optimistic about some things, but other things happened even faster or more dramatically than I imagined.”

Gates said it’s easy to forget what we were doing in 1995 and how the internet has transformed society since.

“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),” Gates wrote. “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.”

Gates includes chapter 4 of the book, “Information Appliances and Applications,” which at one point offers a fun look back at his view of how smartphones — or “pocket-size computers” as he called them — would transform our daily lives.

Notebooks are the smallest and most portable real computers today, but we’ll soon have pocket-size computers with snapshot-size color screens. When you whip one out, nobody will say, “Wow! You’ve got a computer!”

What do you carry on your person now? Probably at least keys, identification, money, and a watch. And maybe credit cards, a checkbook, traveler’s checks, an address book, an appointment book, a notepad, something to read, a camera, a pocket tape recorder, a cellular phone, a pager, concert tickets, a map, a compass, a calculator, an electronic entry card, photographs, and maybe a loud whistle to call for help.

You’ll be able to keep equivalent necessities — and more — in an information appliance I call the wallet PC. It will be about the same size as a wallet, which means you’ll be able to carry it in your pocket or purse. It will display messages and schedules and let you read or send electronic mail and faxes, monitor weather and stock reports, and play both simple and sophisticated games. At a meeting, you might take notes, check your appointments, browse information if you’re bored, or choose from among thousands of easy-to-call-up photos of your kids.

While many of us may turn to Cortana, Siri or Alexa for a variety of queries, Gates said he was “probably too optimistic” about the rise of digital agents and that working with them is still far from the rich experience he had in mind 25 years ago when he envisioned voice-controlled artificial intelligence.

His belief that technology would allow unprecedented social networking certainly came true, but in 2020 Gates admits to being surprised by the way social networks are both “bringing us together and contributing to a more polarized atmosphere.”

“I didn’t anticipate how much people would choose to filter out different perspectives and harden their own views,” he wrote.

When it comes to predictions, Gates didn’t miss five years ago in a TED Talk that has gotten plenty of renewed attention because of current events. He warned of a coming COVID-19-like pandemic, saying at the time that “if anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war.”

As he’s set to release his next book, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster,” Gates is again writing about about how technology and innovation can help solve important problems. But unlike “The Road Ahead,” he warns that 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,” he wrote this week.

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