U.S. technology leadership hinges on education revamp

He may be the world’s richest man, with operations that span the globe, but one gets the impression that at heart Bill Gates is still the consummate computer geek.

After his talk to a conference of business editors and writers last week, the chairman of Microsoft Corp. perched on a stool and spent another 30 minutes or so in a Q&A session, enthusiastically dishing about what he sees in his crystal ball for technology.

He also had some less-than-complimentary remarks about the state of education in the United States.

In just the past five years, Gates said, the world has changed dramatically through increased use of the Internet. But it has been an unwary process, with most people having “missed out” on just how extensively information, business, and personal communication have moved online.

The “challenge for everyone” will be how to compete in this new marketplace, he said, and to find ways to make it possible for those “on the bottom rung” of the economic ladder to participate in the ongoing technological revolution.

Globalization and free trade, Gates said, have been a major influence on lifting people out of poverty around the world and “a wonderful deal for the U.S.” Trade has brought “great advances” in the economies of other countries, he said, and has been “very advantageous to the U.S., but the challenge is how to retain our own piece of the pie.”

As the power of technology leapfrogs and prices steadily drop, computers and the programs that make them run will become more endemic, and more transparent in their operation.

Microsoft and others in the industry have been “feverishly working” for the past six years on the “holy grail” — software that will seamlessly connect with “any other software on the planet.” That work is beginning to come to fruition, he said.

Some “wow factor” things coming down the pike, Gates said: High definition computer monitors that will provide images “more realistic-looking than ever”; powerful tablet computers that will serve multiple functions, from reading news to global communication, and will incorporate handwriting recognition; and telephones and other devices that share a single number and common passwords, with the ability to communicate with each other.

In the next 10 to 20 years, there will be “very dramatic changes in the devices we use.”

Amid all this optimism, there is concern, Gates said, that the United States is in danger of losing its leadership in technology as other countries catch up or sprint ahead in education and research/development.

“Today, the U.S. is graduating only one-fourth the number of engineers as China.” A similar situation exists in India.

At an earlier conference of U.S. governors, Gates, whose foundation is pouring millions into education programs, was even more emphatic: “American high schools are obsolete — even when they’re working exactly as designed, they cannot teach our kids what they need to know today.

“Our high schools were designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age. Until we design them to meet the needs of the 21st century, we will keep limiting the lives of millions of Americans every year.”

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