Q. Arthur C Clarke predicts that early in the 21st century all time-and-distance telephone charges will be eliminated. Do you see this actually happening in the near future? Is the emerging and fast-growing internet telephony system a precursor to this?
A. The premium charged for placing a long-distance call versus a local call will drop dramatically. This will make the world a smaller place where people can reach out to find expertise or friends across very long distances. Long-distance has been expensive because regulatory bodies have set policies that encourage phone companies to make large profits on long-distance, particularly international long-distance, to subsidise basic services. Consequently, prices won't come down too far without regulatory changes. But the use of the internet to transport voice communication at extremely low prices will break the log jam. This move will bring prices of communications - particularly long-distance prices - down quite a bit.
I don't see a complete elimination of the correlation between price and distance, however. Network companies must make investments in satellites, undersea cables and other infrastructure that relates to very long distance traffic. Network bottlenecks develop if resources aren't allocated specifically to long-distance service. So while calls within the US may become virtually free, for example, I don't expect intercontinental calls to be free.
Q. Why is technology moving so fast? Will it ever slow down?
A. It won't slow down in our lifetime. Some technologies are just emerging.
We're only now beginning to understand how to improve the genetics of plants and fully comprehend diseases. We know little about how the brain works and how it stores information. Huge advances remain to be made in computer hardware and software. Technology moves faster as the world gets more prosperous, allowing people more education, especially in the sciences. Communication tools, most importantly the internet, let people share knowledge more effectively. Business opportunities tied to scientific innovation can only increase.
Society wants cheaper energy, better and more plentiful food, better health, better education and better entertainment. Meeting these needs is a vast business opportunity that will keep bright, hard-working people highly motivated to innovate.
Q. If you were a mayor or governor, how would you use the power of technology to create economic development opportunities for your city or state?
A. The first step would be to publish a web site that talks about the resources in the area.
I would orient the site to people looking for a place to locate a business or office, so that they could see an inventory of the skills and particular strengths of the area. Of course, I would include an e-mail address so that people could ask specific questions and I'd make sure the e-mail was answered. One good example of a web site that goes well beyond the basics is published by the Hampshire County Council in southern England.
The address is http://www.hants.gov.uk.
Ask Bill Gates questions: firstname.lastname@example.org.