Steve Ballmer, former Microsoft CEO and Harvard alumnus; who announced a significant donation to the Computer Science Department at Harvard last week is advocating machine learning as the next era of computer science. Ballmer expressed his excitement about the ability of computer and IT to process huge amounts of data not only to see patterns but to suggest actions and understand human intent.

“I think it’s the dawn of an exciting new era of info and computer science,” Ballmer told Computerworld. “It’s a new world in which the ability to understand the world and people and draw conclusions will be really quite remarkable… It’s a fundamentally different way of doing computer science.”

His emphasis on the potential of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) in being able to shape our own future was evident throughout the discussion on the future of CS at Harvard with Harvard President Drew Faust and Cherry Murray, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).

“It’s not about just putting in input and getting an answer,” Ballmer stated. “Computer science evolves and changes. This is going to be a fundamental area. I’m not trying to pick [what Harvard focuses on] but we do share a passion for this being a leading edge over the next several years.”

Ballmer received a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics and economics from Harvard College in 1977. He joined Harvard alum, Bill Gates, at Microsoft in 1980. Today, Ballmer is the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team.

November 12, Ballmer emphasized the importance of strengthening the faculty for “the next era of computing,” in fields such as machine learning and computational theory, which are key to propelling “the next wave of innovation and research.” Expanding the faculty cohort from 24 to 36 would “enable the Harvard computer-science department really to be built for the future” computing era.

In light of the recent criticism of artificial intelligence as an existential threat by Tesla and SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, Ballmer’s statement appears quite contradictory.  “With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon,” Musk said in a rather radical statement last month.

Ballmer, to that retorted- “It doesn’t concern me,”. He said “At the end of the day, will we have to have other innovations that protect people from privacy and security [problems]? Of course we will… I don’t think being afraid of any innovation is a good thing.”

He added that he doesn’t think self-driving cars, which would require artificial intelligence and machine learning, will proliferate for another 10 years. “I won’t be getting in any of them any time soon, at least not in the streets of Cambridge,” he said.

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(Image Credit: Rain Rannu)

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