Ballmer says machine learning will be the next era of computer science

Former Microsoft CEO makes donation to expand Harvard's computer science department

steve ballmer  2013

Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

Credit: Reuters/2013 file photo

The former CEO of Microsoft said the next era of computer science is going to focus on machine learning.

Steve Ballmer, who headed Microsoft from 2000 to 2014, said when looking at what's ahead in computer science research, he's most excited about machine learning, the science of building algorithms so that computers can recognize behavior in large data sets.

"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."

Ballmer, who stepped down from Microsoft's board of directors in August, spoke about the future of computer science as he announced a donation to Harvard University that will enable the school to expand its computer science faculty by 50%.

Neither Ballmer, nor two Harvard representatives, would divulge the amount of his donation.

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

Harvard wasn't the only academic institution to receive a large donation from Ballmer this week.

Ballmer and his wife Connie, a graduate of the University of Oregon, on Wednesday also announced a $50 million donation to her alma mater. That gift will be used to increase higher education opportunities and to beef up the university's research efforts.

Ballmer said he is making the donation to Harvard to help make the university's computer science department one of the top programs in the country.

"There are other great schools, but this is the one I went to," Ballmer said. "Boston and Cambridge are the only places, other than Silicon Valley, where you can see that entrepreneurial flywheel spinning. We're supporting new ideas and new work at Harvard, supported by computer science."

He added that he hopes the university will also focus teaching and research on areas like online privacy and cybersecurity, but his main focus is on machine learning.

"It's not about just putting in input and getting an answer," Ballmer noted. "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."

Machine learning is linked to artificial intelligence, the development of computers with skills that traditionally would have required human intelligence, such as decision-making and visual perception.

Artificial intelligence has been in the headlines since Elon Musk, the high-profile CEO of electric car maker Tesla Motors and CEO and co-founder of SpaceX, said in an interview at an MIT symposium that AI is nothing short of a threat to humanity.

"With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon," Musk said at the end of last month.

Ballmer said he isn't troubled about scientists pushing ahead with research into artificial intelligence or machine learning.

"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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