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CES 2010: Beyond Fun and Games

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This week, I'm honored to deliver the opening keynote at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas for the second year in a row. I love CES because it's an incredible annual happening where all of us in the consumer electronics industry share a peek at what lies just ahead for consumers -- everything from hot new gadgets to groundbreaking video games, the latest state-of-the-art PCs, devices, phones, TVs, and much more.

But while technology plays an increasingly central role in entertaining us and making our lives easier and more convenient, its role as a global force for good is still relatively nascent. I firmly believe that we are just at the very beginning of discovering what technology can do to transform the lives of billions of people around the world for the better.

But what a beginning it has been! In the last 35 years, technology has advanced more quickly and more profoundly than it did in the previous 3,500 years. Almost everything we ever thought might happen is happening -- and more. What was science fiction a few years ago is now reality.

And while you can have a lot of fun with it all, the truth is that technology is also a powerful engine for social and economic progress. At the center of this progress and transformation is the ability to access information and reach each other across many screens -- from the largest screen in your living room to the smallest screen in your pocket -- at any time and from almost any location. Today, nearly a billion of us take this ability for granted. In all likelihood, by 2035 we will reach 4 billion people and eventually just about every person on the planet will be connected.

All of this connection and convergence -- made possible by the combination of rich software and intuitive services accessed via the cloud -- has a new purpose, creating community and increasing human interaction. Technology is rapidly becoming the fundamental foundation that shapes and enables our social lives, both locally and globally. Increasingly, it's how we find a date -- or a mate -- locate old college roommates, share our interests, and meet people in new places.

Think of how this has changed the nature of friendships. When I was a kid, I had six or seven friends and they mostly lived on the same street as me. Today, kids have an average of 232 friends on Facebook and those friends can come from every corner of the globe.

Powerful social networks are emerging from this drive for connection. Of course they serve as a catalyst for cultural trends and help us create demand for products, but that is just the beginning. In a disaster, they enable us to get help to people who need it; and they sometimes help us prod our politicians -- or get them elected.

But in the next decade I think that the real story will be even bigger as technology assumes a central role in helping us tackle three of the biggest issues we face: providing quality affordable health care, taking care of our planet, and educating our children.

For instance, one thing emerging from the health care debate is the realization that moving medical records online has the potential to improve the way health care is delivered. The potential savings are enormous -- tens of billions of dollars a year. Even more important are the opportunities to improve care and reduce errors by giving consumers access to their own health care information, while ensuring that doctors can quickly see the patient information they need to make the best patient care decisions -- medication history, test results, and evidence-based treatment recommendations based on the most current research for a given medical issue.

But the opportunities don't end there -- we are developing the capabilities to provide remote-monitoring for patients with chronic diseases that need daily management and provide health care to people who live in remote locations beyond the reach of the nearest doctor or clinic. In every area I think you will see computing deliver greater efficiency to medicine at a time when the number one issue we face in health care is keeping quality high while reducing costs.

The wider availability of computing will also play a role in protecting our planet from climate change and other environmental issues. There are over 4 billion light bulbs in this country -- and if you want to get them turned on and turned off to save power, it's time to get more of them under computer control. There are over 250 million cars in the U.S. alone and the latest ones have more computing power on them than our first manned rocket ships providing opportunities to help drivers avoid traffic jams, offering real-time tips for efficient driving, and programming electric vehicles to recharge at optimal times. And as we add more computing capability to automate our homes we also need to ensure that we improve the efficiency of PCs. At Microsoft, we have built new energy saving software features into our Windows 7 operating system. If fully implemented the software would cut the power consumption of PCs by over 30 percent worldwide. On a billion PCs globally, that's a lot of savings.

On the education front, today, many classrooms are the same as they were a hundred years ago: students still sit in rows, take notes (or scribble and IM notes to friends) while the teacher talks at them from the front of the room. That industrial era model was designed to churn out manufacturing labor. But we are now seeing new models emerge that shed the old structures. Thomas Friedman summed it up very well in his book "The World is Flat," when he calls for "a policy that seeks to move from a culture of lifetime employment, which was the old industrial model, to one of lifetime employability." Students graduating from schools today and in the future need very different skills -- they need to know how to collaborate, to solve abstract problems, to communicate, to be digitally literate and more. But the way in which to best "teach" those skills is to recognize that each of the 1.4 billion students in the world is different and that schools need to adapt education to meet individual student needs, helping them to learn what, when, where, and how they choose.

Around the world, we are now seeing the beginnings of this technology-assisted transformation. While still in its infancy, Internet-based education is growing rapidly. Forward-thinking institutions are harnessing the power of information and communications technology to work more efficiently, forge deeper connections with their communities and achieve ambitious learning goals. It is easy to imagine that because of what technology delivers, within the next 50 years, everyone everywhere will have access to a quality -- and personalized -- education and that the graduates from schools will be well equipped for jobs well into the future.

So while there is a lot of fun and games at CES, that is not all that's taking place in our industry today. We are creating technologies that will transform the next generation of health care, help make it possible to save energy on a massive scale, and foster new tools for education that will open up opportunities for tens of millions. As we close out the first decade of the 21st century, the next decade offers the promise of touching everyone on the planet in bold and new ways.

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