In 1995, the internet was still in its infancy. Websites mostly looked like word docs with a grey or white background, and according to a Pew Research Center poll that June, only 14% of Americans reported using the web. (Today only 10% don’t use the internet.)
That November, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, then 39 and the world’s richest person with a net worth of $12.9 billion, went on CBS’s “Late Show with David Letterman” to promote his book “The Road Ahead” as well as Microsoft’s first online tool, the then-newly launched Internet Explorer, which helped computer users access the internet.
During the interview, Gates struggled to convince Letterman of the usefulness of the internet. A clip is embedded below.
“Late Show with David Letterman” clip courtesy of David Letterman
“What the hell is [the internet] exactly?” Letterman asks Gates.
“A place where people can publish information. They can have their own homepage, companies are there, the latest information,” Gates says.
“It’s wild what’s going on.”
Letterman wasn’t sold.
“I heard you could watch a live baseball game on the internet and I was like, does radio ring a bell?” Letterman says.
Gates said unlike with radio, the internet would allow users to watch a baseball game whenever they wanted instead of live.
“[Do] tape recorders ring a bell?” Letterman asks.
Gates, who dropped out of Harvard at the age of 19 to start Microsoft in 1975, also told Letterman “you can find other people who have the same usual interests as you do,” by searching the web.
In addition to working to make computers a useful tool for connecting and for education, Gates predicted the advent of artificial intelligence; he told Letterman there might be a way to make computers think on their own.
At the time, however, Gates was not sure how that would work.
“That turns out to be a very tough problem,” Gates says. “In fact, there has been almost no progress made on it, so no one knows what that will happen. Some people think it will never happen.”
Gates called the idea of an intelligent computer a very “scary thought.” (Twenty-four years later, Gates still has a similar view: In March, Gates called A.I. both “promising and dangerous.”)
So what were Letterman’s final thoughts on the web? “It’s too bad there is no money in [computers and the internet],” he told his billionaire guest.
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