Bill Gates isn't the conductor driving the Microsoft AI train, but he did lay the tracks

Picture of Satya Nedella with a tear in it revealing Bill Gates' face
(Image credit: Laptop Mag / Rael Hornby)

Not a day seems to go by on the internet without Bill Gates being the topic of some form of conspiracy theory. Not my side of the internet, anyway. I grew up in a world that saw Gates as the less abrasive and more timid counterpart to Steve Jobs' visionary flair.

While there were grumblings about shady business practices and a Microsoft empire built on stolen code, these were easily separated from Gates as the actions of a business and not the man. To most, he remained the slightly awkward billionaire with a passion for leaping over chairs. When Bill Gates resigned from the Microsoft board in March 2020, to many, it was seen as a changing of the guard and the end of a generation in tech.

It wasn't until 2021 that the dam burst, revealing a slew of controversies hidden beneath Gates' trademark woolen sweaters. The Wall Street Journal reported that Gates had stepped down from the Microsoft board and his long-held role of "technology advisor," not only to follow his philanthropic goals but also amid an investigation into an extra-marital affair with a Microsoft staffer.

Did Bill Gates ever really leave? Business Insider reports that the answer is "nope."

This was the first controversy of many to surround Microsoft's founder throughout the years to come, and it feels like Gates' name has been dragged through the mud almost non-stop ever since.

So, when a story from Business Insider claimed insider sources reported that despite Gates' very messy and public reasons for stepping down from his position on the Microsoft board in 2020, he was still an omnipresent force within the company — the voice behind the curtain and the puppeteer of performative placeholder CEOs — it was very easy to get onboard with the narrative.

After all, it makes perfect sense. Those with power are often the most unwilling to relinquish it. Bill Gates built this company from the ground up, and while his "technology advisor" title might seem quaint, it suggested that Gates wasn't ready to take his hand off the wheel entirely.

Bill Gates looking frustrated

It's easy to paint Bill Gates as the villain in any story you want to tell. Especially if you use an image of him looking decisively miffed in the process. However, there may be more to this story than meets the eye. (Image credit: Getty Images)

Honestly, what did we expect for one of the richest and most influential people in the world to quietly take up fly fishing and philanthropy while vanishing from the tech industry overnight? Of course, Bill Gates had considerable sway over the company he created.

However, like most compelling conspiracy theories, it's probably not true. At least not in that way.

What Bill Gates left behind is more important

Bill Gates never left cries out the headline of the Business Insider article in question, citing multiple instances of current Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman being susceptible to hushed whispers from Gates. Whispers that have supposedly slowly steered Microsoft toward the AI-fueled juggernaut it has become.

Microsoft, of course, disagrees. Speaking through a spokesperson, Frank Shaw, Microsoft claimed that the "insistence on portraying the role of Bill Gates as 'pulling strings' at Microsoft is fundamentally inaccurate and at odds with reality."

Is it possible that Bill Gates has swapped the boardroom for restaurant lunches where he wines and dines his way to right the good ship Microsoft? Absolutely. But it's far more likely that Bill Gates doesn't have his hand on the wheel at all and that Microsoft is following the road he laid for the company to follow many years ago.

In a 2023 blog post, Gates points to ideas he shared in his 1995 book The Road Ahead, writing about how AI agents are the future but an impractical present. AI has been Microsoft's golden goose for decades, and Bill Gates has envisioned a future populated by these AI agents for even longer.

Bill Gates holding a copy of his book "The Road Ahead"

Microsoft are following a road map set out long ago, with Bill Gate's 1995 book The Road Ahead alluding to the importance of AI agents like Copilot in the future. (Image credit: Gates Notes)

Microsoft has flirted with this kind of technology in the past, but the technology was never there to pull it off until recent years. In that time, Microsoft has routinely returned to AI well, with varying results.

The company has a long and storied history of trying to present "AI agents" to consumers. Some of these have been barely disguised bots like Clippy (the former Microsoft Office digital assistant) or strange middle-ground "successes" like Tay (the absurdly implemented and racist AI bot for Twitter).

Microsoft has invested heavily in AI technologies for decades now. Not every company can throw the baby out with bathwater when things don't work out the first time (like Apple and its electric vehicle dreams). That kind of investment has been a long-term bet for Microsoft, and it's finally paying off.

AI was always on the Microsoft roadmap; the company simply didn't have the technology at hand to implement it. Gates' influence on Microsoft's AI focus can't be argued. But he isn't course-correcting in the present day; the destination was locked in a very long time ago.

Bill Gates left Microsoft and left the blueprints for Microsoft's AI success behind on the way out.

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Rael Hornby
Content Editor

Rael Hornby, potentially influenced by far too many LucasArts titles at an early age, once thought he’d grow up to be a mighty pirate. However, after several interventions with close friends and family members, you’re now much more likely to see his name attached to the bylines of tech articles. While not maintaining a double life as an aspiring writer by day and indie game dev by night, you’ll find him sat in a corner somewhere muttering to himself about microtransactions or hunting down promising indie games on Twitter.