At the Intel Developer Forum on Tuesday, Intel Chairman Craig Barrett launched the $400,000 Inspire-Empower Challenge for solving world problems with technology. Barrett is increasingly taking a leading role as a key ambassador of the IT industry to the United Nations and the rest of the world.


Now that Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has retired from his full-time job at Microsoft in order to devote his energy to the Gates Foundation, other IT leaders would like to step into the void as the technology industry’s leading diplomat to the world. Intel is nominating its chairman, Craig Barrett, for the post.

At the opening keynote for the Intel Developer Forum 2008 in San Francisco on Tuesday, Intel introduced Barrett as “the IT industry’s ambassador” and highlighted the fact that Barrett will visit 30 countries this year, meet with various heads of state, and chair a United Nations task force on technology in the developing world.

Intel’s Craig Barrett introduces Nigerian students to the Classmate PC

I’m not sure if Gates, who remains chairman of the board at Microsoft and is still spending 20% of his time on Microsoft-related work, is ready to give up his post as the IT industry’s de facto leader. I suspect that we’ll still see plenty of Gates as a keynote speaker at events and that he won’t be able to avoid giving reporters his commentary on how things are unfolding in the technology world.

Nevertheless, Intel’s Barrett would be an interesting replacement if Gates does truly fade into the backgound. While Gates has always been user-centric and his vision has been focused on the things users can do with technology, Barrett is more focused on how technology can improve and transform society.

“Technology is a tool to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges related to health care, education, economic development and the environment,” said Barrett. “No nations or individuals are untouched by these issues.”

Barrett is also not afraid to confront politicians publicly, while Gates has tended to deal with politicians and leaders more privately. For example, in his IDF keynote on Tuesday, Barrett launched several criticisms at the U.S. government and its policies:

  • He upbraided the U.S. for not doing enough with research and development tax credits. “R&D is how you move forward in the world’s economic system,” said Barrett.
  • He decried the K-12 educational system in the U.S. and put the blame not on funding but on not doing enough to hire and certify top-notch teachers.
  • He criticized the U.S. for not allowing doctors to be paid when they treat patients over the phone (or other electronic systems) because those policies are holding back developments in electronic medicine.

For more on Barrett’s advice for U.S. political leaders, see IDF Opening Keynote: Are you listening, Washington? from Sam Diaz over at ZDNet.

Barrett also used his IDF keynote to launch Intel’s Inspire-Empower Challenge, a contest to develop the best technology solutions in four areas where there are critical global challenges: health care, economic development, education, and the environment. Intel will award $100,000 in seed funding to the winning project in each of the four categories. The top criteria for the winners will be innovation and sustainability.