Apprentice computer wizard Aric Ament submitted scores of questions yesterday about the world of microchips for chief wizard Bill Gates, but not the one most important to the youngster: "Bill, will you be my mentor?"
"I'd like to fax him or write him a letter. I'd like to have Bill as my mentor," the Eastern Technical High School 10th-grader said at an electronic encounter with the billionaire computer industry leader staged at Baltimore County's Essex Library and sites across the nation.
Aric -- who has built two computers, is working on a third and repairs computers for his mother's friends -- received an answer for just one of his 60 questions keyboarded through cyberspace all the way from Essex to the Seattle headquarters of Mr. Gates' Microsoft Corp.
What would Mr. Gates like to see computers do that they can't do now? asked Aric, 16.
"The biggest change coming in computers will be the ability to understand spoken language and handwritten text," Mr. Gates typed back. "Once we can interact in a natural way, then the computer can become part of every day life. Also flat screens will make a big difference since they can be portable and very high resolution."
Aric, who said that when he finishes school he wants to work for Mr. Gates, then launch his own computer company, was among a group of students in Essex taking part in the event celebrating Microsoft's "Libraries Online" program.
This year, Microsoft donated computers and software for centers at nine libraries around the country, including Baltimore County's Essex branch, and Mr. Gates recently proposed the Internet "chat."
During the hourlong session, questions poured in from 242 terminals at the centers. But people surfing the Internet from as far away as England and Switzerland tuned in and submitted questions -- some of which Mr. Gates answered.
A tiny camera mounted on the main terminal at each library site showed participants typing in questions, and the image of Mr. Gates typing his replies was broadcast back to them.
Mr. Gates also answered a question from Keyonia Bacote, a junior at Baltimore County's Chesapeake High School who asked when voice input would do away with keyboards.
Voice recognition is improving rapidly and within five to 10 years will be a key input technology, but it will supplement and not replace keyboards, Mr. Gates said.
The Essex Library manager, E. J. Woznicki, said the computers donated by Microsoft to its Family Learning Center are in constant use. "There's a new beat; people are excited to get on the Internet," he said. "They're waiting at the door when we open at 10 o'clock."
Orlando Yarborough, who operates a youth and family center, brought students from six schools to yesterday's program. He said the new computer center has had a positive impact on young people in his area.
Many do not have home computers and could not afford Internet fees, but at the library they have access to the equipment, "and this helps promote their self-esteem," he said.
Last week, when students could not find enough reference books for a project about China, they turned to the library's computers "and we found good information on the Internet," said Mr. Yarborough, who led a group of martial arts students on a trip to China last year.
Pub Date: 4/18/96