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Bill Clinton: Cloud computing will lead to a smarter, better world

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Back in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president, cell phones weighed five pounds and no one dreamed of using them to do anything besides make phone calls.

Now, they’re used to connect us for more powerful causes — like raising a billion dollars for Haiti, President Clinton said at the Dreamforce 2010 conference in San Francisco Wednesday. And that’s largely because they’re hooked up to something far more powerful than the old-fashioned telephone network — they’re connected to the cloud.

One reason why mobile devices have gotten so small and yet so powerful is that they draw on their Internet connections to access far more sophisticated software than they could run locally — a set of technologies known as cloud computing that shift heavy-duty computing power from local devices to remote servers.

Businesses, governments, and nonprofits are all getting on board the cloud. And Clinton’s a fan, too.

The data-crunching capabilities of cloud computing, in particular, promise to make the efforts of nongovernmental organizations to better society far more effective, Clinton argued.

“It’s one thing to go into a country with the intent to help out,” Clinton said. “It’s an altogether different thing to sit around and have to evaluate the information, and find out what worked.”

Salesforce, a provider of customer relationship management software which organized the event at which Clinton spoke, is one company that is already using cloud computing to help  nonprofits around the world. By providing organizations with a cloud-based service that can manage various aid groups across the world, it’s making them more efficient and helping developing countries build up their infrastructure.

The utility of cloud computing isn’t limited to helping nonprofit organizations and countries in dire need of assistance. It’s weaving itself through our daily lives, from better smartphones to smart electricity grids that operate more efficiently. Cloud computing is opening up a lot of possibilities to, simply enough, just make things work.

“And when you build these things that just work, good things happen,” Clinton said.

Cloud computing has a good number of prominent evangelists. Netscape cofounder turned venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, a big cloud cheerleader, thinks cloud computing can finally get rid of his wallet and attach all his financial information to his phone. Google’s Eric Schmidt is one of the biggest proponents of cloud computing, and is trying to push Google to include the cloud in just about everything they can do make things just work. That even includes cars that drive themselves.

“It’s amazing that people drive cars, computers should be the ones driving cars,” Schmidt said at a recent tech-industry conference. “It seems to me like a bug that cars were invented before computers.”

Add President Bill Clinton to the list of cloud-computing evangelists that think the world will be a better place once everything is connected to the Internet of things. There’s an enormous amount of potential to make it happen, but it still isn’t clear how long it will take to get there. Despite being around for some time, cloud computing has only seen widespread adoption and evangelism in recent years.

There is basically no limit to what can be plugged into the cloud. Intel, one of the leading chipmakers in the world, demoed a billboard that downloaded advertisements and changed them dynamically at the Intel Developer Forum earlier this year. It also showed off an Internet-connected treadmill that could help users keep track of how much exercise they are getting in and helping them manage their fitness schedule. Intel’s Atom chipset, among others, will ensure that just about everything can include a computer — and be connected to the Internet.

But imagine this: an electricity grid that automatically detects when electric cars are plugged in and distributes the load so it doesn’t overload the grid. Healthcare systems that cut administrative costs and paperwork to almost nothing. A mobile phone that does, well, everything. It seems like a pretty good thing to be working toward.

Clinton seems to think so, as well.

“We’re past the why, we’re in the how now — trying to figure out how we can turn our good intentions and this technology into positive changes.”