Bill Gates on giving, batteries, tablets, and more

In an exclusive interview with CNET's Ina Fried, the Microsoft chairman and philanthropist talks about his dual passions--software and saving lives--and what he's up to on both fronts.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, speaking to CNET reporter Ina Fried after his talk at the Techonomy conference last week.
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, speaking to CNET reporter Ina Fried after his talk at the Techonomy conference last week. Ina Fried/CNET

NEAR LAKE TAHOE, Calif.--Bill Gates says it's gratifying to see the computer industry that he helped start turn some of its attention to broader societal challenges.

"I think there's increased awareness of using innovation to help in more than just profit making," Gates told CNET in an interview on Friday, following his speech at the Techonomy conference . "When I think back to the conferences I went to earlier in the industry, we were pretty darn focused on popularizing software and personal computing. Nothing wrong with that, but it's nice to see the evolution."

At the conference, the first in what organizers hope will be an annual series, Gates spoke about the need for better software modeling and his disappointment in the U.S. political system .

When he wasn't addressing the crowd, Gates had the chance to debate battery technology with Google co-founder Larry Page, hold several private meetings, and meet Talia Leman, the 15-year-old chief executive of youth-oriented nonprofit RandomKid.org.

In a car on his way to the airport, Gates spoke about his most recent efforts, including last week's announcement that around 40 wealthy American individuals and families had signed on to his Giving Pledge , agreeing to give half their wealth to charity.

As for his part-time work at Microsoft, Gates said he's most involved in search, but talks with CEO Steve Ballmer about a range of issues and also has been sending messages to the Windows team about how to make sure Apple's iPad doesn't wipe Microsoft out of the tablet game.

Below is an edited transcript of the interview. I've also included a brief video of Gates talking about software modeling--apologies in advance for the video quality: it's a bit bumpy.

Q: What was it like to see a conference organized on some of the things you have been talking about--how technology can be applied to these broader issues?
Gates: I think there's increased awareness of using innovation to help in more than just profit making--innovation in education, the fact that someone like DonorsChoose is here, even international development is being discussed. When I think back to the conferences I went to earlier in the industry, we were pretty darn focused on popularizing software and personal computing.

Nothing wrong with that, but it's nice to see the evolution. These are guys I've known forever. I wonder how old Brent was when he first interviewed me [30 years ago]. It's hard to start a new conference. It was good to see it got off to quite a good start.

Plus, do you get a lot of opportunity to debate battery technology with Larry Page?
Gates: It was great talking to Larry. Larry is a very easy guy to talk too. We think a lot alike about a lot of things. That alone was quite valuable.

One of the things you have been talking about for a while is hoping to convince others who have had similar significant good fortune to share that. how did it feel to see so many sign on to the Giving Pledge?
Gates: We're very happy to see where that stands. It's about getting people to think about younger in life than they might otherwise, getting them to get more involved. It's not easy to dive in, pick something you feel good about. We've good a good size group now that will learn a lot from each other.

That to me is actually one of the coolest things about it. We definitely had people who were putting the issue off because it involves thinking about your will, kids, hiring professionals and things like that. It's easy to put it off.

And the money isn't necessarily going to the Gates Foundation.
Gates: To some charitable thing, whether they create their own foundation or whatever they do. Our foundation has picked a few things that we focus on, whereas the Giving Pledge celebrates the diversity of givers. There are many, many worthy causes that our foundation isn't involved in. The two things are very distinct.

Anyway, it's been fun talking to people.

Are you and Larry Ellison going to hang out more?
Gates: Actually he and I exchanged e-mail. This lets us have philanthropy as a topic to discuss. I hadn't exchanged e-mail with Larry for certainly over a decade. Back then it would have been "How is your Windows version coming" or something. Warren [Buffett] was the one who talked to him over the phone, but I really thanked him and we had a good exchange. Of the 40 people, there were a lot of great stories there. Larry was kind of an exemplar of somebody that you wouldn't necessarily have expected. He was actually thinking he would be quiet about what he was doing, but we convinced him both in learning and convincing others it was great to join [the Giving Pledge].

You talked about this notion that one of the things that is needed for combating disease and handling a lot of large systems is better software modeling. Why is that so important?
Gates: If we want to find new compounds that work, trying them all out can be a very slow process. If we can model what is going on genetically with the disease, model the shapes of the proteins...model that interaction, we can understand what drugs will cause side effects before we do long, multiyear, $100 million trials. Modeling software will improve the efficiency in the field. We are seeing that everywhere, whether it is designing cars, planes. All this modeling capability is letting design cycles be better, higher quality. It's really the toolset that is driving innovation.

Is the foundation going to be designing this software?
Gates: No, no, no. Well, there is this one particular area that I'm funding in a foundation way, which is this disease modeling software. There's many different categories. The [disease modeling software] thing, we've just decided it should be free and available for researchers to connect up to. A lot of these things, whether it is heat modeling, or things we used for various innovations for the poor, we're just using the commercial packages, which are great.

I have a thing called Global Good , which is how I fund invention science through a group that Nathan Myhrvold has. Disease modeling, I've funded. Over 2011, we'll be putting it out for researchers to work with.

Obviously, most of your time is spent on the foundation stuff. Are there still specific projects you are deeply involved in at Microsoft
Gates: Well, I am a board member and that is a reasonably serious thing. Steve [Ballmer] brainstorms with me. When new product milestones come along, like some planning in Office, I'll be a part of that. Search is probably the one where I spend the most ongoing time.

I know tablets are a long-held vision of yours. A certain tablet has been getting a lot of attention and it's not necessarily one that uses your software. Is that one area you still want to put your two cents in?
Gates: There's certainly a lot of mail from me to the Windows group talking about how to make sure Windows is the best choice for all sorts of new form factors.

 

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