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Bill Gates tells Harvard what he'd do with a magic wand

The Microsoft founder talks to Harvard students about his biggest college regret and the most pressing issue facing the world today -- and his love of hamburgers.

Bill Gates during a Q&A session at Harvard.

Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

Microsoft founder Bill Gates enrolled at Harvard back in 1973, but never graduated from the prestigious university. Now, 45 years later, he went back for another visit to tour the school's robotics labs and talk about his Harvard past, science literacy and the greatest challenges facing the world today.

Gates participated in a student Q&A session hosted by Harvard dean Frank Doyle on Thursday. They wasted no time jumping right into a discussion on robotics. Gates was impressed by Harvard's work on robotic bees and soft robots. He later said he would be studying artificial intelligence were he in college today.

A freshman asked for Gates' thoughts on scientific literacy in US politics. Gates pointed to a lack of knowledge on climate change, reducing medical costs and the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to improve food productivity and nutrition.

Gates said scientific literacy isn't just a challenge with politicians, but also the overall electorate. "It's the anti-science that's a problem," he said. "We need to push back. Right now we're sort of in a dip in terms of science being an argument for good policies."

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is Gates' main focus these days, with wide-ranging global projects tackling public health and education. When asked to name the biggest challenge facing the US today, Gates cited "the quality of the education system." 

"The only way to really execute equal opportunity is by having a great education system," he said.

On a global scale, Gates said, "If I had a wand for the world, I'd fix malnutrition. And a wand for the US, I'd fix education."

Even though Gates dropped out of Harvard in 1975, the university gave him an honorary law degree in 2007. Gates says he still takes online courses from software maker The Learning Company. "In a sense, I like going to college more than anyone," he said.

The Q&A session occasionally veered into funny memories. Gates confessed to one humorous regret from his early days at Harvard: "I wish I'd been more sociable." Still, he says it was a "fun time," with the bonus of being able to get a hamburger for every meal, even breakfast.

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