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School days for Bill Gates (Q&A)

Following a cross-country collegiate jaunt, Microsoft's chairman speaks with CNET's Ina Fried about the tour, the challenges in global health and education, and nostalgia for the software company he founded.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Bill Gates didn't leave Harvard on Wednesday with a degree, but the Microsoft chairman said he did leave feeling that the top colleges are paying more attention to the needs of the developing world.

"Schools are really doing more," Gates told CNET in an interview, as he headed to the airport following his three-day college tour. "These leading institutions are out in front... Certainly versus when you go back all the way to when I was here, there were no poverty classes."

At MIT, for example, Gates met with students working on projects in developing countries, took part in a round table discussion on how online classes are being used at foreign universities, and learned about the school's D-Lab, which works to create affordable technologies that help address issues of poverty.

As he drove past the place where he and Paul Allen bought the copy of "Popular Electronics" that would change their lives--prompting them to quit school and found Microsoft--Gates also reflected on what it was like to spend less time at the company he started.

Bill Gates, listening on Wednesday as MIT students presented ideas ranging from how technology can help improve health care in poor countries to ways of getting more students involved in global issues. Ina Fried/CNET

"The software revolution continues and, so, handwriting recognition, speech recognition, visual recognition, those are things we put big investments into, and I won't get a chance to be part of Microsoft popularizing those things," Gates said. "The things that haven't happened yet, I'll be sorry not to be part of."

At the same time, Gates said he is learning much in his foundation work on topics ranging from education reform, to vaccine development, to things as mundane as sanitation.

"It's not that savory of a topic," Gates agrees, but notes that there are a lot of intricacies in that area. "There's these people whose lives are thinking about this. Hey, we're spending $135 million a year on water and sanitation so we should know about it and get to know some good people."

For more from Gates, here's an edited transcript of our interview:

Q: So three days, six schools--what are the things that stick with you the most?
Gates: Schools are really doing more. These leading institutions are out in front. They are each doing different things. That was more concrete in terms of examples.

Are they leading the way and pulling the students along, or are the students pushing them? I'm sure there's a little bit of both. Certainly versus when you go back all the way to when I was here, there were no poverty classes. Visibility of these issues was very, very low. I was going to say that things have improved, but there are a lot of concrete manifestations of that.

One of the things that struck me that you said is that, due to cost issues, this generation could be the first, as a whole, to have fewer education opportunities than their parents. Is that a pretty real risk?
Gates: If it's not more efficient and we don't raise taxes very substantially, then yes. There is hope on it being more efficient, because of technology. So it's not completely bleak. There's two inflations that are higher than general inflation: educational inflation and health inflation, and health ends up trumping everything else and it's actually the fastest growing, whether that's Medicaid at the state level or Medicare at the federal level.

So you just have these increasing costs that just make it more out of reach. What you are seeing is the state school tuitions go up. California being a strong case of that, but that's broadly across the United States with the exception of four or five states. If you go way back into the '60s and '70s, most places had truly free [college education].

Click on the image above to see CNET's complete coverage of Bill Gates' College Tour.

It just puts pressure on for innovation. Thank goodness there is a way to get innovation, hopefully in the personnel system, but also in [online education].

If you take K-12, online can have some impact there. There's people like Rocketship, a charter that is trying to mix in online so they can have more efficient teaching. The role of online in K-12, I hope we can prove that out, but there it's the teacher effectiveness that is probably the biggest thing.

If you move up to college level, the online thing can be absolutely phenomenal because students are more mature, motivated, involved in things. Because that piece can be done without any political complexity, I'm a little more sure that we'll drive a lot of efficiency in what college learning morphs into than K-12.

You saw some interesting stuff around math at Foothill [a community college in California]?
Gates: These teachers teach as a group and let kids advance according to their mastery. They take pre-algebra and break it down into nine levels. You just keep staying at a level, trying out problems, talking to the teacher until you are done with that level and then you move on.

It sounds pretty obvious, but they've done it. But they are very clever how they do it. The way that budgets work and assignments work they had to really want to do this. But they've done it and they are seeing substantially better outcomes.

This is a remedial math class that if your high school did a really good job, you shouldn't be in at all. But it's the things that really mess up kids going to community college--being assigned to remedial math or remedial reading and writing. Very few people ever emerge from that if they are pushed into it. The variable progress thing allowed them to get some great results. They were using some online. It wasn't easy for them to do this innovation.

You are going to Washington next?
Gates: This is a big food announcement with the Secretary of the Treasury and some other countries. It's very concrete, some additional dollars to help out with food aid for the poorest countries. It's a fairly exciting announcement.

When I talked to different people that you met with in the labs on the tour, they were pretty shocked, even knowing you as a pretty smart guy, at how much biology you've picked up. Is it something that comes naturally or something you had to be really interested in?
Gates: I enjoyed learning the stuff. Biology is fascinating and the foundation puts a lot of money into health-related issues.

I'm very lucky. I've been able to watch Teach 12 courses, OpenCourseware courses. I can go online. If I'm confused, I can send mail to various people I know either at the foundation or this group Nathan [Myhrvold] has. I'll get a pretty prompt response. When I get confused, I have people who can help straighten me out. It's fun to learn all this stuff. The amount that I've gotten to hang out with scientists, that's one of the funner parts of the work I'm doing.

Take sanitation. It's not that savory of a topic, but what's hard about sanitation? Is it the liquid part? Is it the solid part? What if you take human excrement and you put it on fields, does it create a risk of infection? What's there? How do you sterilize it? Does it ruin the fertilizer-related properties of it? There's these people whose lives are thinking about this--hey, we're spending $135 million a year on water and sanitation so we should know about it and get to know some good people.

When I was down in South Africa I met the guy who runs the Durban water system, Neil MacLeod, who's one of the leading lights in a truly underfunded area of sanitation. These topics are pretty interesting. One of the forcing functions we've used is when I get Nathan's group to bring a bunch of smart physics, chemistry, and computer science people to discuss a topic, we get a briefing book and I use that as the opportunity to really get up to speed. How are vaccines manufactured? We had a session about how it's done today, how it will change, what benefits that brings in terms of costs, speed of dealing with an epidemic. It's actually a very interesting area.

I knew you were really involved in all of Nathan's stuff at Intellectual Ventures. I didn't realize that part of the arrangement was that he spends a quarter of his time on not-so-much commercially applicable, but important research.
Gates: He calls that Global Good, which is all funded by me. It's gotten some good visibility. He gave his Ted Talk on the photonic fence idea. There was a Newsweek article just recently that included the two people doing this disease modeling. Malaria is the first disease we are doing in-depth.

It seems like you are pretty intellectually stimulated. Is there anything you are missing about your full-time work at Microsoft?
Gates: Oh sure. The software revolution continues and, so, handwriting recognition, speech recognition, visual recognition, those are things we put big investments into, and I won't get a chance to be part of Microsoft popularizing those things. I miss great people that I worked with there and particular things, the interactive TV that is about to happen. Digital reading, that is starting to happen. You can go back to a speech I gave in 1988, where I said having an encyclopedia in digital form, what are the pluses and minuses of having that digital versus on paper. This is the first thing that's going to flip. We did Encarta, and Wikipedia of course essentially took that over, but the things that haven't happened yet, I'll be sorry not to be part of.

In terms of digital reading, probably the two best examples I can think of are the Kindle for books, and, it's still early, but in terms of a tablet, the iPad. The tablet--you guys have been working on it forever. Is it hard sometimes to watch that and not be able to have as direct an impact in fighting those battles?
Gates: I'd love to be involved. The Kindle, we chose not to do a device that couldn't browse. We thought that screen technology would let you browse and read both. The Kindle is a good contribution, but it is not general-purpose enough that Microsoft feels bad that we didn't do that. We chose very explicitly not to do something like that. There's many form factors that will be coming out based on the advances in screen technology. How much will it be a dedicated device? There's a lot of good thinking at Microsoft in that area. Hopefully, people will be surprised as that stuff rolls out.