Bill Gates on education, patents, Microsoft Bob, and disease

Speaking at Microsoft's Faculty Summit Monday, Gates took questions from an audience of researchers about the work of his foundation and other topics.

Dan Farber
5 min read
When you go into a poor county, you want to fix health, education, agriculture and governance. It's the magic blend of those things, all of which reinforce each other, said Microsoft Chairman and Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation head Bill Gates. Microsoft

Bill Gates is accustomed to binary thinking. He spent decades turning ones and zeroes into Microsoft software used by billions of people. While he is still chairman of board, he has devoted the majority of his time to the Gates Foundation since 2008, seeking solutions to some of the most vexing problems in the world. He still thinks in binary form, looking at the troubled world through the lens of rich and poor countries, working with the rich to improve the lives of the poor.

Speaking at Microsoft's Faculty Summit on Monday, Gates took questions from an audience of researchers about the work of his foundation and other topics. Following are some of nuggets from the event and the full video.

The Gates Foundation is investing in education, even in rich countries like the U.S. He is a big fan and funder of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), such as the Khan Academy, and other digital tools that personalize, gamify and quantify teaching and learning as ways to help solve a worldwide education crisis, including the U.S., which suffers from the highest drop out of any "rich" country.

He discussed how educational institutions, such as the big lecture hall, need to adapt. "Just sticking a camera in front of someone with a captive audience doesn't measure up to what is needed," Gates said. The big lecture will be more akin to recorded music, with rock stars lecturers who are extremely good at presenting specific information and with the budget to edit and create richer experiences for students.

"If want to learn about oceanography, meteorology, game theory or knot theory, in 24 hours I know more about those topics and can test my knowledge. That's where a lot of deep innovation is going to come," Gates said. "It's only the beginning of something quite profound, even though the temptation to oversimplify is quite great."

Gates doesn't believe that education should be treated like a menu without restrictions. He mentioned how some of the universities his college-age daughter visited allow students to design their own majors and don't force any courses on them. "I'm a big believer that there should be one or two subjects that you should know something about in a pretty deep way. Everybody should know machine language, of course," he joked.

Wearable computing
When asked what role wearables will have in education, the astute Gates had to think a bit.

"Hmm, it will help you cheat I guess," he said. "The word 'wearable'...glasses that project onto eyes...things that monitor whether you are getting nervous during a test. I think wearable is a very cool thing, but I don't really couple it that much to education."

Microsoft Bob
Microsoft Bob, introduced by Gates at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 1995, provided a virtual house with rooms and doors and cartoon character assistants to help users navigate Windows and perform tasks with Microsoft applications.

Gates told the audience of researchers that Microsoft Bob didn't get it right, but that he thinks the concept will re-emerge with a bit more sophistication. "We were just ahead of our time, like most of our mistakes," he said. Currently, Microsoft is behind the times as Apple's Siri and Google Now provide personal assistance by understanding what users are doing and anticipating their needs.

When asked about the open-source and proprietary software related to his foundation work, Gates responded, "Thank God for commercial software. It funds salaries and gives people jobs and terrible things like that. And thank God for free software, which lets you get things out there and play around."

He also was thankful that the pharmaceutical and agricultural companies are protected by patent laws that allow them to create and sell product and hire researchers. "Those guys doing proprietary those seeds have given us knowledge to help poor farmers," he said. "It's a complex system. Anybody who thinks getting rid of it would make the world better, I can tell that's crazy....The mix of commercial with free, without any coercion by countries forcing to be one model or other, in my view is working very well."

He added that he doesn't see any issues related to patents for the foundation. "In the poor countries we work in, nobody files or enforces patents. It's essentially a transfer of people buying drugs in rich world, who are now enabling these things to be done at marginal cost in the poor world," Gates said. "In the same way commercial software providers give software away for basically free to these educational projects. You can do the tiering in the intellectual property world where you want to fund the R&D, that works pretty well."

The biggest problem facing humanity
Gates was asked what he viewed as the most important problem facing humanity that the assembled researchers could impact. "The most important problem we want to avoid is biological and nuclear terrorism," he said. "For nation-state war, the risk of that on any large scale is fortunately the lowest that it has even been....Some people should focus on that."

A major part of the solution is using technology, as the NSA has been doing with questionable legality, to aid in preventing attacks. Gates said, "A small group of scientists could create something that could literally kill billions. We actually need to allow there to be surveillance systems to try in advance in trusted way using the information for the right things to interdict that type of unintended consequence."

Gates mentioned the tragic situation of people dying in Syria's ongoing war but pointed out that people don't have much awareness of millions of children dying every year from preventable diseases. When the Gates Foundation was started in 2000, 12 million children a year were dying, but the number has been reduced to 7 million because of new vaccines, he said. "Over next 15 years, the world working together, if do the right things, we should be able to get that number below 3 million. It was 20 million the year I was born."

"Somebody else might say employability of youth -- how to educate kids so they can have meaningful jobs and not just feel like things aren't very worthwhile -- old people, health care costs, political dysfunction...lots of things to choose from but childhood death gets pretty high up for me."

The Gates Foundation is also looking at reducing the impact of bad nutrition and disease in poor countries, where about 40 percent of children aren't fully able to develop their brain and become literate contributors to society. "The average IQ in sub-Saharan Africa is about 82," Gates said, "and that's nothing to do with genetics or race or anything like that -- that's disease and that's what disease does to you, and that's why these things are such an extreme poverty trap."

The Gates Foundation at this point has saved 10 million lives that otherwise wouldn't have been be saved, he stated. His goal in the next decade is to save 50 million lives. "When you go into a poor county, you want to fix health, education, agriculture and governance," Gates said. "It's the magic blend of those things, all of which reinforce each other."

It's a magic blend that the Gates Foundation has married with technology innovation, such as new vaccines and seeds, to enable much faster progress in bringing people and countries out of poverty.