Ask Bill Gates Anything: Being a Billionaire is Strange, Microsoft Co-Founder Tells Students
How’s the life of a billionaire? “Quite strange,” says Bill Gates, who fielded questions from University of Washington students on Thursday evening as part of a lecture on the future of computing.
Gates’ talk, at a packed hall in the UW’s computer science building, focused on some areas where he thinks cheap, powerful computing will have a major impact on society, including education, disease, and robotics.
Gates recalled spending time on the UW campus as a young man, back in the days when computers were huge, powerful machines locked up in big research facilities.
“At strange hours you could essentially break in and use computer time,” Gates said. “I never did get a degree here, or anywhere else. But fortunately for me, my addiction to computers became easier to satisfy.”
Given the chance to ask Gates about anything, students treated the evening like a visit with the oracle, asking the Microsoft co-founder to expound on problems with the political system and the tax code, predict the future of computer interfaces, and more.
Gates didn’t disappoint, giving long answers that included some glimpses at his personal life, such as meeting his daughter’s boyfriend’s parents over Skype and being such a bookworm as a kid that “I had to have a quota about how much I was allowed to read.”
The webcast will be archived online by UW, but here are the highlights from where I sat:
A student from Beijing said her dream as a child was to be one of the richest people on Earth, so she asked Gates “what is one word of advice that you would give to someone like me to become someone like you?”
“I didn’t start out with the dream of being super-rich. And even after we started Microsoft, and the guys who ran Intel—Gordon Moore and those guys—were billionaires, I was like, ‘Wow, that must be strange.’ And so—it is, it’s quite strange,” he said to laughs from the crowd.
“But I think most people who’ve done well have sort of found something that they just are kind of nuts about doing. And then they figure out a system to hire their friends to do it with them. And if it’s an area of great impact, then sometimes you get financial independence,” Gates said.
“But wealth above a certain level, really, it’s a responsibility that then you’re going have to either, a.) leave it to your children, which may or may not be good for them, or b.) try to be smart about giving it away.
“So I can understand wanting to have millions of dollars, because there’s meaningful freedom that comes with that. But once you get much beyond that—you know, I have to tell you, it’s the same hamburger. Dick’s has not raised their prices enough,” Gates said to laughs. “But, you know, being ambitious is good. You just have to pick what you enjoy doing.”
MONEY & POLITICS
Asked if he thought there was a societal problem of wealth being concentrated in the hands of too few powerful forces with an outsized ability to influence politics, Gates pointed out that worldwide poverty is getting far better over time. But he also acknowledged frustrations with the American system, and said he believes education and lowering health care costs are big parts of the answer.
“If you really look at where we’re letting people down in terms of the American Dream, I wouldn’t say—and you can say this is self-serving—I wouldn’t say it’s because a few people are very rich. I’d say it’s because we aren’t doing a good job on education to give them an opportunity to move up into the top few percent,” Gates said.
“In terms of the very rich, Warren and I—Warren Buffett and I are the two wealthiest Americans— are certainly believing that the rich should be taxed a lot more … and the rich should give away more wealth than they currently do. And we’ve certainly been wiling to speak out about that,” Gates said.
“You can be very frustrated with the political system. I certainly am myself right now. I was in Washington, D.C., Monday and Tuesday meeting with members of the House and talking about things like cutting science budgets is not the way to keep the country strong,” he said. “I don’t know exactly why politics feels so frustrating right now. It certainly worked well up to now, and so maybe the system will realize the problems that it has there.”
TECH AND LIFE
A student raised worries about kids growing up in a technology-saturated age having a dulled ability to interact with others, but Gates said that was a typical worry and said his parents had to give him a reading quota to keep him from spending too much time with his nose buried in books.
“Whenever a new technology comes along, there’s a lot of fear about what it’s going to do. When the printing press came along, there was a great fear that people would just read books and not go out and seek real experiences,” Gates said. “I tried that when I was a kid, just reading books. And maybe I’d be more rounded if there hadn’t been books around,” he said to laughs.
(I wondered whether this was a reference to comments in Steve Jobs’ new biography, where the late Apple co-founder said Gates was unimaginative and would be “a broader guy” if he had taken LSD or traveled the world more?)
“I haven’t seen any evidence that socialization has really broken down in some bad way. I know that with Skype now, I meet my daughter’s boyfriend’s parents when I walk into her bedroom and there they are on Skype,” Gates said. “So, socialization is changing, but I’m not sure that you can really say that there’s a negative vector there. And there’s so many positive vectors about if you’re curious and you want to learn something. When I was young and I wanted to ask a question about, ‘Hey, what’s fertilizer?’ if the World Book didn’t have it, I wasn’t going to get the answer.”
Gates talked at length about the ways technology is affecting the education system, particularly how the Khan Academy‘s online video lessons are being tested to see how that model might help flip the traditional classroom model, with lectures at home and “homework” in the classroom.
Asked whether he thought computer science should start being introduced very early in kids’ educations, Gates said he actually would start with statistics.
“There’s certainly a level of complex, symbolic thinking that is valuable to be exposed to. Personally, I might put statistics in instead of geometry. I’d put statistics in before calculus,” Gates said. “Where computer science belongs in that hierarchy I don’t know.”
“I do find that people who have computer science backgrounds, when given a problem from another domain, the idea that they take the system and they look at the size of various elements, they look at the rate-limiting steps for various elements, and they can say, ‘OK, we need to optimize here,’ that type of thinking is like—uh, yeah,” Gates said. “And what other domain gives you that type of systems thinking? Maybe some parts of science and engineering, but the basic notion of what’s an algorithm, and that many systems in society are basically poorly designed algorithms, I think that’s very worthwhile.”
When asked to predict where personal technology would be headed now that we’re in the age of the pervasive smartphone, Gates talked about displays that show up on the human eye and sensors that allow hands to manipulate virtual screens—something that sounds like an outgrowth of the OmniTouch project from Microsoft Research.
“In a sense, the only difference between a phone and a PC is sort of the screen size. You have the size of the screen, and the input technique,” Gates said. “The next generation is either a screen that you can fold out to any size that you want, kind of going back to the papyrus scroll, or more likely it’s simply projecting onto your retina.”
“If I have a projection ability, and I have a camera that’s watching my gestures, I can just say, ‘OK, I want a newspaper this size,’ and I can get perfect HD resolution right in front of me. And the cost and weight of having that capability is almost zero,” he said.
“So eventually, we’ll laugh that there were these big, flat, glass screens that were expensive, and if you dropped them you broke [them],” Gates said. “All you’re trying to do is put stuff on your eye. That’s all. So what a weird contraption, all these LCD chemicals and chips and things. You’re just trying to project into my eye, why don’t you just go ahead and paint there?”
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