Bill Gates just completed his second Reddit Ask-Me-Anything and answered questions ranging from his new role at Microsoft to his most expensive guilty pleasure to financial advice he’d give to people making less than $100,000.
There was a bunch of good stuff from the hour-long AMA, so we’ve compiled every question and every answer from today’s Q&A session below. Enjoy:
Questions about Gates’ work at Microsoft:
Redditor: Can you describe your new role at Microsoft?
Gates: I am excited about how the cloud and new devices can help us communicate and collaborate in new ways. The OS won’t just be on one device and the information won’t just be files – it will be your history including being able to review memories of things like kids growing up. I was thrilled Satya asked me to pitch in to make sure Microsoft is ambitious with its innovation. Even in Office there is a lot more than can be done.
I make sure we pick ambitious scenarios and that we have a strong architecture to deliver on them. I encourage good work (hopefully).
Redditor: How will your time be divided up between the foundation and Microsoft now that the CEO has asked you to step up?
Gates: My time will be about 2/3 Foundation and 1/3 Microsoft. I will focus on product work mostly.
Redditor: How does Mr. Nadella’s vision differ from yours and Mr Ballmer’s?
Gates: Satya is taking a fresh view of where Microsoft is – strengths and weaknesses. A new person gets to step back and change the focus in some ways. He is off to a great start.
Redditor: What is your favorite project you have ever worked on at Microsoft?
Gates: The Windows project which required a lot of patience was great. Office was also great. Together they defined the big success of the 1990s for Microsoft. Office connected to the cloud has a LOT of potential and we are off to a good start. Cloud Storage needs to be a lot richer though.
Redditor: Is the Desktop computer really dead? What does that say for the future of computer programming?
Gates: The boundaries between form factors is blurring but the range of screen sizes and different input techniques will still mean there are desktop devices and wall devices. However applications will be able to run across multiple devices including the whiteboard.
Questions about Gates’ charitable work:
Redditor: Any luck with the condom design competition?
Gates: This is a sensitive topic. The idea was that men don’t like the current design so perhaps something they would be more open to would allow for less HIV transmission. We still haven’t gotten the results. One grantee is using carbon nanotubes to reduce the thickness
Redditor: Besides improving the education system in the U.S., what do you believe is the next big issue that we need to address domestically?
Gates: Education would be the top issue since it is key to individual opportunity and to the country as a whole and we are not doing as well as other countries. After that I would say immigration since the injustice of the current system is incredible.
Redditor: You’re working with TerraPower to bring a large scale source of low carbon energy onto the commercial grid. What, in your opinion, is the biggest impediment to bringing new nuclear technology onto the global market?
Gates: We need low cost energy that is totally reliable. Most renewables will require storage which is expensive to do this. Nuclear will make a contribution if we can make it safer, cheaper and deal with waste better. Terrapower has a design (on paper) that addresses all of these issues so now we are talking to countries about building it. It is a 4th generation reactor design that uses depleted uranium.
Redditor: How do you make sure that you manage/pick people to manage Terrapower so that it financially succeeds by building a product which makes money–and doesn’t just make a dream plant?
Gates: Terrapower is like most fast reactors which use Sodium cooling. We tried to stick to proven approaches wherever we could. There have been about 10 Fast Reactors. By using this approach we have no fuel problems and very limited waste generation. Most important is the inherent safety – no human involvement for shut down.
Redditor: What is the biggest obstacle the developed world needs to overcome, in order to help the developing world?
Gates: The greatest tragedy is kids who die or never get enough food to develop physically or mentally to achieve their potential. We need vaccines and nutrition to solve this. We are making progress but not fast enough. Cynicism is the biggest barrier – www.gatesletter.com talks about this.
Redditor: What is the worst case that you know of where your philanthropy backfired?
Gates: A lot of our failures have been backing science that didn’t work out. One thing that is tough is when you think the government will take over something you start but they don’t – we had that with a school lunch program. It might have been better if we hadn’t done it.
Redditor: You and Melinda recently posted a piece of writing about your optimism for future. Could you elaborate as to the path you see the world taking in the next 50 years or so?
Gates: I think in the next 20-30 years we will be able to almost eliminate gross inequity like the fact a child in a poor country has 30x more chance of dying than a child in a middle income or rich country. Literacy, nutrition,… These are basic things that we can afford to give to every child. In the meantime the rich world needs to make sure we handle the environment and the diseases of the rich.
Redditor: How close are you to wiping out polio worldwide?
Gates: We are very close. India just went 3 years with no cases. Pakistan is our toughest location right now because some parts of the Taliban have not allowed vaccinators to come in and have even attacked vaccinators. We are hopeful this will get resolved since no one wants their kid to be paralyzed. I spend a lot of time making sure the polio campaign is doing the best it can. We have great computer models that help guide our activities.
Redditor: What’s one of your goals for the next year… and how can we help?
Gates: Wow. That is a nice thing to ask. I wish the debate about education would focus on helping teachers improve and what we know about that. Right now it is caught up in state versus federal and testing versus no-testing. In general politics needs to focus on the problems rather than attacking the other side. Asian countries are helping their teachers improve and the impact is huge.
Redditor: Also, this is pertinent to where I live — India. A few people have a somewhat negative impression of the work that the B&MGF is doing; specifically, they claim it has an agenda to push products manufactured by American drug companies. Would you like to respond to that?
Gates: In terms of the Foundation we fund vaccines that save childrens lives. The majority of those are made in India. In fact ironically India makes a lot of vaccines that are used in other countries but not in India. The Foundation is not trying to help anyone make money – simply to reduce the number of children who die from things like diarrhea and pneumonia.
Redditor: How do you deal with the anti-vaccination sentiment that seems to be growing in our society? Have you ever found yourself justifying your efforts to reduce polio?
Gates: In all countries vaccine rumors seem to always get ahead of vaccine facts. This is unfortunate since it has meant measles and pertussis deaths in communities where enough kids don’t get vaccinated.
Gates joined new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and former CEO Steve Ballmer at Microsoft last week.
Questions about advice, recommendations:
Redditor: If you were a current computer science student what area would you start studying heavily? If you feel like expanding on that, why do you think this area deserves the attention and how do you see it changing the technology game in the next 10 years?
Gates: The ultimate is computers that learn. So called deep learning which started at Microsoft and is now being used by many researchers looks like a real advance that may finally learn. It has already made a big difference in video and audio recognition – more progress in the last 3 years than ever before.
(Side note — someone commented on the question with “My guess is that machine learning would be his answer to the first question,” to which Gates responded: “Yes – the terms are a little confusing. Learning can mean a low level thing which all machine learning algorithms do or the high level idea of reading a book and understanding what it means.”)
Redditor: Any advice on how entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow should go about balancing business and philanthropy … or do they have to succeed first in order to give later?
Gates: Just creating an innovative company is a huge contribution to the world. During my 20′s and 30′s that was all I focused on. Ideally people can start to mix in some philanthropy like Mark Zuckerberg has early in his career. I have enjoyed talking to some of the Valley entrepreneurs about this and I am impressed and how early they are thinking about giving back – much earlier than I did.
Redditor: What are you currently reading, or plan to read next, that you suggest Reddit pick up?
Gates: Well Smil keeps writing great books like Made in the USA and Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization. Paul Farmer has 3 books recently – to Repair the World is very accessible. In the Company of the Poor is a harder read but also good. www.gatesnotes.com tracks my reading closely. (http://www.thegatesnotes.com/books)
Gates is a big fan of Dick’s Drive-In.
Redditor: What is your best personal financial advice for people who make under $100,000 per year?
Gates: Invest in your education.
(Side note: Someone commented on the question with, “I feel like he is probably one of the least qualified people to answer this question. When was the last time Bill Gates made less than $100,000 per year? Not to say he doesn’t know the value of money or have an immense knowledge of business and finance, i just don’t think Bill Gates has a lot of experience living off of a 5 figure salary.” Gates responded: “I never went for a big salary but your basic point is correct.”)
Redditor: I hear way back when you were a fast food connoisseur. What was your favorite fast food and why?
Gates: Burger King and McDonalds are fine but In-N-Out is a very good burger. Dicks and Burgermaster are the local special burgers.
Other random questions:
Redditor: How do you feel about the NSA and its oversight of computer usage?
Gates: This is a complex issue. Privacy will be increasingly important as cameras and GPS sensors are gathering information to try and be helpful. We need to have trust in the way information is protected and gathered. There is a role for the government to try and stop crime and terrorism but it will have to be more open. I do think terrorism with biological or nuclear weapons is something we want to minimize the chance of.
(Side note — someone commented on the question above with, “My money is on not getting an answer to this,” to which Gates responded: “I did answer unless the NSA deletes my answer.”)
Redditor: What is your most expensive guilty pleasure purchase?
Gates: Owning a plane is a guilty pleasure. Warren Buffett called his the Indefensible. I do get to a lot of places for Foundation work I wouldn’t be able to go to without it.
Photo via Flickr user btckeychain.
Redditor: What are your thoughts about cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin?
Gates: The foundation is involved in digital money but unlike Bitcoin it would not be anonymous digital money. In Kenya M-pesa is being used for almost half of all transactions. Digital money has low transaction costs which is great for the poor because they need to do financial transactions with small amounts of money. Over the next 5 years I think digital money will catch on in India and parts of Africa and help the poorest a lot. (http://www.impatientoptimists.org/posts/2011/01/mobile-phones-savings-a-powerful-pair)
Redditor: What is different about Bill Gates age 20 years and today, except for the time?
Gates: 20 years ago I would stay in the office for days at a time and not think twice about it – so I had energy and naivete on my side. Now hopefully I am a bit more mellow but with a little extra wisdom.
Redditor: Dear Mr. Gates…can you still do this? Be honest.
Gates: No I cannot. I can still jump but not over a full sized garbage can like I used to be able to. Be careful – it can hurt if you don’t succeed.
(Someone commented “It probably still depends on the size of the chair,” to which Gates responded: “Yes. A small enough chair I can still jump over.”
Redditor: Steve Jobs had Ashton Kutcher. Who do you want to portray you in a biopic?
Gates: (Someone commented “Samuel L. Jackson,” to which Gates responded: “Melinda would probably watch that version.”
Redditor: What smartphone and/or tablet are you currently using?
Gates: I am using a Surface 2 PRO which works well for me.
Redditor: What role would you say higher education (university and beyond) played in your success? What is your current opinion of the higher education system?
Gates: I love college courses. I still watch a lot of them. I read a lot about people who had been successful. College was fun for me. So the part of the higher education system I got to experience was amazing – unfortunately most people don’t get to go to Harvard or the equivalent.
It is strange to call me a college drop out in all but the most literal sense. I went for 3 years and took enough courses to graduate. So I am kind of a failure as a drop out and I don’t have a degree….
Redditor: Hey Bill, have you made any plans to artificially prolong your life? Honest.
Gates: No I don’t. Other people think about that but I wouldn’t want to extend my last few years unless that is happening for most people.
Redditor: Are you a fan of Video Games? If so, What is your favourite Video Game?
Gates: I am not a huge gamer. My son knows a LOT more than I do about what is cool on Xbox. I played Halo but the sports games that the whole family can use are the things I use the most. I threw the javelin very very far!
If Gates didn’t go into computer science, he may have been a lawyer like his father.
Redditor: Hey Bill, if you didn’t go into computers and later found Microsoft, what do you think you would be doing?
Gates: I considered law and math. My Dad was a lawyer. I think though I would have ended up in physics if I didn’t end up in computer science.
Redditor: What is your biggest fear?
Gates: Kids getting hurt or sick.
Redditor: Who is your role model?
Gates: People who devote their lives to working in poor countries are doing amazing work with very little visibility. I have gotten to meet some of them.
Redditor: I’d just like to know, what is something you enjoy doing that you think no one would expect from you?
Gates: Playing Bridge is a pretty old fashioned thing in a way that I really like. I was watching my daughter ride horses this weekend and that is also a bit old fashioned but fun. I do the dishes every night – other people volunteer but I like the way I do it.
Redditor: What are your thoughts on direct cash transfers like Give Directly?
Gates: I favor improving the health of a country to enable them to be self-sufficient. I will be interested to see how cash transfer works out – in some cases like helping someone pay a school fee it could be catalytic. Our focus is health and agriculture which can transform a country. As long as kids don’t have enough nutrition a country won’t be able to support itself.
Redditor: Was that a Christopher Walken impersonation in your myth video?
Gates: I love him but any similarity was not intentional. One of my favorite movies is Brainstorm – I highly recommend it!