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.”

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 … Next Page »

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