Bill Gates on Saving Babies, Educating Kids, and Picking a Major

Xconomy Boston — 

On a sunny spring afternoon, William Henry Gates III strolled into the Harvard University science center. Several hundred students and invited guests were waiting for him in the auditorium. Security was tight, but not overly so (he’s used to it).

Gates was there Thursday for a conversation with Frank Doyle, Harvard’s dean of engineering and applied sciences (pictured on the left with Gates), and to take questions from students on a variety of topics: his time at Harvard, his advice to young people, and his various efforts to improve healthcare, education, and living conditions around the globe.

Gates dropped out of Harvard in the mid-’70s to start Microsoft, and the rest is history. Now, one of the world’s richest people spends his time and money trying to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. Infant mortality. Poverty. Inequities in education. Climate change. (He’s also trying “to be a better parent,” he said—more on that below.)

As you’d expect, the conversation and Q&A at Harvard was very wide-ranging. The thing that stood out to me initially was Gates’s admission that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts to improve K-12 education in the U.S.—which date back to the group’s founding in 2000—have not made much of an impact so far.

“We haven’t seen a big difference even after 20 years, but we’ll keep going,” Gates said. There are political and funding challenges at the state level, he said, and also issues with teacher training and pay. All of that contributes to the huge disparity in educational opportunities for kids in the U.S.

By comparison, Gates talked about his team’s successes in bringing down infant mortality rates in developing countries in Africa. “We did not expect to do that. We thought improving U.S. education would be easier than that,” he said.

But education is complicated, in part because it is “essentially a social construct,” Gates said. Providing equal access is challenging because you have to create the right culture where kids come to class, their parents care about their grades, teachers are engaged and interactive, and so forth. And by the way, using computers isn’t that important at early ages, he said, and making online courses available later “in a sense doesn’t change what counts.”

Still, Gates seemed optimistic, even as America’s place in the world is shifting. “We have innovation on our side,” he said. But with rising global competition, the U.S. has to adjust to “the fact that we’re in a multilateral world,” he said. And that doesn’t change his ambition to solve big problems. “If I had a wand for the [rest of the] world, I’d fix nutrition,” he said. “If I had a wand for the U.S., I’d fix education.”

A few other highlights from the Q&A:

—About his time as a Harvard student, Gates said, “I wish I’d been more sociable. I was so anti-social, I didn’t know men’s clubs existed.” He never went to a football or basketball game. Fortunately, he said, fellow undergrad Steve Ballmer (Microsoft CEO to be) decided Gates needed to do some drinking. “That was educational,” Gates said to great laughter, adding that in the end, “It worked out all right.”

—Gates said he finished number three in his hardest freshman math class (Math 55). He said number one is now a lawyer in New York, and number two is a professor of chaos theory at Princeton. (There’s a lesson in there somewhere.)

—A student asked about Gates’s parenting philosophy and whether his kids might similarly drop out of college. He replied, “My eldest graduates from Stanford in June. I’m optimistic she won’t follow in my footsteps.” Gates added that he subscribes to the “love and logic” parenting method (look up the books). “No matter what you say, your kid will look at how you deal with the world” and follow that model, he said, adding that being calm and predictable is his basic approach. That said, he admitted his wife Melinda “does 80 percent” of the parenting work.

—In response to a question about the lack of scientific literacy in U.S. politics, Gates said, “It’s not just the politicians.” He lamented the spread of misinformation and amplification of biases by online social networks and other systems. “It’s the anti-science that’s a problem,” he said, acknowledging that “we’re in a dip” when it comes to politicians’ attitudes towards science.

—Another student asked what Gates would study if he were in college now. “The thing you’re likely to be world-class at is what you obsess over from age 12 to 18,” he said. “I would go into software, and today that means artificial intelligence. Computers still can’t read. They can’t take a book of information and pass an AP test. That’s a solvable problem. I’ve always wanted to solve that problem. I’m jealous that one of you can solve it. So, I would go into A.I.”

—Overall, Gates sounded a very hopeful tone as he reflected on what a room full of ambitious young people could accomplish in their lifetime:

“It’s a more interesting time to be lucky enough to be a student at Harvard. [You have] the ability to take innovation and solve problems, including a class of problems I’d call inequity problems,” he said. “They’ve eluded being solved, so the easy problems are not the ones you’ll work on. Health costs, climate change, robots that do good things and not bad things, policies around those things. This is a fascinating time to be alive. In your generation, cancer, infectious disease, so many things will be solved.”

Photo credit: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University