Microsoft Chairman and Co-founder Bill Gates returned to the company this morning to talk about everything from the value of free software to social media to how computing can help solve global problems.
He spoke at Microsoft Research’s 14th annual Faculty Summit — the first time he’s spoken at this event. The summit is a chance for Microsoft’s advanced researchers, employed in labs around the world, to gather and to demonstrate their work, as well as for academics from outside the company to learn about that research and to talk with company leaders.
Gates’ opening keynote was delivered in a Q&A format with audience members, who asked about a range of issues.
Here’s some of what was discussed:
* In response to a question about what he thinks are the biggest problems facing humanity, Gates answered that the biggest problems we want to avoid are biological or nuclear terrorism and war. As for one of the largest problems that he’s focused on, that would be childhood mortality.
When he was born, Gates said, about 15 million children died each year. At the time the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was founded, that figure was 12 million. Now it’s 7 million. In about 15 years, with the world working together, he said, that figure should drop below 3 million.
* Gates talked about how innovations, such as online learning, is changing education. He’s interested in seeing how the online learning model can extend beyond the big-lecture format to incorporate more of how people actually learn: from each other, in discussions, or in labs.
The current university education system, he said, emphasizes “what you learned and how you learned it” — i.e. your credentials. With the rise of more digital tools, and more competition to help people learn skills, “I see those things decoupling,” he said.
* In response to a question about intellectual property, Gates said: “Thank God for commercial software. … Thank God for free software.” The combination of both commercial and free software, he said, both funds jobs (commercial) and allows people to get their software out there for others to play with and build on (free).
Similarly, he said, the intellectual property/patent system in place for pharmaceutical and agricultural companies allow them to develop new products and get them out there, while also working with organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help combat diseases. ”
“Anyone who thinks the world would be a better place if we got rid of (the current intellectual property protections) – that’s crazy,” he said.
* In terms of where personal computing might be headed (now that Microsoft’s early motto of a PC on every desk has basically been fulfilled, at least in developed countries), Gates talked about “personal agents” — where computing devices can keep track of your calendar, know where you need to go or what you need to do, and can help through communications including speech or text.
He referenced Microsoft Bob — the company’s smiley-faced cartoon virtual assistant designed to be a friendly interface for Windows 95 — as a personal agent that was “premature. … I think it will re-emerge,” he said. “We were just ahead of our time, like most of our mistakes.”
* In response to a question about whether Gates’ own philanthropy has led other billionaires to follow his example, Gates said: “I do think we’re in a second golden age of philanthropy.”
He said, for example, that half of what the Gates Foundation gives away each year comes from billionaire Warren Buffet, and that a hundred U.S. billionaires have signed on to The Giving Pledge, committing to give away the majority of their wealth either in their lifetimes or in their wills. Gates said he’s also been talking with other wealthy people around the world to do the same.
* Gates said he thinks of social media as an enrichment of communications. He believes social media will be profound in terms of people giving advice to and learning from each other. But “it’s not at that level yet,” he said.
* And, in response to a question about what role he thinks wearable tech will have in education, Gates replied: “Hmm. It’ll help you cheat, I guess?”
Bill Gates will give the opening keynote speech this morming, starting at 9 a.m., at Microsoft Research’s 14th annual Faculty Summit.
This is the first time that Microsoft chairman and founder Gates has given the keynote at the summit.
The summit is a chance for Microsoft’s advanced researchers from around the world to talk about and demonstrate their work, as well as for academics from outside Microsoft to find out more about that research.
I’ll be tweeting from the Gates keynote here.
The keynote will also be livestreamed here.
And I’ll update this post as the day goes along.