“Are the brightest minds working on the most important problems?” Bill Gates asked an audience of students and faculty in Kresge on Wednesday.
The Microsoft co-founder, now a full-time philanthropist, visited MIT to talk about pressing problems like health care in the developing world and the U.S. education system — “important” problems, he said in his speech, that affect billions of people, yet fail to attract the attention of talented people who could make a difference.
“We have lots of talent that could be shifted, at least to some degree, from sports, entertainment, investing.” he said. “Even in the area of innovation…a lot of that focuses on the needs of the rich.”
Gates spoke highly of MIT’s OpenCourseWare project, which he praised for inspiring many other colleges to put their course notes and lecture videos online. “MIT’s absolutely at the forefront,” he said.
He added that there is still plenty of work to be done, like making online learning more interactive and aggregating the best lectures, which are right now scattered across the internet.
Before the speech, Gates attended a round-table discussion with professors, and spoke with students who presented their projects on global development.
The visit was part of a cross-country college tour, starting with Stanford and Berkeley on Monday, the University of Chicago on Tuesday, and finishing with MIT and Harvard on Wednesday.
It was the first time that Gates has spoken to college students since he left Microsoft to focus on philanthropy.
Tackling the world’s toughest problems
During his talk, titled “Giving Back: Finding the Best Way to Make A Difference,” Gates asked students to consider the world’s most serious challenges: improving the lives of the poorest; improving education, health, nutrition.
“It always stuns me how few bright minds have worked on those things, how little effort and energy and investigation there is on those things,” he said.
He referred to his 30-plus year career at Microsoft as something he “fell into,” without necessarily thinking through the social impact of his work. He said his generation was not as aware as people are today of problems like poverty. Only until he was in his forties, Gates said, did he start to realize, for instance, “how tough health conditions were.”
Gates outlined two of the world’s most pressing problems, childhood mortality and education, to illustrate the volume of work that needs to be done.
Since 1960, he said, the number of children under five who died each year fell from 20 million to nine million. “By far, most of that [reduction] is vaccines,” Gates said. Despite their benefits, he pointed out that vaccines get less than one percent of medical spending.
For many countries, childhood deaths are still a huge problem. Gates illustrated that point with a factoid: If you take all the people in the U.S. who were born in the same year you were born, a quarter of them will have died by the time you turn 60. But in the poorest countries, a quarter have already died before age four.
Gates also emphasized the importance of education and the grave challenges that the U.S. faces. “I was absolutely blown away at the statistics,” Gates said. “I had no idea of how poorly the education system in the U.S. is working: Over 30 percent of kids drop out of high school. If you’re a minority, 50 percent drop out of high school.”
He identified teaching quality as one aspect of education where the potential for improvement is huge — if only researchers fully understood what makes a good teacher.
Another way to improve education is through technology. Here, Gates said, MIT has been a leader with OpenCourseWare.
“I’m a super-happy user,” he said. “I re-took physics with Walter Lewin, I took Professor Sadoway’s course and loved that — I recommend it to everybody.” Of the 33 courses that have video, Gates said he’s taken 11.
But Gates made it clear that projects like OCW are just the beginning. He envisions a system that brings together the best lectures and course materials, and blends them with interactive elements and user feedback and possibly the opportunity for accreditation.
“Right now it’s all pretty fragmented,” he said. “This can improve very substantially.”
Ultimately, Gates said he did not know how exactly to attract “bright minds” to these challenges, but asked the audience to imagine such a future, in which education policy and agricultural technologies are debated with the same fervor as March Madness.
“If we really did that,” he said, “we might delay the invention of a new financial product by a few years, [and] we might even delay that new baldness drug by a few years, but if it helps on the important problems, I think it’s a good thing.”
After his speech, Gates invited students to pepper him with questions. Matthew R. Denman, a graduate student in Nuclear Engineering asked about the future of nuclear power, referencing Gates’s startup TerraPower, which has a design for a new kind of reactor that uses depleted uranium, not enriched uranium as most plants do.
Gates was firmly pro-nuclear. He criticized what he called “cuddly” technologies like wind and solar for requiring large amounts of land and for relying on intermittent sources of energy. Gates said. He called for more innovation in nuclear power plants. “I love nuclear, it does this radiation thing that’s tricky, but...” he said, to audience laughter.
Gates was also asked how it felt to be the richest person in the world.
“Well the marginal return for extra dollars does drop off,” he said. “I haven’t found any burgers at any price that are better than McDonalds,’” he said. He admitted that he did enjoy some of the perks of wealth, like private air travel, though he added that after a “few million or something, it’s all about how you’re going to give it back.”
Student innovation displayed on project tours
Before the speech, Gates discussed development issues with professors at a private meeting. He also attended a poster session in the Gates tower at Stata, where seven students presented their development projects.
Christopher A. Moses ’10 showed off Sana (formerly Moca), a software system that lets nurses send diagnostic information to doctors using camera-equipped cell phones. Moses said he was impressed by Gates’s knowledge of development issues. “It was great hearing his feedback, it’s not all the time you get someone, because he’s so well versed in all of these projects,” he said.
Ritu Tandon ’10 developed a website that bridges OpenCourseWare and syllabi from Monterey Tech in Mexico, allowing students to supplement their classes with materials from MIT. During her presentation, Gates asked, since so few OCW courses have video content, whether linking to plain lecture notes would be as useful. “On OCW, it’s 33 courses out of 1,981 that have the full videos right now,” he said, rattling off the numbers by heart.
Later, Tandon remarked, “I was expecting it to be a lot more intimidating, but he was so laid back. It was like having a conversation with any ordinary person.”