2014-02-11

Co.Exist

Bill Gates On Why The World Needs To Be Less Cynical And Start Focusing On Real Problems

Read the philanthropist's answers to questions from the Internet about his myriad projects around the world—and if he'd bother to pick up a $100 bill if he saw it on the ground.

Bill Gates did an informative public Q&A on Reddit yesterday, part of the Internet community’s regular “Ask Me Anything” feature. We learned a lot of quirky tidbits about the world’s biggest philanthropist, including the fact that he hates being called that because many other, less wealthy individuals make much larger personal sacrifices in obscurity. We also learned he’d still pick up a $100 bill if he found one on the street (but he’d donate it), that he considers owning a private airplane his greatest guilty pleasure, and that he won’t try to artificially prolong his life until that’s an option available to most normal people too. He also does the dishes every night. In summary: Bill Gates—a pretty good guy.

Aside from the fun he had, Gates also said some pretty important things about his philanthropic vision and various endeavors. Here are a couple of highlights worth considering in more detail:

Misplaced Cynicism Is Our Biggest Barrier To Improving The World

According to Gates, the greatest tragedy in the world is kids who die or are malnourished and can’t achieve their potential either physically or mentally. The solutions are simple: vaccines and nutrition. He says: “We are making progress but not fast enough. Cynicism is our biggest barrier.”

Gates addressed this issue in longer depth recently in his annual letter, in which he focused on dispelling the myth that foreign aid is a waste. Yesterday, before leaving his Reddit chat, he asked the Reddit community for their communications advice on this point: “How can we help more people understand that foreign aid isn’t 25% or even 10% of the U.S. federal budget, but less than 1%?”

The Biggest Single Issue In the U.S. Is Reforming Education

Gates believes that improving the education system is the single most important domestic issue in the United States, “since it is key to individual opportunity and to the country as a whole and we are not doing as well as other countries.” He also makes some interesting points about how people need to encourage politicians to focus on problems, not scoring points:

“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.”

On When Philanthropy Has Failed

Startups are famous for the mantra of trying to celebrate and learn from their failures. Gates, arguably the most successful technology startup founder of all time, still takes this idea to heart in being frank about where his foundation has failed.

“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.”

Why The NSA Needs To Be More Open

Gates noted that privacy is going to become more and more important as cameras and GPS sensors become more ubiquitous. There will have to be a balancing act in regard to this complex issue. He says: “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.”

On The Hunt For Better Condoms, Nuclear Power, And Polio Prevention:

Bill Gates has his fingers in a lot of pies. Gates fielded some questions related to his more ambitious projects, and made an (intended?) condom pun, to boot.

On a contest to design a more appealing condom: “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.”

On the progress of TerraPower, the nuclear power startup that is building a new kind of fission reactor (Gates is a major investor): “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 fourth-generation reactor design that uses depleted uranium."

On how computer models can help eradicate the last of the polio disease: “We are very close. India just went three 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.”

All in all, it’s always interesting when Gates speak, and it’s even better when he jumps—on the jumping, he says he’s slowing down, but claims he still has got some skills.

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3 Comments

  • This is the folksy version of the old Windows propaganda...a casual diatribe to deflect people from the real issues.

    Agreed that we need to completely overhaul our education system in America.

    Philanthropy has failed in many ways...Bill's buddy Warren Buffett's son, Peter Buffett, called out the philanthropic elite in a NYTImes OpEd piece - (www.nytimes.com/2013/07/27/opinion/the-charitable-industrial-complex.html)

    Bottom Line: Its "nice" to save children from mortality issues, but then you have to feed them and then they have to have governance systems that allow them to flourish. Africa has neither. And America has neither, any more.

    Its time to confront reality. I will do so in my talk and panel discussion at UCLA in April. I will reveal a bit more about Smarter Local Government and Cognitive Digital Democracy - concept that leverage ICT to return power to the people.

  • Little do people know that almost all our foreign aid (1%) is being shuttled into a already developed nation. Oh, you guessed it. Our never satisfied "ally" Israel. We feed them technology, rockets and money (1/4 of their defense budget is own the American taxpayer). All so they can make campaigns into the Gaza strip to kill innocents and colonize a land that is home to many religions. Just recently in 2009 an attack by Israel forces in the Gaza Strip led to 1,387 Pakistani deaths (mostly civilians) while Israel only had 13 causalities (3 being civilians). You tell me what's wrong with this picture and why we aren't addressing it in politics?

  • George Hershkovits

    We are addressing many issues in politics, but in order to know them one must be first and foremost educated. Israel is the only democracy around in the Middle East; the only country who treats their so called enemies on their finest operating tables in the heart of their country, one of the leading start-up nations in the world according to the OECD, a country who owns SodaStream; a place of work for many Palestinians who are ever so grateful, a country where many medical breakthroughs have been developed that have saved lives in your own country as well, a chosen people by the Almighty....