Watch the full Bill Gates keynote from Microsoft Research Faculty Summit 2013

Billg came home.

Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates returned to the Redmond campus Monday, speaking to a packed house of academics at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit. His presence turned some of the world’s top university instructors into eager students who asked Gates about everything from online education to intellectual property to robotics.

First, though, he discussed how technology has helped the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation make an impact around the globe.

We live in a golden age of computer science, he told the audience.

“The original vision of Microsoft started with a dream we had of what software could do if we had infinite computing and infinite storage,” he said. “That’s almost our reality today.”

At Microsoft, technology’s leap has helped transform Office from a tool to create documents to a tool to find business insights. Search has gone from a series of links to finding answers solving tasks.

Gates said technology’s impact on issues such as global health has been even more profound.

Since the foundation launched in 1994, it has helped save about 10 million lives that wouldn’t otherwise have been saved, Gates said. Powerful servers track the spread of malaria and polio—and hopefully will help the foundation with its goal to stamp them out.

Agriculture is another area where tech has had an impact. The Gates Foundation adds vitamins to crops in Uganda, for example, and has created drought-resistant crops. One of its biggest successes has been the development of rice that won’t die when submerged.

He encouraged the audience to think about how their work can help the world’s poorest people.

“Progress for the 2 billion most in need is really dependent on the rich computer science and software-driven advances you work on,” he said. “The opportunities are quite phenomenal, particularly as commercial companies like Microsoft work with you to take your great work and put it into products that can help millions of people.”

Rick Rashid, corporate vice president, then led a wide-ranging Q&A with Gates. Rashid kicked things off, asking what encouraged him most as he watched the world’s best researchers work.

Gates said the foundation is doing a much better job of collaborating with scientists. Historically, that’s been lacking. But when the Gates Foundation highlighted how difficult it was to keep viruses cold, scientists invented ways to store vaccines without using electricity.

What role will wearable technology play in the classroom? Gates thought for a few seconds. “It will help you cheat, I guess,” he joked. He admitted he didn’t see any immediate impact for it in education.

Gates was asked whether intellectual property issues ever hindered the foundation’s work. Do companies like Microsoft, that sell proprietary software, come into conflict with open source models?

The two work well together, Gates said.

Commercial software funds salaries and creates jobs—“terrible stuff like that,” he joked. Free software, meanwhile, helps spread ideas quickly.

The foundation has never run into an issue with patents, Gates said. In fact, he credited intellectual property with saving lives.

“The foundation at this point has saved about 10 million lives that otherwise wouldn’t have been saved,” he said. “Our goal for the next decade is to save 50 million. We couldn’t have done that (and won’t be able to in the future) except for our partnership with pharmaceutical companies.”

The patent system allows those companies to exist, he said. They sell drugs in rich countries and can afford to sell them elsewhere at marginal cost.

“Intellectual property is a complex system,” he said. “But anyone who thinks getting rid of it would make the world better off, that’s crazy.”

A professor from an Australian university asked Gates about an article he wrote in Scientific American, where he predicted a revolution in robotics. How was it coming along?

The word robot can be interpreted broadly, encompassing anything that can be automated, he replied. The history of farming is the history of automation, he said. Today, farmers in the United States have cameras in the field that can distinguish crop from weed and take action.

Still, a large-scale breakthrough hasn’t happened yet. But the work underway in the audience’s labs and universities—computer vision, modeling—means we’re getting closer.

An academic from the University of North Carolina thanked Gates for devoting his time and personal fortune to helping the world’s poor. But why haven’t other billionaires—or leaders in Washington, DC—followed suit?

They have, Gates said. His friend Warren Buffet provides a large chunk of Gates Foundation’s operating budget, for example. And about 100 billionaires have signed the foundation’s “giving pledge,” promising to give away most of their wealth.

As for how governments help, the bulk of the money flowing to the world’s poorest countries comes from foreign aid budget, he pointed out.

An online viewer asked how machine learning can help us understand more about disease and the climate. Gates said state of the art modeling has improved dramatically. That is helping researchers understand how diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis spread.

Understanding climate is harder, he said. There are several computer models that help predict the impact of, say, a particular geoengineering solution. But the models are nowhere near as complicated as the systems they try to explain.

A researcher from London asked Gates if he thought about unintended consequences. Killing billions of mosquitos might prevent the spread of disease, for example, but there could be unintended consequences on the food chain.

“I’m always glad there are people around to dampen my enthusiasm,” quipped Gates, who said he tends to focus on the good. He then said there are serious issues raised by the work of scientists and researchers. Bioterrorism is a real threat. Privacy is always a concern in an online, digital world.

“We’ll have debates,” he said. “If you go out to the developed world and see kids dying of malaria, or see a woman who can send her kids to school because she has better crops, it’s hard to feel too bad about the general arc. Because I see how innovations can help, I mostly see the positive. But we should be aware of the negatives and how to mitigate them.”

Although Gates mostly focused on the future, he did look backward—to Microsoft Bob.

When asked how computing will help the average user (not just the ‘uber geeks,’ as an academic from Carnegie Mellon put it) Gates discussed the promise of “personal agents” that help us perform daily tasks.

But the technology is hard to get right, he said.

“You always make mistakes on these things,” he said. “When the machine tries to do the table with numbers, or the dog comes up and says ‘Oh you didn’t do this thing right,’ Microsoft-Bob style.”

Microsoft Bob, a short-lived digital assistant in Windows 95, “tried a little personality that was definitely premature. I think it will reemerge, but perhaps with a wee bit more sophistication. We were just ahead of our time, like most of our mistakes.”

Jake Siegel
Microsoft News Center Staff