Bill Gates is known to play his cards close to the vest, but in an interview with GeekWire, the Microsoft co-founder opened up on a wide range of topics, covering everything from his evolving philanthropic goals to his memories of his late friend and former business partner, Paul Allen.
Gates sat down with GeekWire co-founder Todd Bishop to discuss Bill and Melinda Gates’ annual letter, published this week. The letter focused on developments that surprised the philanthropists over the past year, and what those surprises can teach us about the world’s biggest challenges.
“A benefit of surprises is that they’re often a prod to action,” the letter says. “It can gnaw at people to realize that the realities of the world don’t match their expectations for it.”
It’s easy to see why the past year was defined by surprises for Gates. The U.S. political climate has been a roller coaster of unexpected twists and turns. It was also the year that Allen, Gates’ childhood friend and Microsoft co-founder, passed away.
Continue reading for Gates’ reflections on the state of the world, the surprises of 2018, and more from his interview with GeekWire.
Listen to the podcast above, or subscribe to the GeekWire Podcast in your favorite podcast app, and watch the full video below.
The nationalist case for globalism
GeekWire: In your annual letter, one of the points that you make — and I think this may be the point that’s going to get the most attention when this letter comes out — is that there is a nationalist case for globalism. Very important topic right now, not only in the United States, but in Europe and other parts of the world. Let’s hear your nationalist case for globalism.
Bill Gates: If you disengage from the world, the instability in terms of those economies, diseases that can spread globally very quickly, there’s lots of reasons why that’s going to hurt you. Even if you say that the normal sort of empathetic humanitarian reasons of all lives have equal value and it bothers you that young children are dying in those countries, even if you zero that out, my view is that the impact per dollar of the aid, which in the case of the U.S. is not even half a percent of the budget, that as General Mattis has said, if you don’t fund the aid budget, you’ll have to spend more money on bullets. [That’s the case for] getting Vietnam to develop, and so we no longer think of it as a place we need to send soldiers to. Now [Vietnam has] actually done well enough, it’s graduating as an aid recipient, that is its domestic resources are funding things. India is graduating. Indonesia is graduating. Africa is a tougher set of countries but even there, the health improvements, which is our foundational piece, the health improvements have been super rapid. And that’s a place where our foundation plays a strong role. We’ve given over $10 billion to these health-related activities, and we’ve seen a fantastic result. So we’re going to keep doing that.
GW: It seems, though, a very difficult case to make in the world today, in the U.S. and internationally. Is that fact a blip? In other words, are we just happening to encounter temporary opposition to that view of a nationalist case for globalism, or is this the way it is going to be going forward? What’s your position on that?
Bill Gates: Well, definitely if people are disappointed in their government, they feel like it’s not respecting their values, or it’s not prioritizing them, or lets somebody else get in a better deal than they get, that general negativity can lead to the government not being able to invest in these long-term issues. If voters feel like, okay, the elites kind of like doing this stuff, and the elites are not caring about us, that really hurts. So it’s absolutely a wave of questioning … should we be in alliances with other countries, like NATO? Should we, the U.S., take this leading role in helping make the world a very, very stable place, or should we just sort of say, “Okay. That’s a waste of money. We won’t help out with those things.”
Since World War II, you’re almost taking for granted that the world is getting more stable, and that these investments make sense. I’m hoping it’s a cyclical thing, particularly if we can get people to go and see the work. Anybody who goes and sees it gets very drawn in because you see the kids who are still dying. You see the kids who are surviving. You see how it’s very little money and this is the investment. That stability is important even here in the U.S. We don’t want Ebola or a flu coming out of developing countries and coming here.
GW: What would you say on this topic to President Trump and Congressional leaders?
Bill Gates: Well, I haven’t seen him for quite a while, but the American voters should be very proud of these programs that President Bush started. He said that there was an AIDS emergency, and created a U.S.-only thing called PEPFAR, that’s very generous, over $5 billion a year. He said the U.S. would be a third of the global fund where lots and lots of countries give. The U.S. has been out in front, and 23 million people are alive today because of that generosity. I’d want [Trump] to go and see that, meet those people and think about, “Okay, Africa, we’ve got this great population growth. It’s got a challenge from climate change. That’s where most of the challenge will be. Should we stay engaged there with aid programs that aren’t gigantic? I mean, the U.S., our defense budget is way larger than anybody else’s. The aid budget isn’t 5 percent of the defense budget, and yet it does help with the same kind of aims.
On climate change
GW: You have raised some skepticism among people who are really advocating instead of nuclear, green energy sources, so things like wind and solar. Do you see it as an either, or? Do you see it as a competition between nuclear and those? How do you respond to the criticism of your support of nuclear energy?
Bill Gates: No. In most places, if you have the right amount of wind or sun, that’s going to be a significant power source. It’s still less than 2 percent of global power, but it is, along with natural gas, going quite a bit. There’s several issues. You need power 24 hours a day. And Tokyo has seven days every year with no sun and no wind. It’s a 23-gigawatt power consumption. So we don’t make enough batteries in the world to handle that situation, ignoring even the economics. So because we won’t have a battery that’s good enough for that 24-hour storage, we need other sources of power. Hospitals want power all night when it’s super cold, like in Chicago now. People want their heaters to work. So even for the electricity piece, that reliability is a challenge. That’s only 25 percent. The word “clean energy” has kind of fooled people to not really let them know about the 75 percent that’s not electricity. It’s more making steel and cement.
The kind of extreme heat you get out of some reactors actually helps you with those areas of greenhouse gas emissions in a way that just renewable energy doesn’t. So it’s great. The price of electricity, when the sun is shining, will be low but it will be a lot higher at other times.
GW: You write in the letter that you wish more people fully understood what it will take to stop climate change. What is it going to take?
Bill Gates: Well, you have to innovate in all the areas of sources, and you have to innovate in such a way that not only do rich countries say, “Okay, we’ll pay a premium for our steel and our electricity,” but you have to turn to a country like India that’s electricity is just now starting to provide basics like air conditioning and lighting. And if you ask them to pay a big premium, will they really choose to when they’re not responsible for the greenhouse gas that’s already been admitted? Per person, we’ve emitted a thousand times as much as an Indian citizen. So until they get to the level that we have, should they slow down helping with basic needs? And the only thing that gets around that trade-off is if you’re so innovative that there’s no premium cost to being zero emission across making meat, cement, steel, trucks, planes, a lot of sources.
GW: As part of the focus on poverty in the U.S., you’re spreading your wings as the Gates Foundation a little bit. Traditionally, the focus has been on global health and U.S. education. Do you see this focus on poverty and also on emotional maturity among kids as a third pillar, or does it simply fit into what you’re already doing?
Bill Gates: … It is a broadening in the sense of trying to understand what interventions — beyond just the normal, “this English class is better, this math class is better” — what is it about mentorship or these cycles, or even explicitly trying to train executive function skill? We did a whole half-day at the foundation [with] the leaders in that field who have done various interventions, some of which looked pretty promising. There’s always lots of things that, if you really measure them, don’t work but some things even meet that very high task. So it’s a broadening of, okay, what is hard for that student? Even understanding [does] that stress in the environment even create a biological situation where concentration is much more difficult? Absolutely that is a factor.
Now coming up with an intervention that improves the executive function skill or offsets the kind of stressed mode that you’re in if you live in a tough neighborhood, that is much harder. But there’s very little R&D money in this space. It’s not like software or pharmaceuticals where 10, 15 percent of the money gets spent on R&D. In education, society spends not even 0.1 percent. So it is a case where foundations might be able to come in, find the people with the best ideas, really prove which ones work. So we’re casting our net as wide as we can … hopefully, in five years, this field will be a lot smarter because the underinvestment is sad and yet maybe there’s some really good things that’ll now be discovered, finally.
GW: Let’s dive into one other area of education here, because there was a whole section of the letter that made me think, man, if I had time-warped to 2019 from 1995 having just read “The Road Ahead,” and then reading your description of how textbooks have evolved and, or actually not have evolved, are starting to evolve.
Bill Gates: Starting, yep.
GW: Starting to evolve, I would have gone, “This didn’t happen two decades ago? I would’ve expected it to happen much faster.” Describe what you’re seeing in the world of textbooks, and why you think it’s working for a new era of education.
Bill Gates: When you take that math textbook home and you’re trying to do those exercises, you can get kind of stuck, or you can think maybe you’re getting it right and you’re not. In this digital world, the idea that the software can generate the homework and generate it at the right level, and then if you need a hint, fine, you get the hint. Your teacher sees, “Oh, he needed a hint. He didn’t just get it. So maybe he has to try this out a little bit more.”
But the feedback used to be like three days later and he’d be like, “Oh, I really screwed this up. God. What were we working on then? That was three days ago.” Now when you’re just sitting there with your phone or tablet or PC, you’ll get that feedback. We’re much further along in terms of taking that experience for math and making it a richer experience …
GW: Why hasn’t it happened already? Why isn’t this our reality now?
Bill Gates: Well, the textbook market is a tough market. Who should really try this stuff out? Where should the R&D money come from for these things? It’s really not like a normal consumer market, and you’ve got to get the equipment in. So having PCs or tablets all the time is much easier now than 10 years ago where you had to walk into the lab and some of them would be broken. Now, ideally, some of this can be done just on the cell phone screen, not all of it can but actually, quite a bit of it can. That is nearly pervasive at this point.
So it is moving slower than it should. Educational innovation, we, as society, way under-invest in. We’re trying to get some of these private sector companies to do well, but a lot of them just, as they try to build a sales force, the economics don’t work very well.
Remembering Paul Allen
GW: You and Melinda dedicate the letter to Paul Allen, your Microsoft co-founder who died of cancer in October. As you’ve reflected on his life over the past couple months and your shared experience with him, what have been your biggest memories and your insights from the time that you spent with Paul?
Bill Gates: Well, Paul was immensely curious. He read science fiction way more than I did. He was two years ahead of me, and I had done super well on some math stuff, so he was always kind of egging me on, “Hey, can you figure this computer thing out?” It was an amazing friendship because kids didn’t hang out that much with kids who were two years younger. We were very much bonded when we did the school schedule together. Paul had gone off to Washington State and my closest friend, who was also involved in the computer thing, Kent Evans, was tragically killed on Mount Rainier. So I went to Paul and said, “Hey, come back and help me.” And that sort of started a partnership that led to Microsoft.
And Paul’s credit for Microsoft was pretty immense because not only did he have this insight about the microprocessor, he literally moved back to Boston — I helped him get a job back there — but he was back there not because he liked the winters or the place he was living, to basically bug me into dropping out because he knew he wanted to do the company with me. So he was just back there and then finally it looked like we were going to miss the whole thing when the first kit computer came out, and that’s when his argument, “Hey, Bill, drop out,” succeeded, and our first customer took us to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
So Paul always was curious about things. Paul didn’t like being a manager all that much and during the Microsoft days, I narrowed my interest very much to software. So like when Paul took a bunch of guys to go to the shuttle launch, I was like, “Hey, wait a minute. We’re supposed to deliver for IBM here. What the heck are you doing?”
GW: You heard about this DOS thing. Come on, guys.
Bill Gates: Yes! He always was wide-ranging in his thinking and reading … he always looked far field. He always had wanted to find some new and different thing, always a little bit ahead of his time with the stuff he was doing.
Now as my kids are getting older and leaving school, I was going to have more time to hang out with Paul because he has explored, he traveled the world … which I had to do some with him, but I was expecting to do a ton of that once our kids were at college.
GW: That’s really disappointing to hear. Where are you at this point in terms of coming to grips with the fact that he’s not here?
Bill Gates: Well, it’s kind of strange because we always would touch base on, “Hey, there’s this cool movie I saw, or here’s some new technical thing. Do we think this one’s going to work out or not?”
Seattle’s best burger
GW: We’ve talked about a lot of divisive issues here today. You recently put yourself right square in the middle of one. Somebody got a picture of you standing outside of Dick’s Hamburgers waiting in line for a Dick’s burger. You are a longtime Burgermaster fan. What do you say to people who would call you a burger flip-flopper?
Billions served: Bill Gates photographed standing in line for a burger at Dick’s Drive-In in Seattle
Bill Gates: I absolutely love both. You know, I’ll eat lots of different burgers at various times but my two stark favorites are Burgermaster. I guess I’m not as photogenic when I’m sitting in my car as when I’m standing in a long line at Dick’s, but they’re both pretty amazing. The one thing about Dick’s, I will say, the fries are pretty good. It’s hard to beat the Dick’s fries.