Bill Gates logged on Wednesday for his 11th Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session, and spent more than an hour fielding questions related to climate change, artificial intelligence, ethical billionaires, and much more.
The Microsoft co-founder and co-chair of the Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation did answer a few questions he’s gotten on past AMAs, such as why he’s buying so much farmland and whether he fought for one COVID-19 vaccine to not be open-source.
Gates seemed, as always, excited to talk about books he’s reading or shows he’s watching, and this time he dove into the topic of becoming a grandfather this year.
And he dodged questions that repeatedly come up or that he has answered previously, including about any time he spent with financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. He also skipped over barn-burners such as “How much can you bench?” and “When will you jump over a chair again?” before he ran out of Diet Coke and wrapped things up.
Keep reading for highlights. (Some questions and answers have been edited for brevity.)
- What are your views on generative AI? How do you think this will impact the world? “I am quite impressed with the rate of improvement in these AIs. I think they will have a huge impact. Thinking of it in the Gates Foundation context we want to have tutors that help kids learn math and stay interested. We want medical help for people in Africa who can’t access a doctor. I still work with Microsoft some so I am following this very closely.”
- What are your views on OpenAI’s ChatGPT? “It gives a glimpse of what is to come. I am impressed with this whole approach and the rate of innovation.”
- Many years ago I heard you say something on TV like, “people are vastly overestimating what the internet will be like in 5 years, and vastly underestimating what it will be like in 10 years.” Is any mammoth technology shift at a similar stage right now? “AI is the big one. I don’t think Web3 was that big or that metaverse stuff alone was revolutionary but AI is quite revolutionary. Most of my time is on innovations like helping pregnant women know if they need to get to a hospital in advance (the ultrasound work I mentioned in my end of the year letter). Malnutrition and anemia and also important areas we see a lot of promise in right now.”
- Is technology only functional for you nowadays, or is there a still hobby aspect to it? Do you for instance still do nerdy or geeky things in your spare time; e.g. write code? “Yes. I like to play around and code. The last time my code shipped in a Microsoft product was 1985 — so, a long time ago. I can no longer threaten when I think a schedule is too long that ‘I will come in and code it over the weekend.’”
- Are you up to date with Microsoft’s upcoming projects? “Microsoft involves me in some of the research and product plans. I really enjoy working with Satya [Nadella] and his teams. I am not up to date on their hardware roadmap.”
- With the benefit of hindsight regarding your years of involvement with Microsoft, what is the single biggest thing you wish you had done differently? “I was CEO until 2000. I certainly know a lot now that I didn’t back then. Two areas I would change would be our work in phone operating systems (Android won) and trying to settle the antitrust lawsuit sooner.”
Climate and clean energy
- Climate: We f**ked or super-turbo f**ked? “It’s important to keep in mind life in poor countries is difficult right now. There are parts of the world [where] over 10% of the kids die before 5 and over 30% have malnutrition so their brains and bodies don’t fully develop. Climate will slow down the progress we make on improving the human condition but I still believe we can avoid a terrible outcome. The pace of innovation is really picking up even though we won’t make the current timelines or avoid going over 1.5.”
- Are you making any progress recently with your molten salt Thorium reactors? Or at least help destigmatize use of nuclear power that could so much help the world now and in the coming years. “The Terrapower reactor designs (there are 2) both use liquid sodium as the coolant and uranium as the fuel. We are making excellent progress although the Ukranian war meant our uranium fuel is delayed. The first reactor is being built in Wyoming and should be running by 2030. This can make a huge contribution to climate challenges since it will be low cost and super safe. I was just in West Virginia learning about their energy economy and hearing about projects there like the FORM battery factory (a BEV company) that was just committed.”
- What are some of your new generation ideas for adopting better and safer climate change? “The key on climate is making the clean products as cheap as the dirty products in every area of emission — planes, concrete, meat etc… This is the only way we can ask all the countries in the world to change. If it costs a lot extra we won’t succeed.”
- What’s the biggest way an individual can contribute to the climate solution? “You are a voter, a consumer, a giver and a worker. In every one of those roles you can help. Buying an electric car helps. There will be options to pay a bit extra to offset your travel emissions coming soon (I do this for all of my emissions and my family). We need support on climate from both parties in the US and in all countries. Staying hopeful is a good thing!”
- Why are you so focused on healthcare & vaccines? “When I saw that kids were dying who could be saved for less than $1000 per life I knew that had to be the top priority for my giving back. There was almost no one funding work on diseases like malaria which was killing over a million kids a year then. We have made progress but it is still 400k and we are committed to get it to zero eventually.”
- How do you feel about Moderna and other companies now increasing the base cost of COVID-19 vaccines by 4x? (another user …) The Gates foundation fought for the Oxford vaccine to NOT be open-source and to instead be sold for profit. I’m sure they don’t mind. “This is not correct. Even though neither I or the Foundation were involved in the license from Oxford to Astra-Zeneca, Astra-Zeneca did a strong job offering their help to any vaccine manufacturer who could make it. A great example is Serum who the Foundation funded and made over 2B vaccines which saved millions of lives.”
- Why are you buying up so much farmland, do you think this is a problem with billionaire wealth and how much you can disproportionally acquire? “I own less than 1/4000 of the farmland in the US. I have invested in these farms to make them more productive and create more jobs. There isn’t some grand scheme involved – in fact all these decisions are made by a professional investment team. In terms of the very rich I think they should pay a lot more in taxes and they should give away their wealth over time. It has been very fulfilling for me and is my full time job.”
- Isn’t it contradictory to be a humanitarian and then accumulate most scarce resource land under one? “Everything I own will be sold as money moves into the Foundation. In the meantime my investment group tries to invest in productive assets including farmland although that is less than 4% of the total.”
- Can there be ethical billionaires? “Being rich can easily make you out of touch. The incentive to create new companies is still a good thing I think. Even if taxes go up I still wouldn’t ban anyone from being worth a billion but that is just one opinion. I have been very lucky.”
- The cost of living has skyrocketed, wages are stagnant. A lot of people are effectively in survival mode. How do we get corporations and the ultra wealthy to pay better wages, pay their taxes? More rather, what steps do we take to create an economy that’s beneficial for the masses, not a select few? “I am surprised taxes have not been increased more. For example capital gains rates could be the same as ordinary income rates. I know things are tough for a lot of people.“
- What are you excited about in the year ahead? First being a grandfather. Second being a good friend and father. Third progress in health and climate innovation. Fourth helping to shape the AI advances in a positive way.
- What life lesson(s) could you tell your grandchild that will make life happier, more meaningful, and more purposeful? “I think you mostly help kids by setting a good example and giving them time when they want it. I hope to get lots of time with whatever grandchildren I have sharing my fascination with the world. A grandchild does make you think about how we make sure the future is better — politics, health, climate, etc.”
- What is your favorite time period in history and why? “I have studied the Victorian Era in the UK and some of the great US Presidents most of all. I find the periods of scientific innovation fascinating. In terms of the best time to live though the current time is dramatically by far the best time to be alive – as one of my favorite authors Steven Pinker explains in several of his books.”
- What are you currently reading? “I am reading the book “The Song of the Cell” by Sid Mukherjee. All of his books are excellent — right up there with Atul Gawande. I have a lot of books about China to help me figure out how we avoid a lose-lose relationship.”
- What was your favorite movie or TV show you saw this past year? “White Lotus Season 2 was quite good if I can say that. Congratulations to Jennifer Coolidge on her Golden Globe. The Bernie Madoff special was also good. Tehran was suspenseful. The latest Avatar was good. My favorite entertainment experience recently was a Chris Rock/Dave Chappelle event. (as he drops the mic… or keyboard…)”