Q&A

Bill Gates' Q&A with Chris Anderson: Video unveiled

And here’s the much-discussed Q&A between Bill Gates and TED’s Chris Anderson, which follows Gates’ brand-new TEDTalk. Listen for the answers to more big questions:

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Read the transcript of this Q&A >>

Chris Anderson: So you were at Davos last week, and the mood was reported as being pretty bleak. Do you have any fixes for the crisis?

Bill Gates: Well, I think it’s good that the mood was bleak. You know, we’re going through a period of years here where a 50-year credit expansion has moved to contraction. And there’s no doubt the U.S. consumer was overspending and to get the consumer balance sheet back, to get the savings rate up you’re going to have a number of years where aggregate demand is very low. And people expecting that the government is magically going to change that — if you actually went back to that heavy spending, you’d just be extending the problem and making it worse when you have to come and deal with it. So, it was a great meeting where people really had to say: “How’s your economy falling apart?” “Oh, that’s slightly different than the way mine is.” (Laughter) “What’s your solution?” And here are different ideas.

But there’s no doubt we’ve got three, four years here that are going to be very tough. I know we’re going to get past it. The kind of invention being talked about here is the reason why the economy will go onto a very positive path. But it was a great checkpoint, and for me it was a chance to say: I hope that the aid for the poorest doesn’t get cut because in past economic problems that’s the first thing that’s been eliminated. But now I think we have a broader constituency. I don’t think that has to happen this time.

CA: You have conversations all the time with the foundation about these big issues, but your foundation is often the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Is there any danger that you almost inadvertently gain a monopoly of ideas and that other people in the room are afraid to tell you what they really think because you’re so powerful?

BG: Well, I’m here, anybody can tell me what they think. Our foundation is, relative to other foundations, large. We will spend 3.8 billion this year — about half of that on global health. If you divide that down and say: okay, tuberculosis gets a couple hundred million, malaria gets a few hundred million — I don’t think of it as that much, I think geez, I’d like to have more because they’re interesting problems. And we do measure — are we getting others involved? In fact, the baseline on infectious diseases or teacher effectiveness — the amount of money that was going into those things before was minuscule. And I do feel good that we’ve drawn many other people into these things by working with them, by packaging things, just by sharing the success stories. We do need a diversity of ideas and we need people to disagree, try different things out and so …

(Laughter)

BG: It’s fine.

CA: I’m not distracted, I’m reading a question.

(Laughter)

There’s an associate member here, Tyler Donald, who’s writing from Chester Springs, saying: “It’s obvious you’re doing wonderful things to prevent deaths, you’re a self-proclaimed optimist. Another view is that your charity is adding enormously to the problem of overpopulation in the world.” Do you have an optimistic solution to that problem?

BG: Okay, this is a very important question to get right because it was absolutely key for me. When our foundation first started up, it was focused on reproductive health. That was the main thing we did because I thought population growth in poor countries is the biggest problem they face. You’ve got to help mothers who want to limit family size, have the tools and education to do that. That’s the only thing that really counts. Well then, I came across articles that showed that the key thing you can do to reduce population growth is actually improve health.

And that sounds paradoxical. You think: Okay, better health means more kids not less kids. Well in fact, what parents are doing is they’re trying to have two kids survive to adulthood to take care of them. And so, the more disease burden there is, the more kids they have to have to have that high probability. So there’s a perfect correlation, that as you improve health, within a half generation, the population growth rate goes down. In fact, Hans Rosling, here at this conference in two of my favorite speeches actually showed that unbelievable correlation that population growth has gone down. Today, where is there high population growth? It’s in the places with the worst health conditions — Northern Nigeria, Northern India … And so the two problems go exactly hand in hand and if we improve health rapidly we will get the peak population to be as much as a billion below the current expected peak — that is about 8.3 billion versus 9.3.

(Applause)

CA: Another of our associate members, D. Howard, who’s writing from New York he says — I like this — “Yeah, all the great teachers in my life have been eccentrics with a passion, how can we get a school system to tolerate dotty, humorous people with a lot of opinions, fascinating the pants off the children, without following a strict curriculum but opening minds and challenging kids to think for themselves?” Are those the kind of teachers that your charter school support?

BG: Well, we need to bring in all the people who can teach well and objectively look if they are teaching well then they should get better rewards. If they don’t stay for their pension, they should still have a very good salary. You know, if they don’t get a master’s degree, they should still have a very good salary. So it shouldn’t be a system that tries to look at lack of eccentricities as some positive thing. In fact, if you go into a teacher’s personnel file today you won’t find some deep analysis of their skills. You’ll find checklists like: keeps classroom clean. And I’ll bet those eccentric guys didn’t get that nice check mark next to keeps classroom clean. So today’s system is driving out those kinds of teachers.

CA: So Malcolm Gladwell just published a book, “Outliers,” where he has a whole chapter devoted to you. And he says the traditional view of your huge success as this sort of a brilliant, genius, software coder, determined young man, changing the world through those personal skills is basically wrong and that the way to think of you is as someone who was born in the right place at the right time. You had these incredible advantages of going to the right school at the right time, getting to computers early and so forth. What do you make of that?

(Laughter)

BG: Malcolm interviewed me for that book and it was because he and I agreed about these things that he put that in there. I mean, he didn’t want to write a book where the person he wrote about said: Oh, what a bunch of garbage. It’s not quite as simple as what you’ve described. What the book says is that if you get opportunities, which are partly a matter of luck and partly a matter of skill, those compound. So, when I was young I got to use computers that was very lucky. I got to work at a computer company because I was pretty good — these senior people looked at my code and told me: Nah, that’s not as good as it can be. And so I got better. And then I had another experience where a great developer looked at my code and told me how to do it better. So it’s a cycle, where luck and skill come and mess with each other and that’s what leads to a great — from my point of view — a great outcome.

CA: Bill, you’ve led this incredible life, where you’ve changed the lives of so many people around the world, you’ve been feared by many, you’ve been regarded as bad Bill, good Bill, I mean — in ten or fifteen years, what words, what would you want written on your tombstone?

(Laughter)

BG: Well, I hope I’m alive a lot longer than that.

(Laughter)

Warren Buffet always likes to say that the tombstone should say: check my pulse.

(Laughter)

I don’t think anyone optimizes for having a good funeral or a nice epitaph.

CA: No, but –

(Applause)

CA: But I’m serious though, your legacy, you must think about your legacy a bit. You’ve already got an incredible legacy in software. Is that how you want most to be remembered? Are you really excited by this philanthropic stuff to the same level or is it kind of a hobby?

BG: I’m as engaged in the new work as I’ve ever been in anything so the same as I was in software but it’s because of the day-to-day activity and the ambitious goals. It’s not about legacy. It’s working with smart people, you know, some of the drugs fail. I was in Nigeria the last three days and polio — we’ve had a huge setback in polio eradication there. The cases doubled in the last year and in the North, they don’t have very good coverage. It was thrilling to go meet the Sultan of Sokoto and have him say that he’d get his religious people out to educate the parents that the vaccine really is a good thing. These are amazing issues, and it’s fun to work on them. It’s also fun when you achieve the ambitious goal. So, in that sense, it’s magic in the same way that software was.

CA: Well it certainly feels like the moment where you turned — you decided to turn your incredible success into giving a huge portion of your wealth back to the world — that was actually a big moment for the world and there a lot of people in the room who are also incredibly successful, building businesses and I believe many of them, including me, have been inspired by what you’ve done. So thank you so much for coming here today.

BG: Thank you, great.

CA: It was fantastic.

(Applause)