When Microsoft founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates speaks, people tend to listen — more so these days as he is taking an increasingly larger role at Microsoft.
In fact, he now spends about a third of his time at the company he founded, according to an "ask me anything" thread on Reddit Gates participated in today. "My time will be about 2/3 Foundation and 1/3 Microsoft. I will focus on product work mostly," he wrote.
This isn't the first time Gates has answered questions in a thread like this, but there were still a few gems in it this time around.
Starting right away, he had a few things to say about his private plane, which he said was an "expensive guilty pleasure."
"Owning a plane is a guilty pleasure. Warren Buffett called his the Indefensible. I do get to a lot of places for Foundation work I wouldn't be able to go to without it."
For a question about Bitcoin, he said the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation was already involved in digital currency — but not Bitcoin.
"The foundation is involved in digital money but unlike Bitcoin it would not be anonymous digital money. In Kenya M-pesa is being used for almost half of all transactions. Digital money has low transaction costs which is great for the poor because they need to do financial transactions with small amounts of money. Over the next 5 years I think digital money will catch on in India and parts of Africa and help the poorest a lot."
When it comes to the National Security Administration, that's a "complex issue."
"This is a complex issue. Privacy will be increasingly important as cameras and GPS sensors are gathering information to try and be helpful. 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."
And he was able to take a joke pretty well.
When it comes to balancing philanthropy and building a business, Gates said to basically just build a company first.
"Just creating an innovative company is a huge contribution to the world. During my 20's and 30's that was all I focused on. Ideally people can start to mix in some philanthropy like Mark Zuckerberg has early in his career. I have enjoyed talking to some of the Valley entrepreneurs about this and I am impressed and how early they are thinking about giving back - much earlier than I did."
He also had some financial advice for Reddit users — some of it was more insightful...
...while other bits were reserved for basic education.
On his new role at Microsoft, he said he's there to "encourage good work (hopefully)."
"I am excited about how the cloud and new devices can help us communicate and collaborate in new ways. The OS won't just be on one device and the information won't just be files - it will be your history including being able to review memories of things like kids growing up. I was thrilled (new CEO) Satya (Nadella) asked me to pitch in to make sure Microsoft is ambitious with its innovation. Even in Office there is a lot more than can be done."
Gates told a computer science student that machine learning — computers that can teach themselves — would be very important in coming years and to study it.
"The ultimate is computers that learn. So called deep learning which started at Microsoft and is now being used by many researchers looks like a real advance that may finally learn. It has already made a big difference in video and audio recognition - more progress in the last 3 years than ever before."
One Reddit user, of course, asked about the condom design competition.
"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. One grantee is using carbon nanotubes to reduce the thickness."
Another asked if he could still jump over a chair.
"No I cannot. I can still jump but not over a full sized garbage can like I used to be able to. Be careful - it can hurt if you don't succeed. A small enough chair I can still jump over."
Another user also asked how he had personally changed in the past 20 years.
"20 years ago I would stay in the office for days at a time and not think twice about it - so I had energy and naivete on my side. Now hopefully I am a bit more mellow but with a little extra wisdom."
After education reform, Gates said immigration was the next highest priority for the United States.
"Education would be the top issue since it is key to individual opportunity and to the country as a whole and we are not doing as well as other countries. After that I would say immigration since the injustice of the current system is incredible."
When asked about his involvement with Terrapower, a nuclear power company, Gates said they tried to stick to "proven approaches wherever."
"Terrapower is like most fast reactors which use Sodium cooling. We tried to stick to proven approaches wherever we could. There have been about 10 Fast Reactors. By using this approach we have no fuel problems and very limited waste generation. Most important is the inherent safety - no human involvement for shut down."
"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 4th generation reactor design that uses depleted uranium."
And he basically endorsed Samuel L. Jackson to play himself if there were ever to be a biographic film about him.
One of his goals this year, he said, was to shift the focus of the debate around education reform.
"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."
And of course, he uses a Microsoft Surface tablet.
And this is how he left the thread.
Matthew Lynley is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News in San Francisco. Lynley reports on Silicon Valley and the tech industry.
Contact Matthew Lynley at email@example.com.
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