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Bill Gates sat down with Caltech students Thursday
Source: Jason Henry




Philanthropist and tech magnate Bill Gates took an hour away from trying to save the world Thursday to take questions from Caltech’s future scientists and engineers.

The student-only event hosted by Dean of Undergraduate Students Kevin Gilmartin packed Beckman Auditorium.

Through presubmitted questions, students asked the former head of Microsoft about his philanthropic efforts to fight diseases and improve education through the Gates Foundation, his views on the progress of society and what he sees as the future of scientific advancement.

Gates sees artificial intelligence as the fastest growing field in science. A.I. has already reached a point where computers can see and listen better than a human, Gates said.

“Even when I started Microsoft, the dream was to do artificial intelligence,” he said.

The greatest challenge will come from how we implement and use the technology. Gates said artificial intelligence can provide companions for the elderly, reduce class sizes for students and augment workforces instead of simply replacing humans. Think more vacation time and less robotic overlords.

“This is all good news, if it’s handled properly,” he said.

Gates, who dropped out of Harvard to start up Microsoft, said he envies the Caltech students because of the wealth of resources available thanks to the internet.

The billionaire said he uses courses offered online by organizations like The Teaching Company to learn about topics that interest him.

“I feel so much more empowered to learn,” he said. His businesses, first Microsoft and now the Gates Foundation, allow him to embrace his curiosity.

Looking back, Gates said he lacked people skills and a worldview as a youth because of his very narrow obsession with computing.

“I thought that being good at taking tests was the primary skill, but I was wrong,” he said.

He struggled with accepting people’s faults and the authority of people he perceived as having a lower IQ.

“I didn’t really differentiate between when I was tough on myself for being wrong and when I was tough on other people,” he said.

He said he learned to surround himself with people who knew his weaknesses and when to provide feedback when he was overly optimistic.

Though Gates’ work takes him to the poorest countries in the world, where he sees conditions at their worst, he said he remains optimistic about humanity’s ability to overcome obstacles.

The countries with the highest mortality rate for children under age 5 today are better off than the most advanced country a century ago, he said.

“In 1990, 13 million children under the age of 5 died,” Gates said. In 2015, less than 6 million died.

Conditions often seem worse than they are because of our tolerance for those conditions, Gates said. Violent acts, for example, are at a historic low, but many people would say it seems higher than ever. That decreased tolerance is good though, as it pushes innovation.

In the United States, aggregate test scores have largely remained the same for decades. That’s why a quarter of the Gates Foundation’s resources go toward improving education, Gate said.

His goal is for students in the inner city to have the same educational opportunities as those in the richest neighborhoods.

Though politics seem to work against efforts to combat climate change, Gates said it is up to scientists to come up with breakthroughs that make it easier to transition. The United States must lead the way to zero-sum emissions, as other underdeveloped countries can not afford to switch from fossil fuels because of the costs and accessibility of more efficient technologies.

“I do think we’ll get there,” he said.

Gates came to campus to meet with faculty and learn about their research. The forum came about after the tour was scheduled because Gates wanted an opportunity to connect with students, according to Caltech.

His stops included meeting with researchers in infections, genetics and clean energy, all topics supported by the Gates Foundation.

“It’s very exciting for me,” he said.

Having formed the Gates Foundation to put his wealth to use helping the world, Gates said he now hires “fanatics” like he was with computers, to work on research into vaccines, energy and education. Most of their partnerships are with governments, which Gates said tend to have a longer-term view of progress, while private companies are more interested in a short-term payoff.

In his closing message to the students, Gates told the students to develop a worldview by becoming aware of how people live in other countries and to keep that in mind as they progress in their careers. With a deeper understanding of the world, they may see a path toward helping humanity.

“I think you’ll find that fulfilling at some point in your career,” he said.



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