Bill Gates to MIT crowd: Start solving the big problems
When it comes to tablet computers like Apple Inc.'s new iPad, Bill Gates says the real innovator was Microsoft Corp., the software giant he co-founded, but no longer runs.
"Tablet computing is an innovation where Microsoft's been ahead every step of the way," Gates told the Globe yesterday. "You want look at tablets, and touchscreens, and how students use both -- that's a Windows phenomenon."
But Gates won't discuss his personal opinion of the hot-selling iPad. "Yeah, no comment," he said.
The former Microsoft chief executive came to Cambridge yesterday to urge students to tackle tough social challenges like curing childhood diseases, producing renewable energy, and upgrading schools.
"It always stuns me how few bright minds have worked on these things," Gates said to a crowd of several hundred at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Kresge Auditorium.
Gates, who retired from Microsoft in 2008, heads the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a massive nonprofit enterprise that targets difficult social problems. His visit to Cambridge was the third and final stop on a three-day tour of elite universities. Since Monday, Gates has spoken at Stanford University, the University of Chicago, Harvard University, and MIT. He's hoping to inspire students and faculty to research new solutions to an array of daunting problems.
One example is disease. Gates noted that a cheap vaccine could spare a million children per year from death by malaria, but he believes too few scientists are attacking the problem.
"There are less than a hundred scientists who work on the problem of malaria," he said, adding that less than one percent of medical research funding is spent on vaccine development, even though such research could save millions of lives.
Gates also urged more research aimed at improving America's schools, saying that over 30 percent of all young people drop out before completing high school, with the number rising to 50 percent for minorities. "Even those who complete, many of them have a really, really poor education," he said.
He also called for research into ways to improve the performance of public schools. "It blows my mind how little work has been done on that," said Gates. "It's a system where there's a huge opportunity to improve."
But Gates admitted that reforming public schools is an exceptionally tough problem, because school bureaucracies are highly resistant to change. "When we invent a vaccine, no group can uninvent the vaccine," said Gates. "If you do good education, there are groups that can send you back to square zero, and that's happened in many cases."
Gates hailed the use of online resources for higher education, including MIT's Open CourseWork program, which makes many of the school's lectures available free of charge on the Internet. Gates, a Harvard dropout, said that he's taken several MIT math and physics courses online. "I recommend it to everybody," he said.
To solve the world's energy problems, Gates called for more research on nuclear power, a field which he said has stagnated since the 1970s. "I love nuclear," said Gates. "This radiation thing is tricky, but there are good solutions."
Although he'd come to discuss his philanthropic efforts, Gates got his share of off-topic questions. Asked what it's like to be one of the world's richest people, Gates replied, "I haven't found any burgers at any price that are better than McDonald's," but he admitted that he enjoys his private jet.
As far as the iPad goes, despite what Gates described as Microsoft's long-standing commitment to tablet computing, none of its tablets have generated as much excitement. Apple says it sold half a million of the new devices in its first week, and the company delayed the introduction of the device in other companies to meet the early demand in the US. By contrast, the research group Gartner Inc. estimates that Microsoft-based tablet computers sold about 1.3 million units last year, mainly to industrial and commercial users.
If there is going to be a competitive reaction from Microsoft, Gates seemed to say it would be someone else's fight. "You know, it's not my full-time focus now, " he said.