Bill Gates On “The Miracle Of Availability” And Applying Computer Science To The World

Bill Gates just gave a talk at the University of Washington’s School of Computer Science and Engineering. As is typical of his talks, this one was broadly focused on new and helpful implementations of technology. It was followed by an open Q&A session.

There was nothing radical or new proposed or revealed, but Gates was smart and compelling as usual, and the highlights of the talk are below. Video of the talk should be available soon from UW.

I’ve tried to directly quote Bill as much as possible (bolded for those hungry for sound bytes), but there may be small errors in phrasing. If it’s in quotes, they’re his words, though I may need to correct a few words here or there.

“Maybe I’d have been more rounded if there weren’t as many books around”

Gates began by establishing his computer science credibility, not that it’s necessary at this point, by reminiscing about the early days of computing. He recalled that at UW, “at strange hours you could essentially break in and steal computer time,” on the batch-work computers of the day like the B5500. This served as a segue, actually, to his initial thesis, which was that people like himself aren’t the ones who will bring be making the next generation of breakthroughs happen.

He cited the incredible amount of storage and its almost negligible cost, and how as someone who grew up with kilobytes and megabytes, he simply isn’t ideologically suited for allocating terabytes and petabytes. But people who have grown up with it do things like, for example, suggest that every lecture at a university be recorded and stored. Once he got past the prejudice of someone who wants to save every byte, he said he thought “it’s actually kind of absurd that we’re not doing that.”

The big advance, Gates said, is “the miracle of availability.” This is the change that happens when something goes from being a device owned by the elite and wealthy of the world to being something utilizable by the poorest. An example given later was the sophisticated GPS-driven combines used on US farms. Ingenious, but can you build one that an African village can afford?

As a further example, he showed off an application using the Kinect which I actually highlighted back in August. Not that it would be useful to a starving child, but there is a huge potential just waiting to be unlocked, as Microsoft Research and innumerable hackers have shown for the Kinect and other devices.

“Many problems in society are just poorly designed algorithms”

Gates praised alternative models for education, showing off a program for teaching algebra that actively monitored how the student was doing, what methods of teaching worked, and adjusted the lessons on the fly. We saw some other ideas along this line with the Imagine K12 companies, which I’m sure Gates would appreciate if he is not already aware of them.

He also spoke in glowing terms of Khan Academy, which we’ve featured here quite often. But, as he later elaborated during the Q&A session, it’s not meant to be a substitute for learning institutions. “As you go from kindergarten up to college, certainly the need for adult supervision hopefully goes down somewhat. But remember education to some degree is about motivation.” He noted that some 20 schools had completely reorientated their curricula around Khan Academy and similar services, with the teacher assigning the lectures and quizzes to be watched on the student’s own time, and then using the classroom not as a lecture hall, but as a discussion platform that added context, clarified points, and offered more one on one time for students who couldn’t grasp the material.

As for adding computer science to the curriculum as early as elementary school, he was skeptical: “I think the computer is a great tool and you should use it as much as you can. But hash tables and database indexes, I don’t know where that would come in… It’s hard to say anything is necessary in the curriculum. Personally, I’d have more people take statistics than calculus.”

But though he spoke lightly of it, he really considers education one of the highest priorities. When asked how he felt about political discourse and the concentration of wealth, he responded that, to put things in perspective: “the world at large is less inequitable today than at any time in history. That is, the poorer countries are getting richer faster than the richer countries are getting richer. So the number of people in abject poverty, percentage of people, is at an all-time low today, and that continues to go down. Innovation will continue to drive that down.” But that said, “It’s not good to have a society where you don’t have mobility between different income levels. If you really look where we’re letting people down as far as the American dream… it would be that we are not providing enough education.”

Without proper education, how can people make rational choices in day to day life, to say nothing of the issues voters face? “One thing I’m worried about is complexity. We can’t talk directly about the issues, so we talk about personalities.” When the most controversial bill of a political era (Obama’s health care bill) is over four thousand pages long and totally unreadable by the average voter, how is that effective?

“I like hash tables and I dislike malaria”

He then moved on to the question of poverty and disease. His primary insight came when he was working with researchers to create a stochastic model of “one of my reactors.” It was immensely complicated but the computing power at their disposal made it possible. He thought, if we can model a reactor, with all these forces and materials, why can’t we model disease, including the mosquitos, the people, the environment, the solutions?

So they worked at it and eventually came up with an immensely complex model for disease vectors, weather, vaccines, life cycles, seasons, and everything else. They compared it with real statistics and it checked out. He said with confidence: “The world effort to get rid of malaria will be based on this model.” And the modeling approach to problems, now that we have the computing power to simulate the world with some precision, is just as important to apply elsewhere. Whether it’s malaria, polio, crops, nuclear reactors, sanitation, or education, “it makes you so much more rational in terms of what you do.”

He demonstrated a few applications of the model and explained quite a bit about the disease itself and some of its history. But you can learn about malaria on your own time.

“It’s the same hamburger”

On the topic of wealth, something in which he must be considered something of an expert, he downplayed the money thing. One questioner asked for advice on getting as rich as him. He took this slightly tactless question in stride, saying that he never intended to become extremely wealthy, and that it was more important to do something you were interested in. He also said that while he understood the drive to make a few million dollars, a level of wealth that provides “meaningful freedoms,” after that amount, “it’s still the same hamburger. Dick’s hasn’t raised their prices enough…” This raised a laugh from the audience, who are probably all too familiar with this local Seattle burger joint.

“All you’re trying to do is put stuff on your eye”

When asked what might come after the change from PC to laptop to smartphone, he was animated: “We’re going to look back and laugh that we had these big glass screens, and if you drop it, it breaks… all you’re trying to do is put stuff on your eye!” As in, it’s just a way of getting information from the world into your brain, via your eyes. He suggested that projection directly onto the retina was likely the next big step, or alternatively a flexible screen of adjustable size.

Lastly, the host noted that it would be Bill’s birthday tomorrow (the 28th), and invited Bill Gates Sr. up on stage, who held a cupcake with a candle for the younger Bill to blow out.

If you’re interested in the continuing adventures of Bill Gates, you can keep up with him at The Gates Notes.

(10/28: updated a few rough quotes with verbatim quotes)