Computers accept data in the form of ones and zeroes. Why can’t they understand normal language?
Ones and zeroes are the most basic language that we use to write instructions to tell computers how to do things we want them to do. The more complicated the task is, the harder it is to write instructions that get the results we want.
As it turns out, human language is one of the hardest challenges in computer science. People pronounce the same words in different ways. Words that sound the same have different meanings. The same sentence can have very a different meaning depending on how you say it. It’s very hard to use ones and zeros to convey all the subtle differences in language that are very easy for people to understand.
The good news is that we are making great progress in this area today. Soon, I think we’ll see computer programs that really understand what you say and answer in ways that sounds very human.
Why did you leave Harvard University?
I loved college. It was so exciting to have conversations with lots of really smart people my age and to learn from great professors. But in December of 1974, when my friend Paul Allen showed me the issue of Popular Electronics that had the Altair 8800 on the cover, we knew it was the beginning of a major change. The Altair was the first minicomputer kit that came with Intel’s 8080 microprocessor chip.
For a while, Paul and I had been talking about how that chip would make computers affordable for the average person someday. We had the idea that this would create huge opportunities to write really interesting software that lots of people would buy. Once the Altair 8800 came out, we wanted to be among first to start a business to write software for this new generation of computers. We were afraid if we waited, someone else would beat us to it.
It was a hard decision and I know my parents had their concerns. And while I would never encourage anyone to drop out of school, for me, it turned out to be the right choice.
What was your ambition when you were small? Have you achieved everything that you had thought of?
I dreamed about software that would help people get their work done and computers that would be easy to learn from and talk to, and we’ve made incredible progress toward achieving these things. But you never want to get to the finish line, because then you wouldn’t know what to do next. In the world of software, computers aren’t as simple or as natural to use as they need to be. There are many things they don’t help with. So there’s still a lot to be done.
And in the area of the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the number of children who die every year before they turn five is below 9 million a year. That’s a huge improvement over 10 or 20 years ago and today, the goal is to bring that under 5 million a year. But as long as there are children dying before the age of five, there will still be a lot of work to do.
Do you think you can give access to computers to every single person in the world?
My hope is that someday, everyone in the world will have access to the things that computers are so good at providing – like access to information, the ability to communicate easily with other people, and software that helps you do things more quickly and easily.
But today, there are so many people who lack even the basic things they need to live healthy, productive lives. For them, owning a computer is really a very small priority. For children who live where there is no electricity, who don’t have enough food to eat or safe water to drink, and who can’t go to a doctor when they are sick, being able to use a computer just isn’t very important.
You are helping so many HIV patients. Do you think you will be able to find a cure for it?
I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to find a cure, but I do think that it won’t be too long before we can develop ways to protect people from getting it in the first place. My hope is that in the next five years or so, we’ll have pills that people can take to protect themselves temporarily from getting HIV. This will dramatically reduce the annual rate at which people become infected, which will be a great step.
Developing a vaccine that provides long-term protection against HIV has turned out to be very complex. Even though there were recent reports of vaccine trials that showed some positive results, I think it may take 10 years or more before we have a vaccine ready for widespread use. Until that happens, HIV will continue to be a problem.
The thing that gives me hope is that there are a lot of really great scientists around the world who are all working together to make progress. I’ve always believed that if you focus enough brainpower, even the most difficult problem can be solved eventually.
What inspired you to do philanthropic work?
The philanthropic work has a lot of similarities to the early years at Microsoft where you had a lot of really smart people working on interesting and difficult problems where they still needed to figure out what approaches to take and what questions to ask. With Microsoft it was software and computing. With the foundation, it’s addressing the needs of the very poor. A lot of these problems don’t get much visibility because they only impact poor countries. You need to get the smartest people you can find and show them exactly what problems they should be working on.
With the foundation, I saw an opportunity that would be as fulfilling as Microsoft and would give me a chance to use the resources that I am lucky enough to have from Microsoft to benefit society in the most impactful way. And while I did leave behind work at Microsoft that I love to do, I am deeply engaged in the health problems and other issues that the foundation is working on.