kottke.org posts about Bill Gates
A new video by Kurzgesagt explores the question of machine’s rights. Do machines deserve rights? Perhaps not right now, but what about if they achieve consciousness at some point in the future? (And what does that even mean?) If machines are programmed to feel pain and suffering, do they deserve protection? Or will machines not be allowed to be programmed to suffer and therefore be exempt from rights, for the potential benefit of humans? One thing seems certain: when the shift from machine as thing to machine as thinking, feeling being occurs, it will happen pretty quickly and humans will handle it poorly.
See also The Philosophy of Westworld and Bill Gates’ assertion that the robots who replace people in the workplace should pay taxes.
In a recent interview with Quartz, Gates said that a robot tax could finance jobs taking care of elderly people or working with kids in schools, for which needs are unmet and to which humans are particularly well suited. He argues that governments must oversee such programs rather than relying on businesses, in order to redirect the jobs to help people with lower incomes.
Last week Charles C. Mann, author of the excellent 1491 (one of my favorite nonfiction books ever) and 1493, tweeted what looked like a completed manuscript of a new book, The Wizard and the Prophet. Aside from a pub date (Oct 5), Mann was coy about details in the thread and there’s not a lot of information about the book on the internet. But there is a little. From the Books on Tape website:
From the best-selling, award-winning author of 1491 and 1493 — an incisive portrait of the two little-known twentieth-century scientists, Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, whose diametrically opposed views shaped our ideas about the environment, laying the groundwork for how people in the twenty-first century will choose to live in tomorrow’s world.
In forty years, Earth’s population will reach ten billion. Can our world support that? What kind of world will it be? Those answering these questions generally fall into two deeply divided groups — Wizards and Prophets, as Charles Mann calls them in this balanced, authoritative, non-polemical new book. The Prophets, he explains, follow William Vogt, a founding environmentalist who believed that in using more than our planet has to give, our prosperity will lead us to ruin. Cut back! was his mantra. Otherwise everyone will lose! The Wizards are the heirs of Norman Borlaug, whose research, in effect, wrangled the world in service to our species to produce modern high-yield crops that then saved millions from starvation. Innovate! was Borlaug’s cry. Only in that way can everyone win! Mann delves into these diverging viewpoints to assess the four great challenges humanity faces — food, water, energy, climate change — grounding each in historical context and weighing the options for the future. With our civilization on the line, the author’s insightful analysis is an essential addition to the urgent conversation about how our children will fare on an increasingly crowded Earth.
In 2012, Orion Magazine published a piece by Mann called State of the Species, which was nominated for a 2013 National Magazine Award and is said to be “an early version of the introductory chapter” to The Wizard and the Prophet.
How can we provide these things for all these new people? That is only part of the question. The full question is: How can we provide them without wrecking the natural systems on which all depend?
Scientists, activists, and politicians have proposed many solutions, each from a different ideological and moral perspective. Some argue that we must drastically throttle industrial civilization. (Stop energy-intensive, chemical-based farming today! Eliminate fossil fuels to halt climate change!) Others claim that only intense exploitation of scientific knowledge can save us. (Plant super-productive, genetically modified crops now! Switch to nuclear power to halt climate change!) No matter which course is chosen, though, it will require radical, large-scale transformations in the human enterprise — a daunting, hideously expensive task.
Worse, the ship is too large to turn quickly. The world’s food supply cannot be decoupled rapidly from industrial agriculture, if that is seen as the answer. Aquifers cannot be recharged with a snap of the fingers. If the high-tech route is chosen, genetically modified crops cannot be bred and tested overnight. Similarly, carbon-sequestration techniques and nuclear power plants cannot be deployed instantly. Changes must be planned and executed decades in advance of the usual signals of crisis, but that’s like asking healthy, happy sixteen-year-olds to write living wills.
I’m very eager to tear into this book. The Prophets vs. The Wizards debate lies at the heart of issues about economic equality, climate change, and the future of energy (both electrical and nutritional). I see people having some form of this debate on Twitter every day, whether it’s about GMO crops, nuclear power, animal extinction, or carbon offsets.
Four years ago, Bill Gates, a Wizard to the core, talked to a small group of media about his most recent annual letter. I can’t recall exactly what Gates said — something like “you can’t tell a billion Indians they can’t have flatscreen TVs”1 — but I do remember very clearly how emphatically he stated that the way forward was not about the world cutting back on energy usage or consumption or less intensive farming. I think about his statement several times a week. I was unconvinced of his assertion at the time and still am. But my skepticism bothers me…I’m skeptical of my skepticism. Technology and progress have done a lot of good for the world — let’s talk infant mortality and infectious diseases for starters — but I am also sympathetic to the argument that the Agricultural Revolution was “history’s biggest fraud”. So yeah, I’m keen to see what Mann adds to this debate.
Each year, Bill and Melinda Gates write a letter about the work they’re doing with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2006, Warren Buffett donated more than billion to their foundation, which effectively doubled its available resources. This year’s letter from the Gateses is addressed to Buffett and details the return on his investment so far.
Bill: If we could show you only one number that proves how life has changed for the poorest, it would be 122 million — the number of children’s lives saved since 1990.
Melinda: Every September, the UN announces the number of children under five who died the previous year. Every year, this number breaks my heart and gives me hope. It’s tragic that so many children are dying, but every year more children live.
Bill: More children survived in 2015 than in 2014. More survived in 2014 than in 2013, and so on. If you add it all up, 122 million children under age five have been saved over the past 25 years. These are children who would have died if mortality rates had stayed where they were in 1990.
Bill calls saving children’s lives “the best deal in philanthropy”. Melinda continues:
Melinda: And if you want to know the best deal within the deal — it’s vaccines. Coverage for the basic package of childhood vaccines is now the highest it’s ever been, at 86 percent. And the gap between the richest and the poorest countries is the lowest it’s ever been. Vaccines are the biggest reason for the drop in childhood deaths.
Melinda: They’re an incredible investment. The pentavalent vaccine, which protects against five deadly infections in a single shot, now costs under a dollar.
Bill: And for every dollar spent on childhood immunizations, you get $44 in economic benefits. That includes saving the money that families lose when a child is sick and a parent can’t work.
Vaccines. And Now my kids don’t die.
Bill Gates and a number of other investors are starting a billion venture fund focused on “cheap, clean, reliable energy”.
Bill Gates is leading a more than $1 billion fund focused on fighting climate change by investing in clean energy innovation.
The Microsoft co-founder and his all-star line-up of fellow investors plan to announce tomorrow the Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund, which will begin making investments next year. The BEV fund, which has a 20-year duration, aims to invest in the commercialization of new technologies that reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in areas including electricity generation and storage, transportation, industrial processes, agriculture, and energy-system efficiency.
The company’s tagline is “Investing in a Carbonless Future” and their investment criteria are:
- CLIMATE IMPACT. We will invest in technologies that have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least half a gigaton.
- OTHER INVESTMENTS. We will invest in companies with real potential to attract capital from sources outside of BEV and the broader Breakthrough Energy Coalition.
- SCIENTIFIC POSSIBILITY. We will invest in technologies with an existing scientific proof of concept that can be meaningfully advanced.
- FILLING THE GAPS. We will invest in companies that need the unique attributes of BEV capital, including patience, judgment by scientific milestones, flexible investment capabilities, and a significant global network.
Jeff Bezos, Mike Bloomberg, Richard Branson, Reid Hoffman, and Jack Ma are also participating in the fund.
In related-yet-unrelated news, a recent report says investment funds controlling more than $5 trillion in assets have dropped some or even all of their fossil fuel stocks.
The report, released Monday, said the new total was twice the amount measured 15 months ago — a remarkable rise for a movement that began on American college campuses in 2011. Since then, divestment has expanded to the business world and institutional world, and includes large pension funds, insurers, financial institutions and religious organizations. It has also spread around the world, with 688 institutions and nearly 60,000 individuals in 76 countries divesting themselves of shares in at least some kinds of oil, gas and coal companies, according to the report.
“It’s a stunning number,” said Ellen Dorsey, the executive director of the Wallace Global Fund, which has promoted fossil fuel divestment and clean energy investment as part of its philanthropy.
Like it or not, economics has to be a significant driver for combatting climate change. Driving public opinion against fossil fuel companies, falling prices for solar and battery energy, and clean energy investment funds: it all helps support the decisions made by the world’s forward-thinking leaders. And maybe, just maybe, if you can get the world’s leaders, the public, and the economy all pointed in the right direction, we’ve got a chance.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates, in addition to attempting to save the world, is also a voracious reader. He recently recommended five books that you should read this summer. On the list is Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, which I might finally try, having absolutely loved Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon when I read them a few years ago. Gates also recommends Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, which I read earlier this year and think about every few days. I wrote a bit about Sapiens and the invention of farming, which is a topic about which Gates disagreed with Harari.
As part of a celebration of the legacy of Richard Feynman at Caltech this week, Bill Gates contributed a video about what he learned from Feynman.
In that video, I especially love the way Feynman explains how fire works. He takes such obvious delight in knowledge — you can see his face light up. And he makes it so clear that anyone can understand it.
I love that video as well…just watched it again and it’s so so good.
Randall Munroe has a new book coming out called Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words in which he uses the 1000 most common English words to explain interesting mostly scientific stuff. In a preview of the book, Munroe has a piece in the New Yorker explaining Einstein’s theory of relativity using the same constraint.
The problem was light. A few dozen years before the space doctor’s time, someone explained with numbers how waves of light and radio move through space. Everyone checked those numbers every way they could, and they seemed to be right. But there was trouble. The numbers said that the wave moved through space a certain distance every second. (The distance is about seven times around Earth.) They didn’t say what was sitting still. They just said a certain distance every second.
It took people a while to realize what a huge problem this was. The numbers said that everyone will see light going that same distance every second, but what happens if you go really fast in the same direction as the light? If someone drove next to a light wave in a really fast car, wouldn’t they see the light going past them slowly? The numbers said no-they would see the light going past them just as fast as if they were standing still.
It’s a fun read, but as Bill Gates observed in his review of Thing Explainer, sometimes the limited vocabulary gets in the way of true understanding:1
If I have a criticism of Thing Explainer, it’s that the clever concept sometimes gets in the way of clarity. Occasionally I found myself wishing that Munroe had allowed himself a few more terms — “Mars” instead of “red world,” or “helium” instead of “funny voice air.”
See also Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity In Words of Four Letters or Less. You might prefer this explanation instead, in the form of a video by high school senior Ryan Chester:
This video recently won Chester a $250,000 Breakthrough Prize college scholarship.2 Nice work!
How have I never seen this photo before?
From the Harvard Gazette, Walter Isaacson writes about Bill Gates’ years at Harvard.
It may have been the most momentous purchase of a magazine in the history of the Out of Town News stand in Harvard Square. Paul Allen, a college dropout from Seattle, wandered into the cluttered kiosk one snowy day in December 1974 and saw that the new issue of Popular Electronics featured a home computer for hobbyists, called the Altair, that was just coming on the market. He was both exhilarated and dismayed. Although thrilled that the era of the “personal” computer seemed to have arrived, he was afraid that he was going to miss the party. Slapping down 75 cents, he grabbed the issue and trotted through the slush to the Currier House room of Bill Gates, a Harvard sophomore and fellow computer fanatic from Lakeside High School in Seattle, who had convinced Allen to drop out of college and move to Cambridge. “Hey, this thing is happening without us,” Allen declared. Gates began to rock back and forth, as he often did during moments of intensity. When he finished the article, he realized that Allen was right. For the next eight weeks, the two of them embarked on a frenzy of code writing that would change the nature of the computer business.
What Gates and Allen set out to do, during the Christmas break of 1974 and the subsequent January reading period when Gates was supposed to be studying for exams, was to create the software for personal computers. “When Paul showed me that magazine, there was no such thing as a software industry,” Gates recalled. “We had the insight that you could create one. And we did.” Years later, reflecting on his innovations, he said, “That was the most important idea that I ever had.”
And here perhaps is the worst idea Gates ever had:
Yesterday, I was part of a small group of journalists and bloggers that got to meet with Bill Gates for a little more than an hour. Gates was there to discuss the publication of his annual letter for 2013, which is a report of how things are going at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Here are a few of my observations about the letter, the conversation, and Gates himself.
- First, the letter. It’s very optimistic in tone and not without reason. Hearing bad news about the third-world is de rigueur, but Gates is obviously very proud of the progress being made in various places around the world. From the letter:
As 2015 approaches, the world is taking a hard look at how it is doing on the goals. Although we won’t achieve them all, we’ve made amazing progress, and the goals have become a report card for how the world is performing against major problems affecting the poor. The MDG target of reducing extreme poverty by half has been reached ahead of the deadline, as has the goal of halving the proportion of people who lack access to safe drinking water. Living conditions for more than 200 million slum dwellers have also improved — double the target. Some goals, however, were set at such an ambitious level that they will be missed. For instance, while we have reduced the number of mothers who die during childbirth by almost 50 percent — which is incredible — we will, however, fall short of the goal of a 75 percent reduction.
We’re also not on track to meet one of the most critical goals — reducing the number of children who die under the age of five by two-thirds. We’ve made substantial progress. The number of children who die has declined from nearly 12 million in 1990 to 6.9 million in 2011. While that means 14,000 fewer children around the world are dying every day than in 1990, we won’t reach the two-thirds target by 2015.
Still, many individual countries are on track to achieve this target. One of them is Ethiopia, which used the MDGs to drive an overhaul of its primary health care system that has led to a dramatic decline in childhood deaths.
If you read the whole thing, you’ll likely be surprised, as I was, at how much has been accomplished over the past 10-15 years.
- I asked him if he saw some trends that were not headed in a good direction and he replied that there weren’t many. Two that he mentioned were the quality of governance in some areas of the world and the average income of families that kids are born into is falling (basically because the poor are having kids faster than everyone else). Gates indicated the governance issue is difficult to solve with money alone and that the second problem is being addressed through the Foundation’s general efforts.
- Gates stated, with no small amount of dissatisfaction, that both education and energy are drastically underinvested in R&D.
- Over and over, in the letter and during the roundtable, Gates talked about the importance of measurement and results. I got the sense that before the Gates Foundation came along, money was pumped into charitable foundations and donors didn’t have much sense what result their giving had, beyond that it had “done good”. Gates is obviously running his foundation like a business, where instead of profits or number of Windows installs, the metrics are things like lives saved or children vaccinated.
- In person, Gates is very much like you’d expect: intense, passionate, and super smart. He spoke without notes and as an expert in a wide-ranging number of topics. He pulled so many different kinds of statistics off the top of his head that you’d be tempted to think he’s making them up, but I don’t think so.
- Gates reminds me a bit of NYC Mayor Bloomberg: he’s likely fiscally conservative, socially liberal, but pragmatic above all.
Update: Tyler Cowen posted his notes from the meeting.
He is smart enough, and health-savvy enough, not to waste time with handshakes at the beginning of meetings. People as productive as Gates should not be required to shake hands, and the same can be said for people less productive than Gates.
No words. No. Words. They should have sent a poet.
This Best of Kottke post was easy, because I wanted to write something about Steve Jobs over the years anyways. The kickoff is Jason’s link to a 1995 interview with Jobs for Smithsonian Magazine. It’s mostly reflective, talking about his childhood, his history with Apple and early history with NEXT and Pixar. Toy Story hadn’t come out yet, and it’s fascinating to read what could be his bluster about what the movie and company were going to do, which of course turned out to be totally true. He’s also absolutely thrilled with what NEXT was doing with graphical user interface and networked computers. Windows 95 came out four months later.
It’s a sharp contrast with his interview the next year for Wired, which is mostly about the future of computing. He’s devastated and angry about Windows, but incredibly enthusiastic about the open web.
The desktop computer industry is dead. Innovation has virtually ceased. Microsoft dominates with very little innovation. That’s over. Apple lost. The desktop market has entered the dark ages, and it’s going to be in the dark ages for the next 10 years, or certainly for the rest of this decade.
It’s like when IBM drove a lot of innovation out of the computer industry before the microprocessor came along. Eventually, Microsoft will crumble because of complacency, and maybe some new things will grow. But until that happens, until there’s some fundamental technology shift, it’s just over.
The most exciting things happening today are objects and the Web. The Web is exciting for two reasons. One, it’s ubiquitous. There will be Web dial tone everywhere. And anything that’s ubiquitous gets interesting. Two, I don’t think Microsoft will figure out a way to own it. There’s going to be a lot more innovation, and that will create a place where there isn’t this dark cloud of dominance.
He also has this crystal clear vision about how the web was going to move beyond simple publishing and would be used to do commerce and create marketplaces for physical and virtual goods — a vision, which, again, turned out to be exactly right.
Two common threads in both interviews: he hates teachers’ unions, and doesn’t think technology can do anything for education. You generally see a much more libertarian, pessimistic Jobs in both of these interviews than you do today. He talks about death a lot, even though he’s still young and healthy.
Finally, I’ll link to what’s still one of my favorite looks at the future of consumer technology, Jobs and Bill Gates’s 2007 joint interview at D5 with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher. (Prologue - Full Video - Transcript) It’s long to watch, but so worth it. They joke and reminisce with each other, tell stories about the early days of the computer industry, and share ideas about where things are going. (Bill Gates’s first line: “First, I just want to say: I am not Fake Steve Jobs.”)
The iPhone (announced but not released) is hot as hell, but Apple is still a much smaller company than Microsoft. Vista’s just been released and is stumbling out of the gate. Gates, unlike Jobs, is incredibly invested in trying to do something in tech to help education, and Jobs (whose Apple now has a huge education market) is mostly silent.
It’s also painfully obvious in retrospect that Jobs is talking about the expansion of the iOS into the iPod Touch, iPad (and maybe beyond) while Gates is talking about the experiments in input recognition that played into Windows 7 and the new XBox Kinect. Neither of them have any real idea what to do with TVs, but Gates actually seems to be more visionary, in part because he can afford to be less coy. It’s great. I’ve probably rewatched it four times, and you’ve never seen it, and care about this stuff at all, you should catch it.
Over at Worldchanging, Alex Steffen calls Bill Gates’ talk about climate change the most important speech ever given at TED. Gates said that the number one priority for him and the Gates Foundation (the world’s largest philanthropic organization) is to combat human-driven climate change.
He reckons that because population is going to continue to grow for at least four decades, because billions of poor people want more equitable prosperity, and because (as he sees it) improvements in energy efficiency are limited, we have to focus on the last element of the equation, the carbon intensity of energy. Simply, we need climate-neutral energy. We need to use nothing but climate-neutral energy.
You are still reading Letters of Note, yes? A couple of recent letters include Bill Gates’ infamous An Open Letter to Hobbyists — “most of you steal your software” — and a letter from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol about the design of an album cover in which Jagger gives the impression of being the perfect client…do whatever you want and let me know how much to pay you.
Update: Jagger’s letter to MC Escher didn’t work out quite as well.
By the way, please tell Mr. Jagger I am not Maurits to him, but
M. C. Escher.
The programmers profiled in the 1986 book, Programmers at Work…where are they now?
Bill Gates. Then: founder of Microsoft, popularizer of the word “super”. Now: richest guy in the world. After a stint in the 90s as pure evil, semi-retired to focus on philanthropic work.
Nice summary of the Steve Jobs/Bill Gates conversation at the D: All Things Digital conference. “Asked to give advice for others considering starting their own businesses, Gates explained that in the early days, he and his colleagues never considered the value of the company they were developing. ‘It’s all about the people and the passion, and it’s amazing the business worked out the way it did.’” Here’s a briefer summary with context and a transcript and video of the entire interview is available on the conference site.
A short remembrance of what it was like to work for Bill Gates at Microsoft in the early 90s. “Even in conversation, btw, people at Microsoft were known by their email names. I didn’t report directly to billg; but, during much of the time I was there, I worked for mikemap (Mike Maples), who reported to billg, had responsibility for all the products, and was part of the boop. Boop stood for billg plus the office of the president (real presidents didn’t last very long there). The oop consisted of steveb (Steve Ballmer) and mikemap. Major decisions were sometimes made by the boop.” Boop. Boop!
Cynical-C is keeping track of what the media is blaming for the Virginia Tech murders. So far, the list runs to more than 30 items, including South Korea, Bill Gates, the second amendment, violent video games, and cowardly students.
Dilbert creator Scott Adams wants Bill Gates for President, and I can’t say I disagree. “For my president I want a mixture of Mother Teresa, Carl Sagan, Warren Buffet, and Darth Vader. Bill has all of their good stuff. His foundation will save more lives than Mother Teresa ever did. He’s got the Carl Sagan intelligence and rational mind. He’s a hugely successful businessman. And I have every reason to believe he can choke people just by concentrating in their general direction.”
US News & World Report has a list of 25 of America’s best leaders. Condoleezza Rice, Steve Jobs, Meg Whitman, Bill & Melinda Gates, etc.
From a Washington Post article about google.org, Google’s philanthropic effort:
Shareholder activists said Google’s charitable commitment raises questions about whether this is an appropriate use of company cash or whether company founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page ought to make donations to their favorite causes personally. The foundation of Bill Gates, the founder and chairman of Microsoft Corp. and the nation’s richest person according to Forbes, gave away more than a billion dollars last year to fight poverty, hunger and disease around the world. But Gates donates through a personal foundation, rather than through Microsoft itself.
“The board of directors should make it clear to the company’s founders what should be personal and what should be corporate,” said Patrick S. McGurn, special counsel to Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. “Google is spending shareholders’ money, and it raises questions if there is not a valid corporate purpose.”
Shareholder activists? You’ve got to be kidding me. You’d think that stock shareholders are a bunch of babies that need their noses wiped and hands held to go potty or something. If you don’t want to support Google’s philanthropic efforts and think that they’re throwing your money away by doing so, there’s an easy way to opt out: DON’T BUY GOOGLE STOCK. It’s a free country and open market…vote with your money on what you think is a “valid corporate purpose”. There are thousands of other companies to invest in that are doing other things, many of which operate exactly the same…nice and safe and by the book. The information on what these companies are doing with their shareholders’ money is freely available…get informed about what you’re buying. Given their P/E ratio, unique corporate approach, and incredible rate of growth, Google might just be the riskiest large-cap stock opportunity out there, but the potential upside (as well as the downside) is a lot greater than all of those companies playing it safe. As long as it’s stated (and I believe Google certainly has made their views very clear), risk isn’t something from which shareholders should be warned away.
Old Computer Bowl programs on archive.org. Computer Bowl was a technology trivia program from the late 80s/early 90s that featured Bill Joy, Bill Gates, Mitch Kapor, Andy Herzfeld, and Esther Dyson as contestants.