Bill Gates, in his role as co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, visited MIT on Wednesday as part of a three-day tour of five universities across the country that was aimed at inspiring the brightest minds to tackle the world's biggest problems. Before speaking at Kresge Auditorium and taking questions from students in the audience, he met with faculty to discuss issues related to global poverty, including how MIT's OpenCourseWare (OCW) can be shared more effectively with the world. Gates also met with students who presented their research related to global health and poverty, including malaria diagnostic tests in Africa and an open-source, cell-phone based telemedicine system known as Sana that extends medical diagnoses in remote and conflict-ridden regions. After his talk in Kresge, Gates sat down with MIT News to share what he learned during his visit.
Q. Was there an idea or two in particular that you learned about here at MIT this morning that stuck with you or that perhaps was something you hadn't seen so far on your college tour?
A. Yeah, there were a lot of good ones. The malaria thing, it was great to get that update. That's work that our Foundation is involved with. The cell phone stuff — it was good to see the progress, but that's not yet actually saving lives, and actually mapping it to practice in the field, it'll be interesting to see how that goes. I was glad to see that people are pushing, because I think that eventually, something will be found there, but that's very tricky. So, there was a very good dialogue. I talked a lot with the OpenCourseWare people about what the opportunities are to work together to take that to a new level. It's great the way it is, but why can't we have 20 times the current level of usage? Victor Zue had some ideas about applying technology to it, and we talked about how we draw other universities into that.
Q. How much time do you personally spend simply learning? How much time do you spend watching videos of MIT lectures?
A. Of the 33 courses that are available completely in video, there are 11 that I've watched most of. Three of those are Walter Lewin's physics courses that are absolutely superb. One is the Don Sadoway course, and there's an Eric Lander biology course. As I scanned the site last night just to see what was new, I saw a couple that I now know are up there that I've got to go and take — one on thermodynamics, one on structures — that I'm looking forward to. There's a lot of universities doing online courses, but I've watched more MIT ones than any others.
Q. Does the work of your foundation resonate with college students? Are students as a whole as aware of the world's problems as you think they should be?
A. Well, no, not as they should be, but the situation is dramatically better in that respect than it was when I went to college. There was no course on poverty, and MIT started one last year that sounds like that's going to be a great thing, and it could get significant attendance. So, no, there's a lot more that can be done. But things like OpenCourseWare, D-Lab, the group that brings students together to talk about poverty — even if all the universities were doing as much as MIT, that would be an improvement. But the idea was to start a dialog here about how MIT can even move up from the level that it's at today.