Rebooting: Bill Gates

This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

How do you get the crowd ready to listen to Bill Gates?

Well, you could try a little music. Naturally 7, a soul/blues/gospel septet gets the crowd excited in the Long Beach Auditorium, a big, beautiful space that fits everyone actually attending the conference – a huge change from the Monterrey venue so many of us are used to.

You can also offer some drool-worthy tech, like Dr. David Hanson’s robots. Hanson Robotics focuses on creating extremely realistic robots, with a full range of facial expressions. Using a new plastic he calls Frubber, the robots are able to offer facial expressions using 1/23rd of the power of comparable robots. As a result, the robots use very small batteries and are lightweight, which means they can be mounted bipedally. Working with the Korean Institute of Advanced Science and Technology, Hanson built an expressive, bipedal robot… which is a deeply uncanny thing to look at.

The work we need to make more exressive robots, Hanson believes, is a combination of robotics, mechanical engineering, AI, materials science, artistry and manufacturing. His demonstration of a robot that takes advantage of innovations in all these spaces is an android “portrait” of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. Using his writings and letters, you can converse with a realistic-looking version of Dick, and have conversations that sound a great deal like the great writer.

The demo that catches everyone’s attention is a bust of Einstein that reacts to Hanson’s facial expressions. He smiles at it, and it smiles back. His goal is to build a complex enough character engine that the robots know who you are, what you’re feeling and your relationship to the robot. This will allow people to have an empathetic relationship with machines, relating to machines in a more natural way. The consumer product Hanson is developing is called Zeno, and it’s a japanime-style robot designed as a “spokesbot for friendly machine intelligence” – it’s designed to be a “childhood companion” with a rich character and world for the child to explore with the robot. It’s hard to say if this is little more than the next Aibo, but Hanson’s Einstein is disturbingly lifelike, and it’s not hard to imagine Zeno being an impressive piece of work.

It’s hard to introduce Bill Gates, I suspect. Chris Anderson, our host, explains that Gates hasn’t been at TED since 1992, when he wasn’t very warmly received by the Silicon Valley community. He’s not talking technology today, despite the fact that he’s in a session titled “Reboot”. Gates worries that he might be invited in this section because we’re all rebooting our PCs so often – instead, he wants to talk about ways in which his philanthropic work can help reboot society around some critical problems.

One of those critical problems is childhood mortality. Gates explains that there are some very good reasons to be hopeful. In 1960, of the 110 million children born, 20 million died before the age of five. Five years ago, of 130 million children born, less than 10 million died – that’s an enormous reduction within a short period of time.

Measles was responsible for as many as 4 million childhood deaths a year as recently as 1990. For a similarly significant target today, Gates would want to address malaria. Malaria used to be a world-wide disease, endemic everywhere other than Greenland and Mongolia in 1900. Treating the disease with quinine, malaria was eliminated in temperate climates by 1970. As a result, this means that there’s been very little funding in developed nations to eliminate the disease – at the moment, there’s less money spent researching malaria than researching drugs to cure baldness.

“I brought some mosquitoes – we’ll let them roam around the auditorium. There’s no reason only the poor should experience this…” Gates jokes. (Chris Anderson suggests the headline for this talk should be “Gates releases more bugs to the world”.) We’ve got some strategies for mitigating mosquitoes, notably bednets, which mothers and children should sleep under each night. Spraying the foundation of houses is also very effective. But if you use techniques like this only in a half-hearted fashion, you end up reducing death rates only modestly.

We need a more aggressive, comprehensive approach. This involves convincing rich governments to fund the distribution of bednets and home spraying, and close work with social scientists to figure out what techniques actually work in communities. Gates tells us that there’s also a vaccine that’s going into phase 3 trials – if it passes, it should be capable of saving 2/3rds of the lives currently lost to malaria.

The other question Gates is currently obsessed with: “How do you make a teacher great?” We’re all here, Gates tells us, because we had great teachers – including Gates, a legendary college dropout. Gates believes that 20% of American teachers do an excellent job, training the people who will create “the next revolutions”.

The education that the balance of students are getting is weak and getting weaker, he fears. The dropout rate is over 30% in the US, over 50% for minority kids. If you’re a low-income person, you’ve got less than a 25% chance of completing a college degree – you have a better chance of going to jail.

There are huge quality variations in teachers. A top quartile teacher will increase test scores over 10% in a year in the average classroom. “If we had these teachers for two years, the entire difference between the US and Asia would go away. If we had them for four years, we’d blow the rest of the world away.”

Gates tells us, “Obviously, we should identify and retain these people.” They’re hard to identify, though – they’re not neccesarily the most senior teachers, and they’re certainly not the ones with master’s degrees. Teach for America seems to help a bit, and math teachers do better if they were math majors in college. But the biggest predictor of teaching excellence is past performance.

Gates is deeply involved with the KIPP charter schools program, which is doing impressive work. 96% of the students – who come from the poorest, least-advantaged neighborhoods – go on to four-year colleges. KIPP succeeds using techniques that don’t fly in public schools. They’re heavily data-driven, checking the success of individual teachers and their techniques. They use team-teaching to let teachers learn from one another. They’re ruthless about evaluating what works and what doesn’t, something that’s prohibited in many union-dominated school districts.

“Management can only come in once a year to visit classrooms, and has to warn teachers when they’re coming. How do you do quality control if management can’t see what you’re doing?” He complains that some school districts – notably the state of New York – blocks the release of teacher improvement data for use in teaching tenure decisions.

The good news, Gates tells us – we’re doing more testing, which gives us a better picture of where we are. When we use digital video cameras in the classroom, we can annotate teaching performances and see what’s really working. Gates believes KIPP has a replicable model that works and promises to send everyone at TED the book “Work Hard. Be Nice.” which documents the school’s innovations.

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9 Responses to Rebooting: Bill Gates

  1. Georgina says:

    Hi Ethan,

    I’m a reporter with Australian newspaper the Sydney Morning Herald.

    I filed this morning on Bill Gates’s mosquito stunt and wondered if you had anything to add on it? How the audience reacted, how many mozzies there were, etc.

    Here’s the story we’re running:

    Please email me if you have the time.


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  3. A Nopheles says:

    Why would a man like Bill Gates, reportedly intelligent, think that most people in the audience had not experienced a swarm of mosquitoes? Washington State may not have a lot of them but many eople in the US have more than enough experience of them. Mosquitoes are not the problem. Malaria is.

  4. Pingback: Daughter of the Ring of Fire » Blog Archive » The Meaning of Bill Gates’ Mosquitoes

  5. katrinah says:

    Hi Ethan: thank you for your great coverage of Bill Gates’ talk at TED. It is so good to know that education in the U.S. was one of the main topics Gates spoke of at TED. I read last year about the U.S. dropout rate being 30-50% and was shocked. I’ve since learned that educational opportunities in some places are so poor that kids are essentially being ‘trained for prison’. I’m glad the Gates Foundation has made education a top priority. I wonder if friends at TED will create a project around education as well? Thanks again for your post.

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  7. Maria says:

    I didn’t realize that Bill Gates was such a moron. Of course we “experience mosquitoes.” I remember being swarmed by them while walking in the Everglades — not fun — and having them pester me on camping trips. A Nopheles has it right: malaria is the problem. Now if Gates had released malaria-infected mosquitoes into that room, he’d really be making his point.

    Fortunately, he’s apparently not THAT stupid.

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  9. Pingback: Consider IT pure joy… » Gates releases more bugs - with a very serious message.

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