In Search of the Real Bill Gates

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Part of what makes him so enigmatic is the nature of his intellect. Wander the Microsoft grounds, press the Bill button in conversation and hear it described in computer terms: he has "incredible processing power" and "unlimited bandwidth," an agility at "parallel processing" and "multitasking." Watch him at his desk, and you see what they mean. He works on two computers, one with four frames that sequence data streaming in from the Internet, the other handling the hundreds of E-mail messages and memos that extend his mind into a network. He can be so rigorous as he processes data that one can imagine his mind may indeed be digital: no sloppy emotions or analog fuzziness, just trillions of binary impulses coolly converting input into correct answers.

"I don't think there's anything unique about human intelligence," Gates says over dinner one night at a nearly deserted Indian restaurant in a strip mall near his office. Even while eating, he seems to be multitasking; ambidextrous, he switches his fork back and forth throughout the meal and uses whichever hand is free to gesture or scribble notes. "All the neurons in the brain that make up perceptions and emotions operate in a binary fashion," he explains. "We can someday replicate that on a machine." Earthly life is carbon based, he notes, and computers are silicon based, but that is not a major distinction. "Eventually we'll be able to sequence the human genome and replicate how nature did intelligence in a carbon-based system." The notion, he admits, is a bit frightening, but he jokes that it would also be cheating. "It's like reverse-engineering someone else's product in order to solve a challenge."

Might there be some greater meaning to the universe? When engaged or amused, he is voluble, waving his hands and speaking loudly enough to fill the restaurant. "It's possible, you can never know, that the universe exists only for me." It's a mix of Descartes' metaphysics and Tom Stoppard's humor. "If so," he jokes, "it's sure going well for me, I must admit." He laughs; his eyes sparkle. Here's something machines can't do (I don't think): giggle about their plight in the cosmos, crack themselves up, have fun.

Right? Isn't there something special, perhaps even divine, about the human soul? His face suddenly becomes expressionless, his squeaky voice turns toneless, and he folds his arms across his belly and vigorously rocks back and forth in a mannerism that has become so mimicked at Microsoft that a meeting there can resemble a round table of ecstatic rabbis. Finally, as if from an automaton, comes the answer: "I don't have any evidence on that." Rock, rock, rock. "I don't have any evidence on that."

The search for evidence about the soul that underlies Bill Gates' intellectual operating system is a task that even this boyish man might find a challenge.

"As a baby, he used to rock back and forth in his cradle himself," recalls Gates' father, a man as big and huggable as his son is small and tightly coiled. A retired lawyer, he still lives in the airy suburban Seattle house overlooking Lake Washington where Bill III--the boy he calls "Trey"--grew up. (The name comes from the card term for three, though the father is now resigned to being called Bill Sr.)

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