Bill Gates is a rare thing – someone with vast wealth that wants to give almost every single cent of it away to highly ambitious good causes. He is an unfathomably busy person, one who is constantly attempting to protect the disadvantaged from disease and economic depression.
Still, it’s comforting to know that despite all his grandiose plans, he remains grounded as a positive-thinking, unadulterated geek. In other words, he's one of us.
“You know, people love cool science,” a decidedly cheerful Gates, relaxing back in his chair and clasping his hands, tells IFLScience. He reminisces about the Space Race back in the 1960s, noting that competition between the US and Soviets “fostered a lot of amazing scientific research” – as well getting us to the Moon.
The founder and ex-CEO of Microsoft was in London this November in order to promote his yearly Grand Challenges symposium, where bright thinkers get together and hash out their ideas for solving seemingly insurmountable planet-wide issues.
In-between a Q&A at the Science Museum alongside fellow technological evangelist and philanthropist will.i.am, Gates found some time to sit down with IFLScience and give us an insight into how he plans to save the world one innovation at a time – and it quickly became clear that he doesn’t think wealthy governments are pulling their weight.
“It’s great when we can have something, like, okay, let’s go eradicate malaria, or let’s finish off polio – that really galvanizes people to understand, to say ‘okay, that’s what this science is for,’” he said.
will.i.am and Bill Gates attend a Q&A at the Science Museum in London, hosted by the editor of the Evening Standard, Sarah Sands. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Alain Brin
“Unfortunately, the structure of capitalism is such that you get less risk-taking in research and science than you’d like because the benefits don’t go to the inventors,” he added. “So the level of risk you take is lower than society should want you to, and that’s why for basic research governments have stepped in. But they could always do more.”
Praising the quality of the funding bodies and, in particular, the universities in the UK and US, Gates agrees that “it’s impressive, but there’s a capacity to accelerate these great inventions when there’re more resources available, and a lot of that has to come from government and philanthropy.”
One Planet, Many Missions
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is co-chaired between Gates, his wife Melinda and fellow philanthropist Warren Buffett. Since it was founded at the turn of the millennium, it has given out nearly $37 billion dollars in grants to groups, collectives, and organizations around the world dedicated to its advancement through science and innovation. It has grantees in every state in the US, and in over 100 other countries.
The fight against disease is arguably at the forefront of the Foundation’s work. The GAVI Alliance, a group helping to expand childhood immunization, has received $1.5 billion in funding. It has also committed $456 million to the Malaria Vaccine Initiative, and $355 million to Rotary International, a group supporting polio eradication.
Partly in thanks to this investment, the number of polio diagnoses has dropped by more than 99 percent since 1988. With the global rollout of a new vaccine, many experts are convinced that this debilitating disease will soon be eradicated from the globe.
The Foundation’s pushback against disease is matched only by its efforts to alleviate poverty. In an open letter posted online in 2015, Gates' philanthropic organization bet that in the next 15 years, the lives of the poor will improve faster than at any other time in history.
This sounds incredibly optimistic. In fact, more than anything else that permeates through his answers. It’s clear that Gates is an unrepentant optimist even in the face of huge pessimism. Even when the unrelenting pace of climate change is brought up, Gates sounds unnerved, but is clearly focused entirely on solutions.
“In a sense, we have a deadline,” he tells IFLScience. “If we don’t innovate to get new ways of generating new electricity with zero carbon emissions, then we’re going to pay a huge price.”
Separate from the work of the Foundation, Gates personally invests plenty of his own money into low-carbon energy research collectives, including the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a group also headed by Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos and Virgin’s Richard Branson.
“We’ve got to really get those things invented and deployed during the next 20 years to avoid big problems,” he adds, before emphasizing a common refrain. “Those big problems will hurt the poor countries more than anyone.”
Indeed, plenty of studies back him up on this. One notable analysis suggests climate change will bring with it not just more powerful weather events but also an increased likelihood of war – particularly to developing nations.
Distorting Fact and Fiction
Golden Rice is a GMO crop spearheaded by the BMGF. Thanagon_Stockphotos/Shutterstock
The Foundation’s focus on vulnerable nations is once again brought up during a discussion on genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), and the stark opposition of certain politically motivated organizations to the technology. GMOs are perfectly safe for human consumption and have enormous potential for the developing world. In spite of this, many groups and even governments fiercely oppose their use.
Golden Rice is one such example. Spearheaded by the Foundation, this GMO crop aims to deliver an easily cultured source of vitamin A to plenty of those suffering from a serious lack of it in parts of Asia and Africa. Millions of children are blinded as a result of Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD) every single year, and millions die from it. Golden Rice has been genetically engineered to contain high amounts of beta carotene, a key source of vitamin A. It's almost ready for use in agriculture, and not a second too soon.
Over 100 Nobel laureates recently called on Greenpeace – famous for its opposition to all kinds of GMOs – to stop its objection to Golden Rice, stating that they are putting people’s lives at risk. They did so to no avail.
“The fact that some rich countries aren’t going to take advantage of more productive or more nutritious food, that’s not any kind of problem at all,” Gates told IFLScience. “What I would view as problematic is imposing that view on countries where the benefits are quite dramatic – in terms of avoiding crop diseases that lead to starvation, or growing crops that improve nutrition and provide vitamin A to people.”
Ultimately, Gates concludes, “people really need to look at the science,” and not any political messages clouding it.
Arguably, there’s one invention out there today that’s distorting science as much as it’s helping to communicate it and promote it – the Internet. The irony wasn’t lost on Gates when this was put to him.
“It’s easier today than ever to access information,” he told IFLScience. “It’s also the source of incredible misinformation. Some of these very non-scientific viewpoints or non-diverse attitudes are clustering together.”
At present, Gates – like everyone else – cannot see a solution to the matter.
“It’s a bit of an unsolved problem,” he said, nodding slowly. “The next generation that’s thinking about Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat – they really need to work out how [the Internet] becomes more inclusive.”
Once again, that trademark optimism shines through. “I believe that they’ll use the flexibility in the right way, but, you know, you’re more in touch with that young group, seeing how they’re evolving and moving it.”
During the Q&A, just days before the US presidential election, Gates made an incredibly understated reference to the prospect of a Trump presidency – something that has now taken on a very real and frightening tangibility.
“You might find it interesting that, for some reason, I’ve never met with Donald Trump,” he told the amused crowd.
Although he thought that both Republican and Democrat administrations have been good when it comes to science spending, particularly on disease, Gates said that, in reference to Trump, “I do think this one is a bit… different.”
“As I travel around the world, people care a lot that the US is well run,” he added. “As much as they like to criticize the US, it sort of sets the standard, it is expected to help out with global problems, certainly in terms of innovation – it’s the only country that does even more than the UK in terms of great science.
“And so this [election] is of great importance to the world.”
Prompted by will.i.am to consider running for President himself someday – after all, he was mentioned in a leaked email as one of Clinton’s potential picks for VP, along with his wife – Gates confirmed that he would not ever seek the highest office in the land.
“I think what I’m best at is my full-time work at the Foundation,” he said, nodding slowly in the affirmative.
Back to the Future
At the Q&A, Gates was asked how he sees the world half a century from now. He gleefully describes the ever-accelerating pace of scientific innovation, and suggests that what we see as commonplace work today will fade into obscurity in 50 years’ time.
“The US in the 1900s had most of its workforce on the farms. We weren’t a big exporter, we barely made enough to feed the country,” he explains. “Today less than 2 percent of the labor force is on the farms, and yet the US is a big food exporter.”
“If you had said to people – hey, this is gonna happen – they would have said that farming is what life is all about and there isn’t anything else to do.” It’s difficult to predict the future, but Gates is confident that it will be unrecognizable from today’s society.
Prompted by will.i.am’s fondness for artificial intelligence (AI), Gates quickly agrees that it is in this sector that the world will see its next technological revolution. The first jobs he sees that will be either replaced or augmented with AI and intricate robotics will be manufacturing and security-type occupations, including the military.
“As you get to more sophisticated things, like robots helping with medical operations, then they’re just magnifying the skill sets for the foreseeable future,” he told the crowd. “They’re not replacing them.”
Plenty of serious thinkers, including Stephen Hawking, are wary of the proliferation of AI. Many are simply nervous at the thought of an AI with human levels of cognition. Gates told the audience that “it’s pretty clear we have a lot of time before that happens,” but opines that he’s “definitely someone who thinks we ought to start to talk about it more.”
He doubts that a Skynet-like future is inevitable, though. “I do think in the end it will be a resource we can control.” Nothing else could be worse, he notes, than nuclear weapons.
Either way, “the planet’s gonna be fine. It’s a very resilient planet,” Gates says through a slight smirk. “It’s the human race that has to be careful.”
Despite all this talk of the future, Gates is demonstrably someone committed firmly to the betterment of the present. As it so happens, there’s one decidedly contemporary – and rather commonplace – invention that he’s particularly fond of right now: the cell phone.
He told IFLScience that cell phones are given to poorer communities to allow them to not just connect them to the wider world, but to allow them to send money to those who need it with ease, which fosters an effortless, localized redistribution of wealth. “Cell phones are very empowering things,” he mused.
Bill and Melinda Gates pictures during an episode of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images
Throughout our time with Gates, this considerably humble and almost retiring individual is not leaping around the room or pacing up and down the stage, gesticulating wildly with his hands and claiming he alone can save the world.
He has no time for bluster or negativity, and it’s obvious from his elongated, eloquent answers and frequent tangents into tales of scientific derring-do that his mind is a constant thunderstorm of investment opportunities and ideas. Some of these ideas have saved countless lives.
Gates is right when he claims that people love cool science, and with his track record, it’s easy to see why. In a time of freakishly normalized ignorance, the Foundation has effectively weaponized intelligence against the darkest aspects of our planet, all for the greater good.