Silicon Valley, located on the West Coast of the US, is the world's centre of innovation. The technologies and products that are thought of and developed there set the pace of our daily lives. Just consider how many times a day you check your smartphone. How many times you have logged into Facebook before work. Or how you look for cheap airline tickets.
In that respect, Bill Gates is a very interesting person to talk to. By founding Microsoft in 1975 together with Paul Allen he contributed greatly to introducing the personal computer as part of our daily lives. The same company made him the richest man alive. Starting in 2000 he started spending less time managing the company. He and his wife started the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to 'give back to the world'. In 2008, he started working fulltime for the Foundation, that by the end of 2014 was worth 45 billion dollars. Gates and his wife want to use that money to reduce extreme poverty and improve healthcare worldwide.
He came to the Netherlands for an extremely short visit on 26 January to gave advice to young, social entrepeneurs at the event 'The Power of Progress', hosted by OneWorld and the World's Best News Campaign. Afterwards, OneWorld had the chance to talk to Gates for seven minuten about innovation.
What are the most disruptive, innovative ideas or technologies that are being developed in Silicon Valley right now?
“Many of Silicon Valley's innovative ideas mostly help the middle income and rich countries. And so you are talking about robots, autonomous driving, computer with vision, computers that have learning capabilities, etcetera. And there is not just the digital, but also the biological world. There are many interesting things going on there, like gene editing. Which can be used for either human health or for making plants better so they can avoid problems with climate change. There's recently been some huge breakthough there.
The question for me is: how do we take these things and make them relevant to poor people in Africa? You know they have cell phones. Not nearly as good as the latest cell phone, but enough to give them some advice about their farming. Or ask them: when you went to the clinic, did they try and charge you for something? Did they have the medicines you asked or? We can use mobile technology in these countries to really get the measurement we need to get a great feedback loop to make government services really good in these countries. That's a very, very important thing. Almost all these innovations can be shaped to help the poorest. That's what I'm most excited about.”
Are you saying big data can help the poorest people?
“We do need to gather more data about the poorest. Right now most big data stuff is in the rich world. But we have a long way to go to get for example digital money. Kenya's a country where they're doing most transactions digitally on a cell phones. And that's spreading to other countries. And even India and Pakistan will be using that technology. That's super helpful because then new ways will exist for a farmer to borrow money. But first you have to get the government to approve banking over cell phones, and make sure the technology has a super competitive low fee structure. Big data now is mostly about rich world consumer preferences. Over time, yes some medical things will be explored that way. But we're dealing more with the basics in these countries.”
Even in the richest countries we haven't found ways that satisfy the need to mitigate risks of innovation, like in the areas of privacy or environment. Do you ever worry we're innovating too fast?
“No. Take the environment in the US, it's so much better than 40 or 20 years ago. Rich countries made a priority of improving things in that respect. So ironically the environment was way worse 40 years ago, but if you would have asked people back then, it wasn't even an issue they cared about. Because it wasn't until they became richer, that they began saying: 'hey, yeah I did see a polluted area. And yeah, let's make this river swimmable again.' The arrow of time is pointing in the right direction, we need to accelerate it and make it smarter. And as we lift other countries up, they will start thinking about these things. Look at China, which is improving their environment faster than any country has in history. They recognized it's a big problem and it's incredible how fast they're moving. Within a decade, they will have achieved environmental standards that you would associate with a much richer country.”
Basically you're saying: we are doing better in all areas? Because I am pretty pessimistic about the environment…
“How can you be pessimistic about the environment? The US has cleaned up rivers, cleaned up dams, you know our standard for…”
But biodiversity is down…
“Well biodiversity is a global phenomenon and that gets you into climate change, and climate change is a huge problem that needs special tactics and one we need to look hard at. I was there at COP21, getting commitments to R&D, getting private investors to come in. Climate change is an ironic problem because it actually doesn't affect the rich world that much. It's an injust problem. I am optimistic about it, but I admit, we really have to get into the particulars on that one.”
One last question: what phone do you use?
“I still use my Windows phone. I'm very PC centric, so a lot of times when other people would just have their phone with them, I've got my Surface Book (a tablet/laptop device by Microsoft – ed.), because I write and read long messages. I probably have my PC with me 80% of the time.”