What good is an Internet balloon if kids are dying underneath it? In a Bloomberg interview, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates implies that the world's burning, and companies like Google--and Silicon Valley at large--are simply inventing better fiddles.
The interview with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, released Thursday, doesn't just take the side that Silicon Valley isn't just inventing anything useful, as some have said over the years. It takes aim at the idea that the technology industry is losing sight of the big problems that it should be solving.
Case in point: Google, which Gates uses as a scapegoat for tech woes in general. Google recently unveiled Project Loon, a series of wirelessly interconnnected balloons designed to float over third-world counties and provide Internet access to those below. The problem, according to Gates, is that challenges those poor countries face isn't a lack of Internet access, but the basic issues of poverty, income, education, and health.
"When you're dying of malaria, I suppose you'll look up and see that balloon, and I'm not sure how it'll help you," Gates said, according to the interview. "When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there's no website that relieves that. Certainly I'm a huge believer in the digital revolution. And connecting up primary-health-care centers, connecting up schools, those are good things. But no, those are not, for the really low-income countries, unless you directly say we're going to do something about malaria."
Bill Gates, speaking at the recent Microsoft Faculty Summit, thinks Silicon Valley isn't addressing the big problems.
Google did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
Gates stepped down from his day-to-day role as Microsoft's chief executive in 2000 to form the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with his wife. The foundation, whose endowment includs contributions from Gates himself, investor Warren Buffett, and others, has a total endowment of $36.4 billion. It gave away $3.4 billion last year, to support causes like reforming education. In developing countries, its priorities are elimination of poverty and improving health; in the latter category, the foundation's goals are to wipe out polio and malaria worldwide.
Gates also took aim at what he saw as Google's evolution from a company designed to help improve the world to a more profit-driven enterprise. From 2006 to 2009, Google hired Dr. Larry Brilliant to run Google.org, the company's charitable organization, which originally pledged to donate 1 percent of its profits to charitable organizations.
"Google started out saying they were going to do a broad set of things," Gates said. "They hired Larry Brilliant, and they got fantastic publicity. And then they shut it all down. Now they're just doing their core thing. Fine. But the actors who just do their core thing are not going to uplift the poor."
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