Bill Gates throws cold water on Google's dream of connecting the world

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 Microsoft Research Faculty Summit 2013
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.”

That’s not quite true—Google.org exists, and it’s since shifted to providing accessible sources of information for people to tap into for disaster recovery, and the like—but the irascible Gates does seem to strike a nerve with his big-picture view. He calls Silicon Valley “faddish,” and says one can’t take that approach when designing companies for energy and other non-IT enterprises.

He also takes aim at the recent crop of entrepreneurs — Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Charles Simonyi, and Sergey Brin, among others—who have begun investing in space travel and exploration.  “Everybody’s got their own priorities. In terms of improving the state of humanity, I don’t see the direct connection,” Gates said. “I guess it’s fun, because you shoot rockets up in the air. But it’s not an area that I’ll be putting money into.”

It’s tough to take down Google so off-handedly, as innovations like the self-driving car and Google Glass will undoubtedly alter society when they’re released in their final form. Project Loon is also an experiment, providing 3G connectivty to rural or otherwise inaccessible areas—which can include the Third World, but also regions like New Zealand, where Loon is being tested.

And Google is a for-profit venture, with responsibilities to its shareholders, while the Gates Foundation, well, isn’t.

But as the Neill Blomkamp class-warfare sci-fi feature movie Elysium opens this week, it’s easy to see parallels: above hovers the promise of tapping into the global grid of innovation, complete with one-click shopping, restaurant reviews, and animated cat GIFs.

Gates possibly conflates the disconnected with the world’s poor, but the way he puts it is stark:

”You go out in the field, which I get to do two or three times a year, and talk to mothers who’ve had their children die,” Gates said of fighting malaria. “You’re always reminded that the world you live in is not the average place.”

#firstworldproblems, indeed. We now return you to news of yet another social network.

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