2013-08-08

Bill Gates Doesn't Think The Internet Will Save The World

Google wants to float huge balloons to give wireless Internet access to the developing world. But is the company focusing on the wrong problems? Gates, one of world’s biggest philanthropists, says yes.

Bill Gates obviously believes the Internet is great and all, but he thinks Google’s Project Loon--the company’s plan to give balloon-based wireless connectivity to the developing world--is, well, more than a bit loony.

In an interview with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Gates trashed Google’s “moonshot” project because it invests massive resources into a solution that won’t address the fundamental challenges facing the world’s poorest countries. Gates said:

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. 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.

Whatever its merits, Project Loon faces a number of challenges anyway before it can get off the ground to benefit anyone. In New Zealand and as of this week in California, Google has been demonstrating that it can float dozens of balloons for a short period of time, but now it needs to scale up to hundreds of balloons for much longer.

Gates, whose foundation has given $26 billion in project grants in its existence, also dinged Google for drawing publicity for its broad philanthropic efforts to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges and, later, quietly shutting them down. (For example, in 2011, Google shuttered its program aimed at making renewable energy cheaper than coal.) Gates said:

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.

The Microsoft founder has a point in his comments, and mostly seems to want Google to drop its rhetoric about helping people and admit to selfish aims.

But as an individual billionaire philanthropist, he also has a lot more latitude to do with his money what he pleases. Improved Internet connectivity in the developing world would surely benefit Google as a business, but it would also benefit those living in poverty. And if those are the kinds of "win-win" investments Google believes it can make, then maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

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2 Comments

  • Jess Ausinheiler

    What's the price / value of free access to information, e.g., looking up ways to treat your child's diarrhea? (notwithstanding the need to teach people how to surf)

  • Jigar Shah

    Very well said.  Google has so much potential but so much to learn.  Few quick things:
    1) They refuse to actually make a difference: For a long time they did analyses that proved that renewable energy was less than Coal but then would never use that info to change anything where their largest data centers were located
    2) if they want win-wins, then actually do things that are really wins on both sides.  For instance, if you want Android to be the winning platform help the 500 million people with phones and no place to change them at home get centralized charging stations powered by solar PV ...and make money doing it.
    3) if they don't want to spend much money, anchor initiatives with some of your money like Richard Branson has done.  He brings in 10 other funders and then you have something with buy-in

    Pick something and own the problem though the many years it takes to solve it.  Don't change direction depending on what mood Larry is in that day.