If the world were a PC operating system, some of us would probably be ready to reboot. You know, just to see if that fixes things. Bill Gates, who has experience with these things, would point out that this OS is actually getting better — even if we didn’t notice the upgrade.
It’s easy for anyone to get caught up in the doom and gloom about the current state of the country, and uncertainty about the future of the globe. And Gates has seen first-hand the challenges facing people around the world, so he’s well aware of the setbacks of the past and big obstacles that remain.
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But in the nine years since he left his day-to-day job at Microsoft, Gates has also witnessed steady progress in reducing childhood deaths around the world, big milestones in the fight against global disease, and scientific advances that promise to unlock new cures and innovations.
“Objectively, there’s a lot of great things that have happened,” Gates said in an interview with GeekWire at his offices in the Seattle suburbs — pointing to many areas of progress in the decade since Warren Buffett’s historic $30 billion gift to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “Whether it’s issues like rights or health or education, the world is improving.”
He added, “The biological information that we have that gives us insights is fantastic. Even for the diseases we don’t focus on — cancer, heart disease — you’re going to be way better off being sick 10 years from now than any time in the past.”
In fact, he said, one of the biggest problems is that people aren’t aware of the progress.
“It’s a real concern that if people see the world not getting better, that the investments to accelerate the good parts of the change won’t really be there,” he said. That is why he and Melinda Gates are making a point of “talking about why we’re excited and showing people, yes, we are being realistic, and we are looking at how U.S. generosity is being spent in a smarter way today than before.”
Talking with President Trump
Gates had a chance to make his case to Donald Trump in the weeks before the new U.S. president took office, and Gates shared with GeekWire new details about their conversation. He said he stressed the importance of U.S. support for scientific research in areas including vaccines, education, and energy. He encouraged Trump to get behind an innovation agenda to spark breakthroughs in these areas, akin to a modern-day moonshot.
“I don’t know if that will happen, but I wanted to get that in front of him,” Gates said.
One challenge is that Gates’ viewpoints on several of these issues are at odds with Trump’s positions.
For example, Trump has been publicly skeptical about vaccines, citing fears about a purported link to autism. Gates has called the claim that vaccines lead to autism “an absolute lie that has killed thousands of kids.” He told GeekWire that he did raise the subject of vaccines when meeting with Trump, as part of a broader conversation about innovation.
“Vaccines are a miracle. They’re fantastic. Anything that makes people hesitate to give their children these vaccines according to the recommended schedule creates risk,” Gates told GeekWire. “Getting the word out that, yes, vaccines are great, the safety data is very, very clear, including any of these specific concerns, that’s very important to our foundation in every country.”
Without criticizing Trump, he added: “I’ll certainly use my voice to try and avoid anything that undermines confidence, so that parents are using vaccines fully.”
A ‘Global Culture of Innovation’
Our interview took place before the recent controversy over Trump’s executive order on immigration. Gates hasn’t publicly addressed the administration’s actions to suspend immigration by refugees and block travel into the United States from seven mostly Muslim countries.
But in a follow-up statement to GeekWire this week, Gates referenced the importance of a “global culture of innovation.”
“I’ve talked a lot about what I think it takes for the US to continue to be a major leader in technology and science. We need to improve the education system, increase funding for basic science research, promote private-sector research and development, and allow high-tech companies to hire more skilled foreign workers.”
“When we innovate, we create millions of jobs, we build the companies that lead the world, we are healthier, and we make our lives more productive. And these benefits transcend borders, powering improvements in lives around the world. Our global culture of innovation has been most successful at those moments when science, technology, and great leadership come together to create miracles that improve modern life.”
Another hot-button topic is energy and the environment. Gates is pushing for a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions. With fellow billionaires including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman and Alibaba’s Jack Ma, among others, he has launched a $1 billion fund to fuel energy innovation. Donald Trump has called global warming a hoax, and his choice to head the E.P.A, Scott Pruitt, is known as a climate change skeptic.
“Energy is in very primal stuff and there are a lot of leads that are promising,” Gates said. “Still at a fairly risky stage, but over the next decade some of these breakthrough approaches are going to pay out, and U.S. research and U.S. leadership on this should be part of how it gets solved.”
So what’s going to happen to the planet under a Trump administration?
“We’re in a period of uncertainty about administration policies and the range of what might happen is particularly high here,” Gates said. “I don’t think that these R&D and innovation budgets will be substantially reduced. I think there’s even a chance that they might be increased and we should go and make that case to the Executive Branch, to the Congress.”
“These things are why the future’s going to be better than the past,” he said. “People really do look to the United States, so we’ll be there making the case.”
Watch a special video report on the Gates interview below.