Gates loses faith in computers
They can't cure world's ills, admits Microsoft boss
Sunday November 5, 2000
Microsoft boss Bill Gates has renounced the machine that has made him the world's richest man. In a startling proclamation, Gates has announced that computers can do little to solve the planet's gravest social ills.
'The world's poorest two billion people desperately need healthcare, not laptops,' he said.
The declaration represents a major personal transformation for Gates, and has sent shockwaves through America's high-tech business community. Had the Pope renounced Catholicism, the surprise would not have been greater.
Speaking in Seattle at a conference on using computers to help the Third World, Gates said he still had faith in the ideal that technology could bring about a better world, but added that he doubted that computers - or global capitalism - could solve the most immediate catastrophes facing the world's poorest people.
People who thought that developing countries could benefit from the e-economy had no idea what it meant to live on $1 a day with no electricity, said Gates. 'You're just buying food; you're trying to stay alive.'
The billionaire technologist became positively vitriolic about the idea of using computers in the Third World: 'Mothers are going to walk right up to that computer and say, "My children are dying, what can you do?" They're not going to sit there and, like, browse eBay or something.
'What they want is for their children to live. Do you really have to put in computers to figure that out?'
For a man who has benefited more than anyone from the IT revolution, this reappraisal is extraordinary and comes after several months of growing disillusionment in Gates about the state of the planet, and the potential for technology to help it out of its current crisis.
He confessed he had been 'naive - very naive' when he began giving away his fortune six years ago. At that time, he said, he expected that computers and information technology would make up the bulk of his philanthropic donations. 'Computers are amazing in what they can do, but they have to be put into the perspective of human values,' he said.
Having visited Africa and other Third World countries his priorities had now shifted, he said. At least two-thirds of the grants offered by the $21 billion Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would now be devoted to Third World healthcare and the development and distribution of vaccines.
In the past year the Gates Foundation has given more than $200 million to health-related causes, including $25m for the International Aids Vaccine Initiative, $50m to prevent maternal and child mortality, $20m for international family planning efforts and $100m towards children's vaccines. 'As a father of two children, thinking about the medicines that I take for granted which are not available elsewhere, that sort of rises to the top of the list.'
These remarks have angered many of Gates's wealthy, hi-tech philanthropist counterparts. They say he has unfairly placed computers at odds with providing food and healthcare in developing countries. Others argue that Gates is wrong to think that technology cannot help improve even the poorest people's lives.
'After listening to three days of serious analysis and work, and then to have Gates rather flippantly say, "You've got to have clean water and food" - that wasn't exactly furthering the point of the entire meeting,' said Sun Microsystems chief research officer John Gage, who heads Netday, a charity committed to wiring the world's classrooms to the internet.