With a personal fortune estimated at $96 billion, Bill Gates is the world’s second wealthiest person, ahead of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg ($60 billion) but some way behind Jeff Bezos of Amazon ($135 billion). Since founding Microsoft, Gates has become a leading player in a new wave of philanthropy. Through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he has invested heavily in research into malaria and Alzheimer’s and given billions of dollars to fund health and education initiatives.
It’s perhaps not surprising then that when he turned his attention to the 10 Breakthrough Technologies list for the MIT Technology Review innovations that strive to do good, as well as to achieve commercial success feature prominently.
In conversation with MIT Technology Review, he explains the rationale behind his top 10 choices.
Three of his top 10 focus on reducing the planet’s dependence on fossil fuels and reducing carbon emissions. There’s already a great deal of work underway in the developed world on expanding the use of renewables. But Gates is at pains to point out the real challenges lie elsewhere: “… when you say to India, ‘Provide electricity to everyone to have things we take for granted – heating, air conditioning.’ Their path is to build more coal plants. That’s the cheapest form of electricity for them.”
Similarly, one breakthrough technology is a toilet which functions without being connected to a sewer network. The reason Gates sees this as crucial is that in many parts of the developing world, the infrastructure costs for building a network of sewers and sanitation are simply too high. Added to which, 844 million people don’t have enough clean water to drink, let alone for flushing toilets.
Instead, Gates believes a toilet that can filter wet waste, and separate out solids for safe incineration, can deliver a huge improvement in health and quality of life without astronomical investment. It’s a pragmatic take on a seemingly intractable problem.
That outlook is also in evidence with another of his choices – animal-free meat. “Only about a quarter of emissions come from electricity generation,” he says. “This is a category that people weren’t paying much attention to as a greenhouse-gas problem. And yet I think the path to solve it is clearer than in, say, cement or steel or other materials.”
Lab-grown meat and plant-based alternatives are two potential alternatives to the currently meat-rich diet of many parts of the world, and would help reduce some of the resource-consumption related to livestock farming. These alternatives could also free up stocks of grains and pulses currently used as animal food and divert them to feed the world’s growing population.
The inspiration for some of the top 10 came from one of Gates’ favourite pastimes – reading. “Reading is my favourite way to learn about a new subject – whether it’s global health, quantum computing, or world history,” he says. From the importance of sanitation (covered in Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo) to the future of humankind in an AI-centric future (Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark and Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari), the list of top 10 tech books Gates has pulled together illustrates how he is driven by a thirst for new ideas.
Even though some of those books contain bleak, even dystopic views of the future, Gates describes himself as an optimist and believes a more inclusive, more holistic use of technology can make inroads into people’s quality of life.
“Look at how long people are living, the reduction of under-five mortality, the reduction in how poorly women are treated,” he says. “Globally, inequity is down: poorer countries are getting richer faster than the richer countries are getting richer.”
Bill Gates’ Top 10 Breakthrough Technologies:
- Robot dexterity
- New-wave nuclear power
- Predicting preemies
- Gut probe in a pill
- Custom cancer vaccines
- The cow-free burger
- Carbon dioxide catcher
- An ECG on your wrist
- Sanitation without sewers
- Smooth-talking AI assistants