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Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Climate change, malnutrition require immense innovation

In conversation with Rishad Premji, Bill Gates discusses the challenges of mitigating climate change and eliminating malnutrition

On 17 November, the first edition of the Mint Visionaries series, which seeks to delve into the minds of people inspiring a new future, was kicked off with entrepreneur-philanthropist Bill Gates, who is also the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, sharing his thoughts with Wipro Ltd chairman Rishad Premji. The two discussed the challenges of mitigating climate change, eliminating malnutrition, and improving the health and education infrastructure, besides the role of technology, such as artificial intelligence, for social inclusion, something Gates considers a mission statement. Edited excerpts:

Rishad Premji: Climate change will be one of the defining challenges of the 21st century—the impact of weather events, rising sea level, islands getting flooded. It will affect the way people live and potentially impact health and mortality. There is a huge implication of climate change. I know you personally and the Gates Foundation is spending a lot on mitigation—on how to reduce carbon emission. I know you are spending time on breakthrough energy ventures in your personal capacity, investing in technology that can pay off, as well as around adaptation. What are you personally, and through Gates Foundation, doing in these areas? And, what can we do to learn how to leverage science and technology, as governments and as citizens, to be more informed about climate change and its impact, considering that we often have this debate on whether it is real. And, what can come out of it?

Watch: Bill Gates and Rishad Premji in conversation I Mint Visionaries


Bill Gates: I am actually writing a book about climate change. It will come out next June. And, it is to explain how we have to change the economy to get these emissions down to zero. Today, we are emitting 51 billion tonnes, and that number is going up every year. So, the idea that some year it will start going down and some year it will get to zero is very challenging.

Most of the energy that we use in the world comes from coal, natural gas or gasoline. By the time you get to zero, you basically got rid of those sources of energy and moved over to nuclear, renewable, hydro, which today make up less than 20%. The work on mitigation really requires immense innovation. There is innovation that you can see today—there are electric cars, and over the next 10-15 years, they will outcompete gasoline cars without subsidies. So that’s really good. There is a new type of meat that is actually made of just protein and not cow. Today, there is a small price premium, but over time, the quality and the cost should beat normal ground beef, which produces greenhouse gas emissions.

We have a lot of inventions that need to be made. For example, the way we make cement and steel are extremely heavy-emission activities and, yet, the world is going to build more buildings between now and 2060 than exist today. As the world urbanizes, there is no way around but to use a lot of steel and cement. This is a very unusual thing. So, we have to accelerate innovation. We have to create words for innovation, which might not come if we did not step in.

Another thing that is very hard about this is that every country in the world has to participate. Even if you leave out the low-income countries, you cannot leave out the middle-income countries, because 60% of humanity lives there and, as we get out, a lot of the emissions will be coming from those countries and not just the rich countries.

So, India is kind of paradigmatic. Can we innovate so well that as India quadruples its electricity capacity and provides air conditioning, refrigeration, lighting 24 hours a day, reliably to everyone in the country and it’s done in a way that it does not emit greenhouse gases? If we had to do it with today’s technology, you would do it with coal because the intermittency and challenges of renewables are quite large. So, mitigation is hard because when we have warming, we need adaptation and, there, we need much better seeds.

I want to seriously mention about Bihar’s chief minister Nitish Kumar, whom I have seen over the last 10 years. He has done a lot of great work in Bihar, and our foundation has been helping him with it. In our first meeting, I did not expect him to talk about climate change. When I am in Seattle or Washington DC, London or Paris, that’s the big topic. But I was impressed that in Patna, he was saying that we have a problem with climate change, and trying to get our advice and help on water supply, seeds and what could they do to minimize the problem. This is a problem that young people are beginning to wake up to.

Over the last five years, the energy behind it has gone up dramatically. Some people think it is easy to solve, and can be solved in 10 or 20 years. I wish that was true. We need to engage in a plan that will take 30-40 years to get this done. I am putting a lot of money and time in it because the people who would suffer the most are the poorest—in north India, in Africa, all over the world, it is the farmers who will bear the brunt even though they did nothing to cause the problem.

Premji: That is what I struggle with. The conflict is that the fast-emerging economies are saying that we need to grow and renewable energy cannot keep up, but if you have climate change impact, the people in the lowest end of the pyramid in those countries will suffer the most. So, on one side, there is the challenge of growth, and on the other, the challenge of suffering that may come with that growth, depending on the energy sources that are actually available in the country...

Gates: Growth is necessary. We cannot tell people: Sorry, too bad, the rich world has emitted too much greenhouse gas, so you don’t get to have air conditioning as your days get hotter and hotter. So, we have to make a lot more energy. Even if the rich countries cut half of energy that they use, the middle-income countries including India deserve a lot more energy. So we need new technology. This is where my book focuses on—it lets you generate that energy, without the greenhouse gases. If we froze technology today, we will face an impossible choice between letting people improve their lives and emitting so much greenhouse gas that the warming would make the tropical areas almost unlivable.

Premji: I know one of the energies you are really excited about is nuclear. Tell us a little bit about why you are so excited?

Gates: Some of the things that we do, whether it is advanced seeds that can be controversial, family planning can become controversial. Through my office, I have invested millions in next-gen nuclear. Today’s nuclear plants, although they are fairly safe, are not inherently safe and they are a bit too expensive. And that design has been around for 50 years. It wasn’t designed with a digital computer. Now, we can make the fourth generation of nuclear power, which is a lot better. It gives you clean energy 24 hours and you can put it near where power is needed. I can’t say for sure that the world will accept nuclear because attitudes vary a lot, but it could be a key part of climate. We need to pursue nuclear energy, we also need to pursue other breakthroughs—miracles in storage, geothermals. So, we have different sources. Right now, the goal is to build demo plants of this next generation and really show people that the economics, safety and waste, all of those things can really be dealt with.

Premji: What is your view on investing in these technologies, as some of these may not pay off. You have to have bold philanthropy, perhaps which will look at investments that may or may not pay off? What is the role of investing in these technologies of the future? Is it the responsibility of philanthropy, private market forces or governments? What do you think about that?

Gates: Four years ago, at the Paris Climate Accord, Prime Minister Modi announced what he called mission innovation and there was a commitment from governments to double their energy on R&D. So, governments, in terms of basic R&D which is open to everyone, have a key role in terms of regulations that encourage things like electric buses and cars. They have a lot to do to let you build a grid, when you put on intermittent power, you need to connect up the entire country because you have parts of the country with no wind or sun.

The only way to get reliability is to have as big a grid as possible. So, governments have a big, big role to play.

The venture capitalists have tried to back the clean energy sector, but it didn’t go that well. So we’ve created, with help from people like John Doerr and Vinod Khosla, who are fantastic, this new venture group called Breakthrough Energy Ventures. I called 25 rich people, 21 said yes. So, I got the billion dollars quite easily and we’ll do a number of rounds. That group has now invested in 30 breakthrough ideas. We need to invest in about a 100, I think, because 10-15% will be successful. Energy is a lot harder than software. Software, you just do it, put it out there and get feedback. With energy it is the physical economy, and that has to be reliable. All the electrons are kind of same. There isn’t a special market out there. So, this is going to be difficult. There have been books written on how slowly things change in the industrial economy. We will be having more global cooperation, more innovation, more speed than ever in the history of the Earth, and that’s what we need.

Premji: The impact of climate change on diseases. Vector-borne diseases such as malaria, which you are very passionately focused on, and its eradication, like you did with polio… What are the challenges of climate change and the changing goal post, because we don’t know how it can spread further?

Gates: Eighty per cent of people suffering from climate change will be poor farmers. How does climate change make them suffer? It is not just that it’s hot during the day. Although, in some places it is almost unlivable. It is that their crop will fail more like every three years than 8-10 years. Their productivity every year will be lower. So that means more malnutrition, which means they will be dying of diseases. The way we respond to that is to come up with much better seeds, better advice, credit for fertilizers and we have to improve the health system. Even if they get pneumonia or diarrhoea, they won’t die.

As you heat the world up, the mosquitoes can live in higher altitude. A lot of African cities are located in the altitude where mosquitoes don’t come. As it gets warmer, mosquitoes thrive in places where they didn’t before. Potentially it is very bad. But we should have enough tools to get rid of malaria, independent of climate change. Malaria is a pretty evil stuff without the temperature going up. It is an example of something that makes things worse.

Premji: Switching from climate change to AI (artificial intelligence). It is a subject that we all believe has a huge impact and potential. The world has made a lot of progress in AI over the last few years. The building of algorithms, availability of data, compute and storage has certainly made the commercial usage of AI more prevalent. There is tremendous opportunity for AI in the social space—in how you detect disease, manage disaster relief, smarter cities, safer cities, plant management. Give us a holistic view from your perspective on where you see AI going? You have mentioned that AI is both a nuclear power and a weapon in terms of its promise and danger. What should we be excited about, and what should we be cautioned about regarding AI?

Gates: AI has accelerated over the last 10 years, with this machine learning technique called deep learning. Some varieties around that have advanced very rapidly. There is a class of things like game playing, speech recognition, image recognition, where the performance levels have been phenomenal. If you compare human speech recognition to computer speech recognition, the computer is slightly better and that is mind-blowing.

In AI, usually we see things that are completely dumb—it is hard for us when we interact with a bot, but bots are really good at a few things. And when we see that, we think it must be good at everything. We think that it can do something like read a book. It can’t read a book. It has no model of the world, common sense. There are a lot of people at Microsoft and Google, etc., working hard to try and do that, but that is a very unknown area.

What we have today is a tool. We are going to take AI and create an ultrasound device so that when a woman is pregnant, we will be able to see if it is going to be a complicated pregnancy. We can point at the lungs and see if there is infection or TB (tuberculosis). The person using that won’t have to be well trained.

There are miracle tools that even today’s AI can give us. A lot of the debate is about when the next stage is coming and in terms of what that does to the job market. How do we think about that? It is out there and a very important topic. There is a recent book called Rebooting AI, which talks about what we’re good at and what we’re not, and reminds people that we’re not really at the breakthrough yet, and we don’t even know the path to the breakthrough that gets general intelligence.

Premji: You touched upon this. What is your view on the narrative that AI is taking over our jobs? If you believe that, do you worry at all that to reskill people and the kind of advance skilling you require to reskill, do you further enhance the inequity gap?

Gates: You have to be careful. When there are advances, in a sense, we are all better off. If machines can make all the food and the clothes and none of us have to work, you think you have all the freedom. If we want to stand behind the counter and make sandwiches, you can, but there is another way of doing it. It will be very disruptive. If you are mid-career in manufacturing or driving, then it is a disruption. We have had that in a slow way for hundreds of years. We used to all be farmers and, now, very few of us are farmers. That happened gradually enough and more generational as opposed to mid-career. The rate of change, and the need for the government to step in to help improve everybody so that they have a safety net. If you have more resources, the safety net should be incredible—the food, resources and rent safety net. The world today, we have a lot of shortages. Even in a rich country, people talk about universal basic income. That is basically when you are so rich you can have an unconditional safety net when even if you are just lazy, you get all sort of good things. We cannot afford that yet. If you get AI up to a certain level, then those periods of excess will come. Those are certainly not in my lifetime.

Premji: Share a couple of examples wherein AI has scaled the impact of the work that you are doing at the Gates Foundation, perhaps in health or education? Something that can excite us and has applicability in India?

Gates: Certainly we use AI to do drug discovery. These biological systems are very complicated, but the fact is we have vaccines for TB and HIV coming, which are partly enabled by this rich data, advance in biology and machine learning. The most direct application you would see is when we would examine a woman to see if she has cervical cancer we do image recognition—there we can do way better than any human or previous tests, just by using a cellphone camera. It can tell us if you need treatment. If you catch that early, you completely avoid that cervical cancer, which is caused by human papillomavirus. So, imaging, whether through ultrasound or through normal picture, even down at the primary healthcare clinic, there is going to be mind-blowing improvements in what we can do to treat people. And, some of it you will have on your own cellphone—to look at your sleep, to look at your diet, and help yourself do the things that avoid getting sick. So, these agents, agents that help you tutor or learn maths. You can have this great dialogue and figure out what you are confused about. It can be like a personal tutor. That’s coming within the next five years, or so, and that is fantastic because it can prepare a society to do new types of work.

Premji: I want to move to social media, Bill. Social media has been an amazing leveller—of access, connectivity and information. We have created some of the largest platforms in the world. It can be misused in their reach and their power. What are your views on the responsibility of producers, distributors and consumers of information?

Gates: The thing with social media that wasn’t fully anticipated is this idea of upsetting people—things that really grab your attention can pull you away from the centre. So, if you are kind of a left-wing person, there are certain stories, some of which are true or not, can really incite you and get you feeling “God! Those rightwing people are so bad!", and likewise for the right-wingers—various stories and exposures that can pull you. In the past, we all read the same newspaper, the same front page and the political ads. We all saw the same political ads. Nobody would run a political ad that was too over the top because they knew that even if 10% of the voters get really riled up in a positive way, the other ones would see them as really inappropriate for society as a whole. Today, because of targeting, which you can say started with satellite TV and hundreds of channels, the news shows kind of got fragmented, at least in the US. I don’t know India, with the kind of political slant. Now, it’s really extreme. You can target political ads at somebody to get them incensed, and incensed against the other. So, what should be the regulation about that? About that, my current view is that there maybe a need to ban the micro-targeting because it kind of drives people apart. It is a very novel set of issues and, in a way, people are mad at the tech companies, and say “how come you created this problem?" Society has to decide what these rules are. Microsoft is not actually in the centre of this, we have things like LinkedIn or GitHub, but not the main kind of consumer video platforms or messaging platforms. But for the first time, people are saying how should we restrict this technology, wherein in many cases, the negatives outweigh the benefits.

Premji: My question is more basic. How do we make sure that what we distribute is the truth? What are your views on fact-checking and fake news, and content moderation? How do we ensure that what we read is, in fact, the truth, forget political ads, the more controversial things, but what about the basics? How can technology help us there?

Gates: In our foundation, the biggest thing we have done is work on vaccines and getting vaccines out for diarrhoea and pneumonia to all the children in the world, including with some amazing Indian partners. A number of the vaccines companies, such as Serum, have been phenomenal. Therefore, it’s very troubling when you see in this digital world that vaccines are bad and that they harm children. The idea that vaccines are bad, that they harm the children and, therefore, mothers shouldn’t vaccinate their children. This tool is allowing those untrue things to spread. When you put out an article about how these vaccines really protect your children, those don’t spread. There is a need to energize people—wow this is amazing, I have to tell my friends. But when you tell a lie, in this case, it is a lie. People are spreading this around. The idea is that a tool, I naively would expect would raise the level of factualness and understanding. A newspaper summarizing details, or when you click on YouTube, and it educates you about some areas of science, everybody is going to be doing that. In fact, for the vaccine denial, it has been a setback. Now hopefully, it’s a chance to be clever about the positive messages, clearly when children die of measles or pertussis (whooping cough). The risk is about those deaths and that’s talkative. I cannot say that we have solved it. Vaccine misinformation is worst today than ever.

Premji: I will end with a philosophical question. What do you think technology cannot serve? What do think in our society, in our way of living, will stand the test of time, no matter how much technology changes?

Gates: Well, technology can free up our time, but it can’t tell us what you want to do with all this free time. I mean, in the extreme, this idea that you have to go and do your job. Well, some jobs are pretty boring; at least I wouldn’t want to do those jobs. But eventually, it becomes a very deeply philosophical question. Machines won’t help in what we do with that time, and what we value. It used to be in the farming society, that yes, I am a good farmer. But now jobs are almost a sense of value—he is hard working, there are middle-class families that work hard.

What is the organizing principal, in education and all, it becomes less important. I am a weird case. Obviously, I don’t need to work, but the most fun thing for me is learning new science and knowing the partners, the foundation, and going around. Actually, even in the meantime, the society, it’s a very rich world and there’s a lot of poverty out there that we should be able to get rid of. In some ways, the idea of how you allocate, take these technical advances.

Something like malaria—there was almost no money going into it. What (little) we got was because the rich countries didn’t have malaria, and the poor countries didn’t have the ability to create new tools against it.

And, there was no market signal there, because those people who were suffering didn’t have enough money for it unless it was a priority. So, definitely, you know. if you need to overlay values. the capitalistic market system and the machines can’t do that for us.

Premji: Thank you, fascinating insights!

Transcribed by Shreya Nandi, Pretika Khanna, Elizabeth Roche and Neetu Chandra Sharma.

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