WASHINGTON—Bill Gates came to the nation’s capital to prod elected officials into doing more to support technological innovation, but he also took the opportunity to chide the government on its demands for access to private customer data during an appearance April 18 at a Reuters Newsmakers event at the St. Regis hotel here.
Gates chose energy production as the main focus of his call for innovation, saying that the United States should spearhead ways to produce energy that don’t contribute to global warming. He also discussed the inroads that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is making in the fight against diseases such as malaria and polio.
But Gates was also moved to comment on two prominent data legal battles Microsoft is fighting. One is Microsoft’s long-running opposition to providing access to email messages located on a server in Europe.
The other is Microsoft’s suit against the U.S. Department of Justice challenging the gag orders that come with the government’s secret demands for information. Gates said that in the vast majority of cases, there’s no reason for secrecy.
Gates said that while there are probably cases where the government “should be able to go in covertly” and gather information, such cases should be extraordinary. The way it is now, he said, the gag order is automatically part of the data request, adding that Microsoft wants to be able to tell its customers when the government requests information about them.
Gates also said that he believes that technology companies and the government should work together to create a legislative framework on when and how to provide information, and under what circumstances it should be secret. Microsoft filed suit in Seattle last week alleging that the government’s actions violate the U.S. Constitution.
However, Gates got back to his primary reason for participating in the Reuters Newsmakers event, which is the need for greater investment in innovation. Every year is now proving to be warmer than the preceding year, he said, and a primary reason for this warming is the need for energy in the developing world.
There are very real needs for energy worldwide, and that to be useful, the energy has to be affordable and reliable, according to Gates. The problem with most energy sources currently available is that they either contribute to global warming or they aren’t reliable.
“If you take solar and keep tinkering with it,” he explained, “you will not tinker it into working at night.” Gates said that other types of energy have the same problem of reliability, noting that you can’t generate wind power when the wind isn’t blowing.
There are some huge problems related to innovation in energy that really require a government to solve, he added.
Gates Calls for Greater Investment in Energy, Health Innovation
A primary factor is that the innovation cycle for energy production can be extremely long, as much as 20 years, which is far longer than most private companies are willing to wait for a return. What this means, Gates said, is that there needs to be real investment in inexpensive, yet reliable, forms of energy that don’t cause problems with pollution or warming.
The problem with sources such as solar or wind is that you have to have an alternate supply. He noted that it would cost as much to build the infrastructure in developing nations for energy that would only be used part time as it would for full-time use. As a result, the overall cost of energy would be higher, even though solar or wind energy itself might be free.
The answer, Gates said, is to create sources of energy that are reliable and available. The closest is nuclear energy, he said, but new reactor designs need to be developed so that the reactors are inherently safe to operate, so that if they fail, they fail into a safe mode. Gates added that he’s hoping for advances in the development of fusion power.
One problem with some areas of innovation is that it’s not always easy or quick to know when your innovation is successful, according to Gates. We’ve been spoiled by quick successes in IT, where it’s clear within three or four years whether an innovation will be successful, but in other areas, such as energy, it could take much longer, he said.
Gates also took a few minutes to address the Zika virus that is causing illness and severe birth defects among people living in the world’s tropical zones. While he didn’t claim to have a cure, he did note that much of the work that the Gates Foundation is doing in controlling the vectors of infection, mostly mosquitoes, will make tackling that problem easier.
Earlier in the day, Gates had spelled out his thinking regarding innovation in an op-ed piece in Reuters where he predicted a growth in innovation in energy and health care. His point in that article and in his remarks to the audience in Washington is that it will require the leadership of governments to enable the long-term innovation that’s needed to solve those very thorny problems.
Gates stated his call for greater innovation investment to a carefully chosen Washington audience that included mostly diplomats, economic analysts, staff from nonprofits and legislative staff. Gates wanted to start the ball rolling somewhere, and this was the place where his comments might do the most good.