At the start of every year since 2009, Bill Gates has released an open letter along with his wife Melinda, naming their foundation’s biggest goals — and explaining how they hope to achieve them within the next 15 years. In past years, they’ve tackled issues ranging from curing AIDS and polio to increasing the role of technology in education. This year, Bill used his letter to answer a question posed to him by a group of teens: “If you could have one superpower, what would it be?” His answer: ensure global access to cheap, clean energy.
In the letter, Gates writes, “I expect the world will discover a clean energy breakthrough that will save our planet and power the world.” That’s a pretty provocative statement, so Vox columnist Ezra Klein sat down with Gates to find out exactly what that technology might look like.
When asked how innovation in the industry sector will manage to solve the political gridlock keeping developing countries from cutting emissions (and US politicians from admitting climate change even exists), Gates had an interesting answer. Essentially, until developing nations have energy that’s cheaper than coal, right or wrong, asking them to cut emissions on behalf of richer countries simply isn’t going to work. Instead, he says we should be focusing on inventions that will help richer countries cut their emissions to “near zero.”
That’s an ambitious goal, and one that would make most people skeptical. In fact, some industry experts like venture capitalist Peter Thiel and economist Robert Gordon argue that the rate of technological innovation in the world has slowed to the point where that’s just not possible. Gates, however, disagrees: in the interview, he points out that some fields, like energy, aren’t subject to constant innovation. Instead, incremental changes in the technology add up until they finally reach a critical point and make huge leaps forward every 20-30 years. While we’ll obviously have to wait and see if Gates’ predictions pan out, this is a man who’s helped completely redefine the computing world, so his ideas are definitely worth watching.
It’s a great interview, so be sure to read the whole thing. In addition to talking about the development of breakthrough energy tech, he and Klein discuss Gates’ equation to solve climate change, creativity in modern America, and the three phases of the potential robotic revolution.