Microsoft Founder Bill Gates doesn’t worry that Silicon Valley is the home of billion-dollar texting apps and farming games. “Innovation in California is at its absolute peak right now. Sure, half of the companies are silly, and you know two-thirds of them are going to go bankrupt, but the dozen or so ideas that emerge out of that are going to be really important,” Gates told Rolling Stone, in a wide-ranging interview on government surveillance, financial inequality, immigration reform, and the cultural backlash against Silicon Valley.
Gates’ sentiment is a nice to response to a New York Times spread that lambasted Silicon Valley investors for encouraging their brightest minds to work on solving the problems of yuppie 20-somethings.
“Why do these smart, quantitatively trained engineers, who could help cure cancer or fix healthcare.gov, want to work for a sexting app?”, asked writer Yiren Leu in the aptly titled “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem”.
It’s important to keep in mind that many of the technology industry’s most impactful companies were originally targeted at the recreational lives of (relatively affluent) users. Facebook was built to help ivy league college students share fun photos. Today, Facebook significantly boosts voter turnout, organ donation, and broadband access in developing nations.
Gates also let loose on other important political topics, describing the current U.S. immigration system as “insane.”
“I’d say treatment of immigrants is one of the greatest injustices done in our government’s name,” he argued. “You’ve got 12 million people living in fear of arbitrary things that can happen to them.”
But, Gates didn’t carry the standard tech line on all issues. When asked if whistleblower Edward Snowden was a “hero,” Gates said, “I think he broke the law, so I certainly wouldn’t characterize him as a hero.”
He also didn’t express as much misgiving about government surveillance.
“Should there be cameras everywhere in outdoor streets? My personal view is having cameras in inner cities is a very good thing”, he said, noting that CCTV in London has reduced petty crime and that the government has good reason to investigate serious national security threats.
Despite our political problems, Gates remains optimistic, “Our modern lifestyle is not a political creation. Before 1700, everybody was poor as hell. Life was short and brutish. It wasn’t because we didn’t have good politicians; we had some really good politicians,” he argues.
What really lifted humanity out of poverty was technology, from electricity to genetics research.
“Innovation is the real driver of progress,” he said.