At 58, Bill Gates is not only the richest man in the world, with a fortune that now exceeds $76 billion, but he may also be the most optimistic. In his view, the world is a giant operating system that just needs to be debugged. Gates’ driving idea – the idea that animates his life, that guides his philanthropy, that keeps him late in his sleek book-lined office overlooking Lake Washington, outside Seattle – is the hacker’s notion that the code for these problems can be rewritten, that errors can be fixed, that huge systems – whether it’s Windows 8, global poverty or climate change – can be improved if you have the right tools and the right skills. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the philanthropic organization with a $36 billion endowment that he runs with his wife, is like a giant startup whose target market is human civilization.
Personally, Gates has very little Master of the Universe swagger and, given the scale of his wealth, his possessions are modest: three houses, one plane, no yachts. He wears loafers and khakis and V-neck sweaters. He often needs a haircut. His glasses haven’t changed much in 40 years. For fun, he attends bridge tournaments.
But if his social ambitions are modest, his intellectual scope is mind-boggling: climate, energy, agriculture, infectious diseases and education reform, to name a few. He has former nuclear physicists helping cook up nutritional cookies to feed the developing world. A polio SWAT team has already spent $1.5 billion (and is committed to another $1.8 billion through 2018) to eradicate the virus. He’s engineering better toilets and funding research into condoms made of carbon nanotubes.
It’s a long way from the early days of the digital revolution, when Gates was almost a caricature of a greedy monopolist hell-bent on installing Windows on every computer in the galaxy (“The trouble with Bill,” Steve Jobs once told me, “is that he wants to take a nickel for himself out of every dollar that passes through his hands”). But when Gates stepped down as Microsoft CEO in 2000, he found a way to transform his aggressive drive to conquer the desktop into an aggressive drive to conquer poverty and disease.
Now he’s returning to Microsoft as a “technology adviser” to Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s new CEO. “Satya has asked me to review the product plans and come in and help make some quick decisions and pick some new directions,” Gates told me as we talked in his office on a rainy day a few weeks ago. He estimates that he’ll devote a third of his time to Microsoft and two-thirds to his foundation and other work. But the Microsoft of today is nothing like the world-dominating behemoth of the Nineties. The company remained shackled to the desktop for too long, while competitors – namely, Apple and Google – moved on to phones and tablets. And instead of talking in visionary terms about the company’s future, Gates talks of challenges that sound almost mundane for a man of his ambitions, like reinventing Windows and Office for the era of cloud computing. But in some ways, that’s not unexpected: Unlike, say, Jobs, who returned to Apple with a religious zeal, Gates clearly has bigger things on his mind than figuring out how to make spreadsheets workable in the cloud.
When you started Microsoft, you had a crazy-sounding idea that someday there would be a computer on every desktop. Now, as you return to Microsoft 40 years later, we have computers not just on our desktops, but in our pockets – and everywhere else. What is the biggest surprise to you in the way this has all played out?
Well, it’s pretty amazing to go from a world where computers were unheard of and very complex to where they’re a tool of everyday life. That was the dream that I wanted to make come true, and in a large part it’s unfolded as I’d expected. You can argue about advertising business models or which networking protocol would catch on or which screen sizes would be used for which things. There are less robots now than I would have guessed. Vision and speech have come a little later than I had guessed. But these are things that will probably emerge within five years, and certainly within 10 years.
If there’s a deal that symbolizes where Silicon Valley is today, it’s Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp. What does that say about the economics of Silicon Valley right now?
It means that Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook to be the next Facebook. Mark has the credibility to say, “I’m going to spend $19 billion to buy something that has essentially no revenue model.” I think his aggressiveness is wise – although the price is higher than I would have expected. It shows that user bases are extremely valuable. It’s software; it can morph into a broad set of things – once you’re set up communicating with somebody, you’re not just going to do text. You’re going to do photos, you’re going to share documents, you’re going to play games together.
Apparently, Google was looking at it.
Yeah, yeah. Microsoft would have been willing to buy it, too. . . . I don’t know for $19 billion, but the company’s extremely valuable.
You mentioned Mark Zuckerberg. When you look at what he’s done, do you see some of yourself in him?
Oh, sure. We’re both Harvard dropouts, we both had strong, stubborn views of what software could do. I give him more credit for shaping the user interface of his product. He’s more of a product manager than I was. I’m more of a coder, down in the bowels and the architecture, than he is. But, you know, that’s not that major of a difference. I start with architecture, and Mark starts with products, and Steve Jobs started with aesthetics.
What are the implications of the transition to mobile and the cloud for Microsoft?
Office and the other Microsoft assets that we built in the Nineties and kept tuning up have lasted a long time. Now, they need more than a tuneup. But that’s pretty exciting for the people inside who say, “We need to take a little risk and do some new stuff” – Google, which is a very strong company across a huge number of things right now.
Yeah, they were sort of born in the cloud.
The fact is, search generates a lot of money. And when you have a lot of money, it allows you to go down a lot of dead ends. We had that luxury at Microsoft in the Nineties. You can pursue things that are way out there. We did massive interactiveTV stuff, we did digital-wallet stuff. A lot of it was ahead of its time, but we could afford it.
When people think about the cloud, it’s not only the accessibility of information and their documents that comes to mind, but also their privacy – or lack of it.
Should there be cameras everywhere in outdoor streets? My personal view is having cameras in inner cities is a very good thing. In the case of London, petty crime has gone down. They catch terrorists because of it. And if something really bad happens, most of the time you can figure out who did it. There’s a general view there that it’s not used to invade privacy in some way. Yet in an American city, in order to take advantage of that in the same way, you have to trust what this information is going to be used for.
Do you think some of these concerns people have are overblown?
There’s always been a lot of information about your activities. Every phone number you dial, every credit-card charge you make. It’s long since passed that a typical person doesn’t leave footprints. But we need explicit rules. If you were in a divorce lawsuit 20 years ago, is that a public document on the Web that a nosy neighbor should be able to pull up with a Bing or Google search? When I apply for a job, should my speeding tickets be available? Well, I’m a bus driver, how about in that case? And society does have an overriding interest in some activities, like, “Am I gathering nuclear-weapons plans, and am I going to kill millions of people?” If we think there’s an increasing chance of that, who do you trust? I actually wish we were having more intense debates about these things.
Thanks to Edward Snowden, who has leaked tens of thousands of NSA documents, we are. Do you consider him a hero or a traitor? I think he broke the law, so I certainly wouldn’t characterize him as a hero. If he wanted to raise the issues and stay in the country and engage in civil disobedience or something of that kind, or if he had been careful in terms of what he had released, then it would fit more of the model of “OK, I’m really trying to improve things.” You won’t find much admiration from me.
Even so, do you think it’s better now that we know what we know about government surveillance?
The government has such ability to do these things. There has to be a debate. But the specific techniques they use become unavailable if they’re discussed in detail. So the debate needs to be about the general notion of under what circumstances should they be allowed to do things.
It’s difficult, though, because no one knows really what’s going on. We want safety, but we also want privacy.
But even in abstract – let’s say you knew nothing was going on. How would you feel? I mean, seriously. I would be very worried. Technology arms the bad guys with orders of magnitude more [power]. Not just bad guys. Crazy guys. Fertilizer wasn’t too good for the federal building in Oklahoma City, but there’s stuff out there now that makes fertilizer look like a joke.
You mean like a dirty bomb?
Or biological [weapons]. In the U.S., at least it’s going to take a lot of explaining about who was in the surveillance videos. “You’ve told us things in the past that didn’t turn out to be true, so can we really trust that you’re only going to use them in this way?”
Should surveillance be usable for petty crimes like jaywalking or minor drug possession? Or is there a higher threshold for certain information? Those aren’t easy questions. Should the rules be different for U.S. citizens versus non-U.S. citizens? There is the question of terrorist interdiction versus law-enforcement situations. If you think the state is overzealous in any of its activities, even if you agree with its sort of anti-large-scale-terrorism efforts, you might say, “Well, I think the abuse will outweigh the benefits. I’ll just take the risk.” But the people who say that sometimes having this information is valuable – they’re not being very articulate right now.
Let’s talk about income inequality, which economist Paul Krugman and others have written a lot about. As a person who’s at the very top of the one percent, do you see this as one of the great issues of our time?
Well, now you’re getting into sort of complicated issues. In general, on taxation-type things, you’d think of me as a Democrat. That is, when tax rates are below, say, 50 percent, I believe there often is room for additional taxation. And I’ve been very upfront on the need to increase estate taxes. Particularly given the medical obligations that the state is taking on and the costs that those have over time. You can’t have a rigid view that all new taxes are evil. Yes, they have negative effects, but I’m like Krugman in that if you expect the state to do these things, they are going to cost money.
Should the state be playing a greater role in helping people at the lowest end of the income scale? Poverty today looks very different than poverty in the past. The real thing you want to look at is consumption and use that as a metric and say, “Have you been worried about having enough to eat? Do you have enough warmth, shelter? Do you think of yourself as having a place to go?” The poor are better off than they were before, even though they’re still in the bottom group in terms of income.
The way we help the poor out today [is also a problem]. You have Section 8 housing, food stamps, fuel programs, very complex medical programs. It’s all high-overhead, capricious, not well-designed. Its ability to distinguish between somebody who has family that could take care of them versus someone who’s really out on their own is not very good, either. It’s a totally gameable system – not everybody games it, but lots of people do. Why aren’t the technocrats taking the poverty programs, looking at them as a whole, and then redesigning them? Well, they are afraid that if they do, their funding is going to be cut back, so they defend the thing that is absolutely horrific. Just look at low-cost housing and the various forms, the wait lists, things like that.
When we get things right, it benefits the entire world. The world’s governments don’t copy everything we do. They see some things we do – like the way we run our postal service, or Puerto Rico – are just wrong. But they look to us for so many things. And we can do better.
In the past, you have sounded cynical about the role that government can play in solving complex problems like health care or reforming anti-poverty policies.
Not cynicism. You have to have a certain realism that government is a pretty blunt instrument and without the constant attention of highly qualified people with the right metrics, it will fall into not doing things very well. The U.S. government in general is one of the better governments in the world. It’s the best in many, many respects. Lack of corruption, for instance, and a reasonable justice system.
If I could wave a wand and fix one thing, it’d be political deadlock, the education system or health care costs. One of those three, I don’t know which. But I see governments in very poor countries that can’t even get teachers to show up. So in countries like that, how can you get very basic things to work? That’s something I spend a lot of time on. And these things are all solvable.
What did you make of the whole health care rollout debacle?
They should have done better. But that’s a minor issue compared to the notion of “Will they get enough people in the risk pool so that the pricing is OK?” And some of the price-rigging they’ve done, where the young overpay relative to the old, is a problem. You know, it’s all intended for a good thing, which is access. But it’s layered on top of a system that has huge pricing-capacity problems. Which it basically did not address.
You’d normally want to be able to tune something of this complexity. But because you have a political deadlock, you can’t. Even the tuning that’s being done – like delaying some of the mandates – is claimed to be against the law. So we’re doing something novel and complex in a very rancorous environment, in an area where our achievements in the past have been pretty weak.
Health care reform is one of the areas where there is a lot of discussion about the corrupting role of money in politics. And as Washington becomes increasingly unable to address big problems, you hear more and more about the corrosive role of special interests. Do you agree?
Money has always been in politics. And I’m not sure you’d want money to be completely out of politics. You know, I don’t give a lot of political contributions, and I’m glad there are limits on political contributions. I wish there were more limits. But our government wasn’t designed to be efficient. We’ve got a system with a lot of checks and balances. When you get into a period of crisis where the overwhelming majority agrees on something, government can work amazingly well, like during World War II.
But now you have people who are shrill about the size of government or how we’re not doing enough about climate change. But they don’t have enough of a consensus, and they’re looking at a government system whose default answer is the status quo. Look at people who say, “I’m going to shrink the government!” Well, show me when they actually did shrink the government. They caused it not to grow as much, but shrink? When? You know, good luck on that. The principle of shrinkage may be agreed on, but when they get into the particulars, it’s not as easy as you might think. Farm subsidies, yes or no? Research for medicine, yes or no? Loans for students, yes or no? So you have this frustration. But to label that as coming from an increasing amount of money in politics, that’s only one of many things going on.
Well, there certainly is plenty of frustration with our political system.
But I do think, in most cases, when you get this negative view of the situation, you’re forgetting about the innovation that goes on outside of government. Thank God they actually do fund basic research. That’s part of the reason the U.S. is so good [at things like health care]. But innovation can actually be your enemy in health care if you are not careful.
If you accelerate certain things but aren’t careful about whether you want to make those innovations available to everyone, then you’re intensifying the cost in such a way that you’ll overwhelm all the resources.
Like million-dollar chemotherapy treatments.
Yeah, or organ transplants for people in their seventies from new artificial organs being grown. There is a lot of medical technology for which, unless you can make judgments about who should buy it, you will have to invade other government functions to find the money. Joint replacement is another example. There are four or five of these innovations down the pipe that are huge, huge things.
Yeah, but when people start talking about these issues, we start hearing loaded phrases like “death panels” and suggestions that government bureaucrats are going to decide when it’s time to pull the plug on Grandma.
The idea that there aren’t trade-offs is an outrageous thing. Most countries know that there are trade-offs, but here, we manage to have the notion that there aren’t any. So that’s unfortunate, to not have people think, “Hey, there are finite resources here.”
Let’s change the subject and talk about your foundation. How do you make the moral judgment between, say, spending your time and energy on polio eradication versus, say, climate change?
I want to focus on things where I think my experience working with innovation gives me an opportunity to do something unique. The majority of the foundation’s money goes to a finite number of things that focus on health inequity – why a person from a poor country is so much worse off than somebody from a country that’s well-off. It’s mostly infectious diseases. There’s about 15 of those we’re focusing on – polio is the single thing I work on the most. And then, because of the importance of nutrition and because most poor people are farmers, we’re in agriculture as well.
Agriculture is hugely important, especially in a rapidly warming world, and especially with the Earth’s population projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. How are we going to feed them all?
In the 1960s, there was this thing called the Green Revolution, where new seeds and other improvements drove up agricultural productivity in Asia and Latin America. It saved millions of lives and lifted many people out of poverty. But it basically bypassed sub-Saharan Africa. Today, the average farmer there is only about a third as productive as an American farmer. If we can get that number up, and I think we can, it will help a lot.
There is also this problem where as people get richer and join the global middle class, they want to eat more protein. It’s a nice problem to have that people are getting richer. But eating meat is hard on the environment – it demands a lot of land and water. And yet we can’t go around telling everyone they have to be vegetarians. So coming up with affordable plant-based proteins, basically meat substitutes, that really taste like meat is another area that can make a big difference. I’ve tasted a few of them, and I really couldn’t tell the difference between them and the real thing.
In your annual letter from the foundation, you argued that there will essentially be no poor countries in the world by 2035. Why do you believe that?
We made really unbelievable progress in international development. Countries like Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, Indonesia – there’s an unbelievable number of success stories. The places that haven’t done well are clustered in Africa, and we still have Haiti, where I was last week, as well as Yemen, Afghanistan and North Korea, which is kind of a special case. But assuming there’s no war or anything, we ought to be able to take even the coastal African countries and get them up to a reasonable situation over the next 20 years. You get more leverage because the number of countries that need aid is going down, and countries like China and India will still have problems, but they’re self-sufficient. And over the next 20 years, you get better tools, new vaccines, a better understanding of diseases and, hopefully, cheaper ways of making energy. So time is very much on your side in terms of raising the human condition. Even things like decent toilets, which is a particular project of the foundation, can make a big difference.
Progress depends on such simple things – like functioning toilets.
We take things like TV or Internet or a microwave or a refrigerator for granted, but moving people from basic lives to decent lives requires a lot less than that. You know, development sometimes is viewed as a project in which you give people things and nothing much happens, which is perfectly valid, but if you just focus on that, then you’d also have to say that venture capital is pretty stupid, too. Its hit rate is pathetic. But occasionally, you get successes, you fund a Google or something, and suddenly venture capital is vaunted as the most amazing field of all time. Our hit rate in development is better than theirs, but we should strive to make it better.
Polio eradication is a big focus of yours. The eradication program has made remarkable progress; India is now free of the virus. But it’s hanging on in a few places, including remote regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan and northern Nigeria, where vaccines are viewed suspiciously and vaccinators have been attacked. In some ways, it seems that wiping out the disease is now more of a political problem than a logistical problem. Would you agree?
That’s only partially correct. Those last three countries are, by definition, the toughest countries. We’ve improved the vaccine and are using disease modeling to understand when to use which flavors of the vaccine in different regions. We’re using satellite maps to figure out the population counts. We use GPS to track where the people are going. So the tools are improving. But it is true that we’d be done in Pakistan if it wasn’t for politics – the intentional spread of misinformation about the vaccine and its benefits, as well as attacks on the people doing the work.
So are you as much of an optimist about being able to eradicate this virus as you were a couple of years ago?
Yeah, I’d say I’m more optimistic now, even though there have been some setbacks this year. We could get lucky and get access into Waziristan [a remote region of Pakistan where the vaccine has been banned by the Taliban], or we could get unlucky and not. We also had two re-infections last year – one in Somalia and one in Syria, and usually we have one of those a year, so to have two is not good luck. Syria was doing fine; it was just that because of the war, the vaccination system broke down, so very young kids there were getting paralyzed. In Somalia, the vaccination system has never been that good.
In the world of viruses, polio is a devil we know. Newly emerging viruses are potentially more frightening. How concerned are you about global pandemics?
It’s a serious risk, and it’s something the world could be smarter about. The worst pandemic in modern history was the Spanish flu of 1918, which killed tens of millions of people. Today, with how interconnected the world is, it would spread faster. But we are most worried about outbreaks where you don’t show symptoms for a long time. AIDS is kind of the extreme case where you typically don’t show symptoms for more than six years after you’re infected. Viruses that stay latent create the huge problems – you literally can get hundreds of millions of people infected before you understand what is happening.
Let’s talk about climate change. Many scientists and politicians see it as the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced.
It’s a big challenge, but I’m not sure I would put it above everything. One of the reasons it’s hard is that by the time we see that climate change is really bad, your ability to fix it is extremely limited. Like with viruses, the problem is latency. The carbon gets up there, but the heating effect is delayed. And then the effect of that heat on the species and ecosystem is delayed. That means that even when you turn virtuous, things are actually going to get worse for quite a while.
Right . . . we’re not virtuous yet, are we?
We’re not even close – we’re emitting more CO2 every year. In order to get a 90 percent reduction of carbon, which is what we need, the first thing you might want to get is a year of global reduction, and we have not had that. U.S. emissions are down right now, partly because we buy more goods from overseas. But even if you invented some zero-carbon energy source today, the deployment of that magic device would take a long time.
Are you hopeful that global climate talks will lead to a solution?
Many climate-change discussions are off-target because they’ve focused on things like the $100 billion per year that some people believe should be spent by the rich world to help the developing world, which is not really addressing the problem. At the same time, discussion about how to increase funding of research-and-development budgets to accelerate innovation is surprisingly missing. We haven’t increased R&D spending, we haven’t put a price signal [like a carbon tax] in, and this is certainly very disappointing. I think it’s a real test of the boundary of science and politics – and an acid test of people’s time horizons. Before the economic downturn, attitudes in the U.S. about climate change had become quite enlightened, and then there was a big reversal, which I believe was a result of people’s worries about their immediate economic situation. Talking about problems that will have a significant effect 30 or 40 years out just gets off the agenda, and there’s this shrill political debate that is distracting people. So we’ve made some progress, but you can’t take the progress we’ve made and linearize it – if you do, you really are going to find out how bad climate change can be.
Let’s say climate change was delayed 100 years. If that were the case, science would take care of this one. We wouldn’t have to double the Department of Energy budget, because there’s five or six different paths to go down. And 100 years, at the current rate and speed of science, is a long time.
We’re heading for big trouble, right?
Absolutely. That’s why I happen to think we should explore geo-engineering. But one of the complaints people have against that is that if it looks like an easy out, it’ll reduce the political will to cut emissions. If that’s the case, then, hey, we should take away heart surgery so that people know not to overeat. I happened to be having dinner with Charles Koch last Saturday, and we talked a little bit about climate change.
And what was the conversation like?
He’s a very nice person, and he has this incredible business track record. He was pointing out that the U.S. alone can’t solve the problem, and that’s factually correct. But you have to view the U.S. doing something as a catalyst for getting China and others to do things. The atmosphere is the ultimate commons. We all benefit from it, and we’re all polluting it. It’s amazing how few problems there are in terms of the atmosphere. . . . There’s just this one crazy thing that CO2 hangs around for a long, long time, and the oceans absorb it, which acidifies them, which is itself a huge problem we should do something about.
Like cut carbon emissions fast.
Yes, but people need energy. It’s a gigantic business. The main thing that’s missing in energy is an incentive to create things that are zero-CO2-emitting and that have the right scale and reliability characteristics.
It leads to your interest in nuclear power, right?
If you could make nuclear really, really safe, and deal with the economics, deal with waste, then it becomes the nirvana you want: a cheaper solution with very little CO2 emissions. If we don’t get that, you’ve got a problem. Because you are not going to reduce the amount of energy used. For each year between now and 2100, the globe will use more energy. So that means more CO2 emissions every year. TerraPower, which is the nuclear-energy company that I’m backing, required a very long time to get the right people together, it required computer modeling to get the right technology together, and even now it’s going to require the U.S. government to work with whatever country decides to build a pilot project – China, maybe. In a normal sort of private market, that project probably wouldn’t have emerged. It took a fascination with science, concern about climate change and a very long-term view. Now, I’m not saying it’s guaranteed to be successful, although it’s going super, super well, but it’s an example of an innovation that might not happen without the proper support.
Nuclear power has failed to fulfill its promises for a variety of economic and technical reasons for 40 years. Why continue investing in nuclear power instead of, say, cheap solar and energy storage?
Well, we have a real problem, and so we should pursue many solutions to the problem. Even the Manhattan Project pursued both the plutonium bomb and the uranium bomb – and both worked! Intermittent energy sources [like wind and solar] . . . yeah, you can crank those up, depending on the quality of the grid and the nature of your demand. You can scale that up 20 percent, 30 percent and, in some cases, even 40 percent. But when it comes to climate change, that’s not interesting. You’re talking about needing factors of, like, 90 percent.
But you can’t just dismiss renewables, can you?
Solar is much, much harder than people think it is. When the sun shines, electricity is going to be worth zero, so all the money will be reserved for the guy who brings you power when there’s no wind and no sun. There are some interesting things on the horizon along those lines. There’s one called solar chemical. It’s very nascent, but it comes with a built-in storage solution, because you actually secrete hydrocarbons. We’re investing probably one-twentieth of what we should in that. There’s another form of solar called solar thermal, which is cool because you can store heat. Heat’s not easy to store, but it’s a lot easier to store than electricity.
Given the scale of problems like climate change and the slow economic recovery and political gridlock and rising health care costs, it’s easy for people to feel pessimistic about the way the world is going.
Really? That’s too bad. I think that’s overly focusing on the negatives. I think it’s a pretty bright picture, myself. But that doesn’t mean I think, because we’ve always gotten through problems in the past, “just chill out, relax, someone else will worry about it.” I don’t see it that way.
When you look on the horizon over the next 50 years, what is your biggest fear?
I think we will get our act together on climate change. That’s very important. I hope we get our act together on large-scale terrorism and avoid that being a huge setback for the world. On health equity, we can reduce the number of poor children who die from more than 6 million down to 2 million, eventually 1 million. Will the U.S. political system right itself in terms of how it focuses on complex problems? Will the medical costs overwhelm the sense of what people expect government to do?
I do worry about things like the war in Syria and what that means. You wouldn’t have predicted that that country in particular would fall into horrific civil war where the suffering is just unbelievable, and it is not obvious to anybody what can be done to stop it. It raises questions for somebody who thinks they can fix Africa overnight. I understand how every healthy child, every new road, puts a country on a better path, but instability and war will arise from time to time, and I’m not an expert on how you get out of those things. I wish there was an invention or advance to fix that. So there’ll be some really bad things that’ll happen in the next 50 or 100 years, but hopefully none of them on the scale of, say, a million people that you didn’t expect to die from a pandemic, or nuclear or bioterrorism.
What do you say to people who argue that America’s best days are behind us?
That’s almost laughable. The only definition by which America’s best days are behind it is on a purely relative basis. That is, in 1946, when we made up about six percent of humanity, but we dominated everything. But America’s way better today than it’s ever been. Say you’re a woman in America, would you go back 50 years? Say you’re gay in America, would you go back 50 years? Say you’re sick in America, do you want to go back 50 years? I mean, who are we kidding?
Does bad politics kill innovation? Immigration reform, for example, is a big issue in Silicon Valley right now.
Yes, the U.S. immigration laws are bad – really, really bad. I’d say treatment of immigrants is one of the greatest injustices done in our government’s name. Well, our bad education system might top it – but immigration is pretty insane. You’ve got 12 million people living in fear of arbitrary things that can happen to them. But you can’t argue that all innovation has seized up because of the problem – I’m sorry. 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.
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. But then we started inventing – electricity, steam engines, microprocessors, understanding genetics and medicine and things like that. Yes, stability and education are important – I’m not taking anything away from that – but innovation is the real driver of progress.
Speaking of innovation, I want to ask you about Steve Jobs. When was the last time you talked to him?
It was two or three months before he passed away. And then I wrote a long letter to him after that, which he had by his bedside. Steve and I actually stayed in touch fairly well, and we had a couple of good, long conversations in the last year, about our wives, about life, about what technology achieved or had not achieved.
Steve and I were very different. But we were both good at picking people. We were both hyperenergetic and worked superhard. We were close partners in doing the original Mac software, and that was an amazing thing, because we had more people working on it than Apple did. But we were very naive. Steve promised us this was going to be this $499 machine, and next thing we knew, it was $1,999. Anyway, the Mac project was an incredible experience. The team that worked on the Mac side completely and totally burned out. Within two years, none of them were still there. But it was a mythic thing that we did together. Steve was a genius.
You’re a technologist, but a lot of your work now with the foundation has a moral dimension. Has your thinking about the value of religion changed over the years?
The moral systems of religion, I think, are superimportant. We’ve raised our kids in a religious way; they’ve gone to the Catholic church that Melinda goes to and I participate in. I’ve been very lucky, and therefore I owe it to try and reduce the inequity in the world. And that’s kind of a religious belief. I mean, it’s at least a moral belief.
Do you believe in God?
I agree with people like Richard Dawkins that mankind felt the need for creation myths. Before we really began to understand disease and the weather and things like that, we sought false explanations for them. Now science has filled in some of the realm – not all – that religion used to fill. But the mystery and the beauty of the world is overwhelmingly amazing, and there’s no scientific explanation of how it came about. To say that it was generated by random numbers, that does seem, you know, sort of an uncharitable view [laughs]. I think it makes sense to believe in God, but exactly what decision in your life you make differently because of it, I don’t know.
This story is from the March 27th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.