Bill Gates On Beyonce, Zika, And How Robots Can Help The Developing World

The philanthropic power couple talks about their appearances in pop culture–and how their work fighting mosquitoes could help the latest medical disaster.

Bill Gates On Beyonce, Zika, And How Robots Can Help The Developing World
Photos:EU2016 Flickr, Al Bello/Getty Images

Bill and Melinda Gates, on the occasion of their annual letter for their foundation, today spoke with about 50 high school students from around the world in a conversation moderated by author John Green. The conversation touched on topics ranging from energy technology, global health, and feminism to the fact that Melinda has now banned conversations about toilets (a particular passion of Bill’s) at the dinner table.


Co.Exist spoke with the Gates’s after they were mobbed by young fans after the discussion. Below are a few highlights from our interview and the on-stage discussion.

On Beyonce

In her boundary-pushing song Formation, Beyonce declares she might be a “black Bill Gates” in the making. Does Gates himself think the world needs a black version of himself? He says: sure, why not?

“I’m not really good at commenting on myself,” Gates told Co.Exist. “But if it means a broad, diverse set of people who are engaged in philanthropy and bringing different perspectives to philanthropy … then, I completely agree with that.” While it’s not clear whether Beyonce was actually applauding Gates’s philanthropy or him being the richest man in the world–either way it works. Gates says Beyonce and Jay-Z have been “positive voices in society in a lot of ways” and notes that people of different background will understand “what the community they grew up in needs, and speak out for the people in that community who don’t have much.”

Still, Gates’s answer completely overlooks the question of role models–another reason that we need more diverse leaders in business, entertainment, philanthropy, politics, and other areas of society. Gates told Bloomberg this week that Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, and Elon Musk are examples of role models for teenagers today–not exactly people that will be easy for a black teenage girl to see herself in.

On the Zika Virus

The Zika virus outbreak in Latin America touches on core areas of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s work: mosquito-born diseases and family planning. The pair say they are working with scientists to adapt cutting-edge approaches to fighting existing diseases like dengue fever and chikungunya virus, which appear in the same mosquito as Zika. The very new and controversial technology of “gene drives”–using genetic engineering methods to quickly spread an engineered trait throughout a species population–is being discussed by scientists. In the case of Zika, gene drives could spread a trait that stops the virus’s transmission or, more controversially, simply kills off mosquitos in the species that carry it. (The Gates Foundation has given funds to a company that has been working on genetically modified mosquitos that have the latter feature). Another option, Gates says, is a symbiotic bacteria spread in the mosquito that stops viral transmission–that kind of solution has also been tested for dengue.

Gates thinks gene drives should be seriously considered. “We’ve been involved in that–how do you do it? Are there any safety issues at all? How do you get it approved? And I do think Zika will get people looking at these gene drive tools,” says Gates. “The term GM to some people implies there’s some inherent negative thing about it. You don’t eat mosquitoes, mosquitoes aren’t a necessary part of ecosystem maintenance. So I think sovereigns will look at these things and make their own decisions about whether to use these tools. But it’s the most likely thing to stop the spread.”


In the meantime, improving access to contraceptives across Latin America is a crucial emergency stop gap, says Melinda Gates. “We’ve always known this–that women want to be able to space the birth of their children. Now they really want to space them, right? So we need to give access to lots of options to women.” At the very least, she says, the world has learned from Ebola and is responding much more quickly to the Zika crisis.

On robots in the developing world

Today, automation is starting to threaten professional jobs that you’d never expect: Robots are writing news articles, sorting through legal documents, and making stock trades. In Gates’s eyes, in the developing world, it’s possible robots could supplant some skilled professions before they even exist. Asked by a high school student how robots can be used to fight poverty, Gates cited early work today in robots doing complex surgeries, like heart surgery. “If you’re in Africa and you have that problem, you’re really out of luck,” he says.

Not today, but in the future, there may be a time when affordable robots can do reliable heart surgery–possibly with a human monitoring it from very far away, he says. That might not just apply to the operating room: “Anything that’s scarce in poor countries, because you don’t have the experts, if we can get the robots to gain those skills or at least allow it to be done remotely, that is bringing equity,” he says.

Some might take serious issue with this conclusion. Is it really more equitable if the Western world (and its robots) are coming to save lives in Africa without bringing the skills and jobs to local communities? That’s a debate that has gone on in the philanthropy and social good business community for a long time. Robots could clearly make this discussion even more fraught.


About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.