Bill Gates: Google web balloons "won't help" key issues

Bill Gates has slammed Google's Project Loon, which would bring internet connectivity to developing nations using high-altitude balloons, arguing that getting online won't help core issues like malaria, and suggesting that the search giant has lost its way when it comes to altruism. "When you're dying of malaria, I suppose you'll look up and see that balloon, and I'm not sure how it'll help you" Microsoft founder Gates told Bloomberg Businessweek, when asked whether he saw schemes like Project Loon helping low-income countries. "When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there's no website that relieves that."

"When you're dying of malaria, I suppose you'll look up and see that balloon, and I'm not sure how it'll help you. When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there's no website that relieves that. Certainly I'm a huge believer in the digital revolution. And connecting up primary-health-care centers, connecting up schools, those are good things. But no, those are not, for the really low-income countries, unless you directly say we're going to do something about malaria" Bill Gates

Gates was speaking about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the work it does in developing nations to improve healthcare provisions. The organization has spent over $26bn since it was established in 1994, $3.4bn of which was given out in grants in 2012 alone. While Gates may have cut his teeth in consumer technology, the former CEO is now vocal on the potential – and limits – of tech when it comes to basic living conditions.

That includes taking Google to task for, as Gates sees it, quietly abandoning its charitable works, having first reaped the benefits of the public acclaim such schemes unlocked.

"Google started out saying they were going to do a broad set of things. They hired Larry Brilliant, and they got fantastic publicity. And then they shut it all down" Gates pointed out. "Now they're just doing their core thing. Fine. But the actors who just do their core thing are not going to uplift the poor."

Project Loon, announced back in June, was billed as a way to extend the benefits of the internet to developing nations, and proposed a system of high-altitude balloons which would each act as base stations and repeaters for web traffic. These balloons – which would float at roughly twice the height of commercial airliners – would form a dynamically adjusting ring around the world that could be controlled remotely, and offer the equivalent of 3G speeds for those on the ground.

Google Project Loon overview:

Still, it's not just Google that comes in for a tongue-lashing. Gates is also critical of technology companies in general that launch with all-promising Earth-friendly projects like solar power, extended batteries, and more, but which underestimate the difficulties and true needs of the segment.

"We can't depend on being faddish in Silicon Valley" Gates argues. "The ease with which you get product adoption in the IT sector does make you naive when you move into non-IT sectors, including energy, about the life cycles, reliability, regulatory framework."

As for whether Gates sees value in Elon Musk's current projects, we shouldn't expect a Bill & Melinda Gates Spaceship any time soon. "In terms of improving the state of humanity, I don't see the direct connection" he said of space exploration schemes. "I guess it's fun, because you shoot rockets up in the air. But it's not an area that I'll be putting money into."