The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has joined a global initiative working to ensure frontier technologies such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality will help, not hurt the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.
Among the leaders in the Pathways initiative is Sri Mulyani Indrawati, finance minister in Indonesia, where the “Palapa Ring” project aims to make high-quality broadband connections available to 100 million more of its 265 million people across the archipelago.
Some excerpts from the AP’s interview with Melinda Gates in Bali:
AP: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is probably best known for its work in the health sector. Now that you’re also working on building these digital ecosystems, what do you hope your legacy will be in this area?
Gates: I hope we’re always known for the health work. I hope we’re always known for lifting up everybody in the world, the most marginalized. That’s why you see me doing a lot more these days about girls’ empowerment, and about digital.
My concern is, going to conferences these last two years, it became this big echo chamber of, “Oh, robots are going to take all our jobs and AI’s the next big thing.”
Robots aren’t going to take all our jobs. … I hope the foundation is part of making sure everybody is brought into the digital ecosystem.
AP: It’s been astonishing how quickly the digital adoption has been.
Gates: I’ve been in villages in Africa where chickens are running around. There’s no electricity. There’s no running water and you hear a cell phone ring. You think, “Wow! Where did that come from and where are they recharging it?”
But it’s not enough. They actually have to get hooked up to the internet and they have to be able to have a digital bank account. I get concerned about women’s literacy, their financial literacy, so I want to make sure we do very specific programming to pull everybody in, including women.
AP: What kind of situation exemplifies what you are trying to do?
Gates: It’s this company Tala Mobile . The founder went around Africa and interviewed 3,500 people and came to realize that you see all this entrepreneurship in lots of countries, but businesses were falling behind or basically dying because they didn’t have access to credit. So she realized that no traditional bank would loan these people money, even a $100 loan, $50 loan, $300 loan. So she figured out with an app and data mining that she could go look at their data and figure out whether they would be creditworthy. So now she’s extended 9 million loans in countries … and her repayment rate is 92 percent.
To me this was really exciting. All these entrepreneurs who are getting access to $100 loans, they’re actually creating small businesses in their own communities. And they’ll know what their communities need.
AP: Have you seen this elsewhere?
Gates: (Referring to the fast-growing Indonesian ride-hailing company Go-Jek , whose founder Nadiem Makarim is on the Pathways commission) They’ve got a million people who are either drivers or what they call “talent.” Only about 12 to 15 percent of the drivers are women, but they’re the ones who have, say, a small food stall. All of a sudden, their food is being picked up and delivered across town instead of just in their local neighborhood.
Go-Jek is teaching them all these entrepreneurial skills and they’re using their talents. If they’re someone who does hair or is a masseuse or … these people are being pulled into the formal economy.
Many of the drivers don’t have a driver’s license or even a birth certificate. So Go-Jek’s figured out how to get them a driver’s license and birth certificate. So now they really are part of the economy.
Several of the women told pretty dramatic stories about things that had happened in their lives, either financially or with a spouse and where they literally were either thrown out or had no means and this was a way for them to get back on their feet and support themselves and their families.
AP: I wonder if you tend to get more of that organic community development in developing countries?
Gates: I think so. We get to a certain place in a country and then get sort of stuck. Take M-PESA in Kenya. The poor aren’t welcomed at the banks in Kenya. The way they’re dressed, they’re shunned. With the M-PESA digital wallet, the poor start to be able to save $1 a day, $2 a day. It changes everything for them. Because when there’s a health problem they actually have the money saved.
When that grew up, it moved to Tanzania. To the Philippines. To Bangladesh. It moved all over the world. The U.S. is still catching up to having digital wallets for people.
When you get your digital ecosystem right, it really changes things. You see India and China pushing ahead on this in a super strong way, and other countries are learning.
AP: It’s one thing to have the tools and connectivity to be able to do things and it’s another to have the mindset to use them. It seems as if in America using connectivity to create jobs is not getting as much of a foothold as it ought to be.
Gates: Around the world, no matter where you are: America, Bangladesh … people imagine a better future for their children. I think what’s under threat in the United States is people aren’t seeing the American Dream anymore.
It used to be that if you grew up in a low income place you thought you had a chance of being middle or high income. That dream has stalled now. That’s a change in the last 30 years. When that dream is under threat you don’t see the internet and these technologies as being quite as helpful.
I also think that the advent of the idea of ‘fake news’ has been incredibly detrimental to the United States in the last few years. It is disturbing. Those are headwinds right now.
AP: So it boils down to hope? Is there anything about the digital ecosystem that can counter the lack of that?
Gates: I think the digital tools will come further and will start to help. In education, for instance, we know education is the great equalizer. We’re still learning what the tools can actually do.
AP: I certainly can’t imagine what might be coming.
Gates: I don’t think anyone can. I think we’ll see some incredibly interesting examples coming out of not just the U.S. and Europe and Japan but out of these developing world countries, because they’ll know what the needs are in their countries for what hasn’t yet been built.