Bill Gates: ‘My biggest fears for the world’

Giving to the poor: Bill Gates has donated around $50 billion to charity over his lifetime.

How should we react? Yesterday, Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and former world’s richest person, outlined his greatest worries for the future of the world. Here are the big three.

1/ The next global pandemic. Bill Gates always insists he is an optimist. But there is one major challenge to global health security that he fears most.

“We are not fully prepared for the next global pandemic,” he says. “The threat of the unknown pathogen – highly-contagious, lethal, fast-moving – is real. It could be a mutated flu strain or something else entirely. The Swine Flu and 2014 Ebola outbreaks underscored the threat.”

This next big unknown disease is simply called “Disease X” by the World Health Organisation. And as the world’s population increases and humanity encroaches on nature, new diseases are emerging with greater regularity.

2/ Africa’s population explosion. According to Gates, this is the “elephant in the room” for international development. By 2050, the 10 poorest countries in Africa are set to double their populations. Africa’s current population is one billion. By 2100, it could be four billion.

This could go one of two ways: it either fuels poverty and instability leading to conflict and a biblical exodus of refugees, or an explosion of youth could supercharge Africa’s development, as happened in China and India.

“To put it bluntly, decades of progress in the fight against poverty and disease may be on the verge of stalling.”

3/ Tech out of control. Gates’s once mocked dream of “a computer in every home” has now been realised in the developed world, and he still has faith in the power of technology.

But the “honeymoon period,” he says, is over. Gates now advocates for stronger regulation of the tech industry and for more efforts to be made to appreciate its impact on young people.

He sees big tech as a field that is almost too new to fully understand. Speaking about the recent controversies at Facebook, he says: “Even he [Zuckerberg] didn’t predict everything that would go on in terms of it being used as a platform for political influence.”

It all sounds quite worrying. But surely there have been far greater concerns in the past?

First world problems

One thing connects these three fears. They are all by-products of the incredible progress made by humans in the past few decades. We are better placed than ever to deal with a global pandemic. These medical advances have slashed death rates, meaning people can be more productive for longer. And problems at Facebook? It’s hardly the Black Death or the Second World War.

Wrong, reply others. The world is so interconnected now that disasters spread much quicker. Africa’s problems, as shown by the ongoing migration crisis, are now Europe’s problems. Our recent progress means countries are developing in previously untested ways. Gates is right to be worried about where that could lead.

You Decide

  1. Do you agree with Bill Gates’s choices as the three things we should fear most?
  2. How much should we listen to people like Bill Gates?

Activities

  1. Draw a graph showing the expected population explosion in Africa compared with the world’s other continents.
  2. Using the Become An Expert links, research the likelihood of there being a new global pandemic.

Some People Say...

“Innovation is moving at a scarily fast pace.”

Bill Gates

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, is worth $97.4 billion. However, this does not make him the world’s richest man. He was recently stripped of that title by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Together with his wife, Melinda, Gates runs the largest private foundation in America. Its aims are to enhance health care and reduce extreme poverty globally, and to expand educational opportunities and access to information technology in the US.
What do we not know?
Whether Gates’s fears are correct. There are often alarms about new diseases, but few ever become truly global: even Ebola was limited largely to a handful of West African countries. We also do not know how far government intervention in the tech industry will go.

Word Watch

Major challenge to global health security
Gates also names antibiotic resistance and cuts to government funding to improve health in the world’s poorest countries as concerns.
Pandemic
An epidemic happens when a disease affects a greater number people than is usual for the location or one that spreads to areas not usually associated with the disease. A pandemic is an epidemic that spreads around the world.
Pathogen
A bacterium or virus that can cause a disease.
Flu
In 1918, a flu pandemic killed between 50 million and 100 million people — 3-5% of the world’s population. It was colloquially known as “Spanish flu”, but the disease did not originate in Spain.
Africa’s current population
In 1950, Africa’s population was just over 200 million.
Black Death
One of the deadliest pandemics in world history, the Black Death swept through Europe and Asia in the 14th century, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 75 million to 200 million people. It killed around 30-60% of Europe’s total population.

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