For most of the average twenty-something’s life, Bill Gates has been like a kindly uncle, bestowing us with Microsoft, leading the world in philanthropy and fixing all the world’s toilet and polio problems. He has almost single-handedly shaped our generation because of Microsoft and so, the recent release of a three-part documentary by Davis Guggenheim (of an Inconvenient Truth) titled, “Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates” immediately caught our interest. After all, who wouldn’t want to be inside the mind of the most consistently wealthy man in this century?
Guggenheim has carefully crafted the series to trace both Bill Gates’ life and work at Mircosoft, along with his work at The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, splitting the series into three parts based on his three core initiatives. The first is toilets.
The Foundation has been working on developing a fresh approach to toilet construction and waste disposal for years now. While the developed world tends not to think about what happens after they flush, in low income areas across the world, it is a different story. For instance, they show parts of Dakar, Senegal, where human waste is lifted out of toilets using a bucket and dumped along a riverbed, right next to women washing clothes in the same water – a story not uncommon in India. The episode traces the evolution of his focus on the issue; with Melinda and his sisters making cameos to provide insight into Bill’s thinking. They explore his relationship with his mother, Mary Gates, who is said to have consistently encouraged him to contribute to society in addition to making millions at Microsoft. After several years of hard work on developing a self-sustaining waste disposal plant and Toilet Expos around the world, the core problem of sanitation remains unsolved. Why? The solutions are too expensive.
The next episode traces his work on spreading the Polio vaccine. He has single-handedly spent billions of dollars on organisations that are focused on delivering vaccines where they are needed the most. This is also where his friend, Warren Buffet, another Forbes List billionaire, makes an appearance. The Gates-Buffet bromance resulted in a $31 billion commitment to the Gates Foundation. Buffet treats his contribution like an investment, saying “If Berkshire does well, so does the Foundation.” With his stated goal being ‘optimisation’ or the most bang for his (many) buck(s), Gates sets out to eradicate Polio. After seeing a lot of initial success, his work has stalled due to conflict. The cost of reaching conflict zones where the polio cases persist has skyrocketed over time and although he spent $400 million; double of what his team sought, the problem has not yet been solved.
Throughout, Bill is presented as this tech-whiz, whose focus on optimisation was not unlike the machines he worked on saying that while at Microsoft, “I didn’t believe in weekends, I didn’t believe in vacations.” He would memorise his employees numberplates to see who was working late and who wasn’t. He created the world’s first computer Operating System before he was old enough to drink, and even the first algorithm based class schedule while still in High School. In his relationship with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, he evolved from an enthusiastic coder to an astute businessman who was able to rise to the challenges of running one of the biggest companies in the world. One of his most remarkable qualities is the ability to evolve to fit nearly any role… it is also the most disconcerting.
The third episode addresses Terra Power, Gates’ nuclear energy initiative. Presented almost as an extension of his philanthropy, Guggenheim fails to mention that Terra Power is a commercial enterprise founded in 2006 by Bill Gates who is currently its Chairman. In fact, Guggenheim fails to mention that Gates’ personal investment vehicle, Cascade Investments LLC has a $50 billion portfolio and holds 33 million shares in Waste Management Inc. and a further 33 million in Ecolab Inc., a company that manufactures cleaning and other toilet preparations. Gates manages Cascade Investments along with the secretive Michael Larson, who also manages investments for the Foundation.
Numbers aside, Terra Power is a company that seeks to revolutionise the way nuclear energy is generated and understood. Instead of using highly enriched uranium, it seeks to use low grade uranium to generate energy and has designed a Travelling Wave Reactor (TWR) that in theory, should be completely safe. Each component of the process has been designed so as to provide a fail-safe in the event of an accident. Since it only uses low grade uranium, there is no security threat (refer to Iran nuclear deal) in sharing this technology and the process can (apparently) even use pre-existing nuclear waste to produce energy. All of this sounds magical, except when you learn that it has not yet been tested. But even the prospect was so thrilling that Mukesh Ambani led Reliance Industries, and Silicon Valley’s Vinod Khosla bought minority stake in 2011. The US does not allow the testing of such facilities and so in 2015, Terra Power entered into an agreement with the Chinese government to set up a 600MW prototype. In the documentary, this agreement is described as an experiment to see if the technology works but due to the Trump Presidency in 2016 and subsequent trade war, the new restrictions barred US companies from engaging with China on such projects. Yet another frustrating pause to one of his many ambitious projects.
In the 1990’s, Gates was viewed as a monopolist. Microsoft is said to have spent millions to shut down software rivals such as Netscape, a criticism that is briefly addressed in the documentary. He was even compared to infamous oil baron, John D. Rockefeller, the richest man in the world. After a series of bitter battles and a landmark antitrust decision, Microsoft lost the power to maintain its monopoly. Ever since, Gates has found ways to rehabilitate his image and is now viewed as a international do-gooder. A modern Midas, Gates has always looked for creative ways to resolve problems, in this case, it is a problem of perception. Following Chernobyl and then Fukushima, public opinion has shifted against nuclear reactors. A cynic might look at the whole series as a PR exercise; Netflix delivery designed for Millennials; opening with philanthropy, toilets and vaccines; mirroring the current interest in personality over profession (see Elon Musk) and culminating in the real cash-cow, a reactor that could potentially revolutionise the way we look at energy and climate change – all revolving around this one man.
Genius or not, ethical or not, circumstances have put Bill Gates in a position of immense power. His personal assets far outstrip the R&D budget of any major corporation or government and with his good-guy perception, he is never really seen as a threat. His ability to adapt himself and public perception to suit his business needs ensures it. If his nuclear energy initiative succeeds, capitalism dictates that he should reap the benefits. But before we allow him to own the solution to a lot of our problems (climate change, energy wars, pollution, etc.) we must find ways to ensure this will not be yet another monopoly. If the technology works, it must be shared. The world cannot afford another Rockefeller.