In the interview below, Gates expounds on his energy ideas and faith in the world’s youth. The letter goes into more detail on that subject as well as Melinda Gates’s thoughts on gender equality.
Why did you aim the letter at the teenage audience?
I think this younger group has a lot of advantages. They will tend to take a long-term view of things. They’re more scientific oriented and more interested in opportunities they can dream about where our generation hasn’t solved the problem, and, therefore, they can take up and surprise everybody by what they are able to do.
With scientific innovation, you see that people in their 20s get a depth of knowledge and a willingness to look at things in a different way. So, I would say it’s likely that if an energy miracle comes in the next 15 years, key participants will be the teenagers of today.
Why are you confident that there will be a breakthrough?
What we need to get that probability up to be very high is to take 12 or so paths to get there. Like carbon capture and sequestration is a path. Nuclear fission is a path. Nuclear fusion is a path. Solar fuels are a path. For every one of those paths, you need about five very diverse groups of scientists who think the other four groups are wrong and crazy.
Throughout history, it seems like we’ve turned to war and competitions with massive prizes to bring about major advances in a field. Where is the motivation to come up with this energy miracle going to come from?
Scientific problems don’t generally just yield at the time someone comes up with a prize or something equivalent. It is true in war that if one country funds research and gets ahead of the other on ballistic targeting or machine guns, they get an advantage. So you will take whatever is on the scientific frontier and try to get an edge by financing that.
In the energy space, there is no equivalent of when JFK said, “Let’s go to the Moon.” At that time, people understood they needed a certain kind of rocket, recovery system and landing system. There was a very straightforward path where the probability of success, given all the new technologies, was like 95 percent. They needed to integrate everything together in a super reliable way.
This is more like the invention of the automobile. You had risk takers working on steam-powered cars and electric cars. Then, there was this dark horse where they were exploding things in these metal boxes called internal combustion. They kept blowing things up, but because of the energy density of gasoline, the private market weighed the relative merits, and two out of three approaches are footnotes in history.
There is a $3 trillion market per year for buying energy that is bigger than any prize anyone can come up with. But the time it takes to develop this technology means you need slightly more patient capital. The normal venture capitalist model that has worked for biotech and worked for software is not quite right here.
I do think with some tuning, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition group that we’re putting together will have some characteristics of a venture fund to invest in these breakthrough ideas.
Are there riskier things along the lines of geoengineering that we should be trying at this point?
Geoengineering is, at best, a backup strategy to buy ourselves time, if we don’t move quickly enough and things like the ice melting and methane release are happening in a nonlinear way that we don’t expect. I support research on geoengineering and a dialogue on geoengineering. But it really is like a fire extinguisher that puts the flames out for decades as opposed to a real solution.
The word geoengineering also covers another class of things, like the free air capture of carbon. There is a Harvard professor named David Keith who has a startup company called Carbon Engineering that is working to build a prototype plant. The cost per ton you pull out of the air is still super high. And it is not clear that will ever become cheap.
(Gates is an investor in Carbon Engineering.)
That idea that energy companies tend to take a long time to develop and are not ultimately profitable seems like a hard sell for a youngster looking to make their way in the world.
Well, they have a long time frame. And the science is pretty cool and interesting. As a percentage of young people, we don’t need a huge, huge percentage. We need less than, say, the NFL needs.
Science in general has so many spin-off benefits in terms of what we are going to do in materials and basic understanding. We have environmental problems other than climate change, too—species extinction and lots of things going on in the ocean. There is plenty of room for science that is not quite as daunting as being the person that makes the energy breakthrough.
Who would you hold up as a role model for teenagers these days?
I think Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page—some of the IT people that took a risk and did amazing work that has changed the world. A few dozen more people like Elon Musk would be great.
I don’t think that kids know enough about the people who are doing the medical breakthroughs. Hepatitis C went from being a terrible liver disease that is likely to kill you—now we have not one but multiple cures for that. The heroics and amazing work in the biology space, including medicines for poor countries and rich countries, I don’t think those get the visibility they should. But there are plenty of scientists and others that have taken on those causes.
For the young people right now, they probably know the historic figures better than they know the present-day innovators.
In the letter, you mention that The Martian was your favorite movie last year. What in particular did you like about it?
I thought it was pretty educational, and the science-related aspects were fun. Unlike a lot of science things, they struck me as actually realistic. Usually, movies dumb down the book so much that you are almost disappointed when you see the movie. It didn’t have the full content of the book, but I thought they did a good job.