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Bill Gates: Prioritizing Internet access before malaria research is 'a joke'

It seems that the Microsoft chairman would like Facebook and Google billionaires to pay attention to eliminating diseases afflicting the poor, in addition to wiring up the planet.

Bill Gates at Harvard Sept 2013
Bill Gates at Harvard in September 2013.
Harvard/Screenshot by CNET

When Bill Gates co-founded Microsoft nearly 40 years ago, he had the idea to put a computer on every desk, and in the '90s he evangelized the concept of "information at your fingertips." Since he stepped down as CEO of Microsoft in 2008, he has turned his full attention to saving lives and eliminating poverty through the work and financial donations of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg is a 21st century version of Bill Gates, a brash and determined captain of industry pioneering a new era of computing. He co-founded the social network to connect college students, and now the company's mission has expanded to "give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected." The 29-year-old billionaire views himself as an Internet missionary, spearheading, with a goal of removing obstacles to Internet access for the two-thirds of the world's population that isn't online.

"I think there are some things in life that if you believe that it's such a big problem, you just stick your neck out and try to do it," Zuckerberg said. "A lot of people think it's going to be really challenging to connect 5 billion people, too. It is, but I think it's one of the big problems of my generation."

"They're going to use it to decide what kind of government they want, get access to health care for the first time ever, connect with family hundreds of miles away that they haven't seen in decades," he added. "Getting access to the Internet is a really big deal, and I think we really are going to be able to do it."

While Gates appreciates what the technology can bring to developing countries, he views Zuckerberg's mission as far less vital than the mission of the Gates Foundation. In an interview with the Financial Times published Friday, Gates was asked whether providing Internet connectivity for the planet as proposes is more important than coming up with vaccine for malaria.

"As a priority, it's a joke," he said. "Take this malaria vaccine, [this] weird thing that I'm thinking of. Hmm, which is more important, connectivity or malaria vaccine? If you think connectivity is the key thing, that's great. I don't."

Gates was similarly unimpressed with Google's Project Loon, an effort to use giant balloons to bring the Internet to developing countries.

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.

Google recently spun out Calico, a new company that will focus on health and life extension. It appears to be more focused on "solving death" in the coming decades rather than finding cures today for diseases like polio and malaria that continue to afflict people on the planet.

It's likely that if you got Gates and Zuckerberg, and Google's Larry Page and Sergey Brin, together, they would all agree that connecting more people Internet and eliminating disease and poverty are both good for the planet. And, they would all agree that saving lives -- about 500,000 people die each year from malaria -- is more of a priority than giving people access to Facebook and Google. At that point Gates might ask them to commit some of their billions and resources to joining his crusade.