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Google's internet balloon project "not going to uplift the poor" says Bill Gates

Microsoft-founder wary of projects that seem more fun than they do practical

Bill Gates has criticised Google’s plan to bring internet connectivity to developing countries using balloons, saying “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,” said Gates in an interview with Businessweek. “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’s Project Loon was announced in June this year, and plans to use a series of high altitude balloons to broadcast wifi over regions with poor infrastructure.

Initial tests with 30 balloons in New Zealand were successful, showing how the system could relay internet connections via ground-based receivers; providing access to the web in places where it was prohibitively expensive to install broadband cable.

Gates, however, is sceptical of the long-term help such a project would offer. He said that whilst Google had originally set out to have a far broader remit, the company was now just doing “its core thing”:

“Fine,” he continued, “But the actors who just do their core thing are not going to uplift the poor.”

Gates was speaking to Businessweek about his work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a philanthropic private foundation with an endowment of $36.2 billion.

The Foundation is particularly dedicated towards fighting the spread of malaria – a preventable and treatable disease that still kills hundreds of thousands of people each year. The foundations has committed $2bn in grants to date, helping to fund R&D for a vaccine, as well as helping deploy equipment such as mosquito nets.

Google’s own charitable arm, Google.org, supports a range of projects, many of which have a technological bent. The Crisis Response project, for example, helps to provide tools for first responders in disaster situations.

Gate’s comments in the interview suggest that he favours more direct, interventionist action. Responding to a question regarding individual who are pursuing space travel as an ‘extracurricular interest’, Gates said:

“Everybody’s got their own priorities. In terms of improving the state of humanity, I don’t see the direct connection. I guess it’s fun, because you shoot rockets up in the air. But it’s not an area that I’ll be putting money into.”