Bill Gates, billionaire and co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, left, and Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Melinda Gates Urges Tech Firms to Do More to Help the World's Poor

(Bloomberg) -- Melinda Gates called for big technology companies to do more to help the world’s poor by investing in wireless access and other projects that can help raise living standards for workers in developing countries.

“What we can do is put some pressure on them to do things for the poor and do things for everyone,” Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the couple’s philanthropic organization, said in an interview. “We can bring some incentive to those technology companies to do the right thing, to pull everyone into the market."

Gates’ remarks come at a time when online giants are under increased social and political pressure to do more to counter income disparity between top executives and rank-and-file workers. Inc. announced Tuesday promises to raise its minimum wage to $15 for workers in the U.S. starting Nov. 1, after Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders alleged employees are paid such a low wage that many have to apply for government aid. But the company is eliminating monthly bonuses and stock awards for warehouse workers and other hourly employees.

The dominance of tech firms such as Amazon and Google has sparked calls by some policy makers to break them up -- echoing criticism that Microsoft Corp. faced in the 1990s as Windows became the leading operating system for personal computers. President Donald Trump said in a Tweet in July that Amazon has a “huge antitrust problem.”

Gates declined to comment on whether tech companies as large as Google or Amazon should be broken up. But she said policy makers should create incentives for tech companies to help people in low-income countries, not just rich nations.

‘Just a Tool’

Two decades after Microsoft battled to counter the perception that its growth was getting out of control, tech companies such as Facebook Inc. and Amazon are facing similar questions about their role in society. In a wide-ranging interview, Gates pushed back against the notion that technology is a social liability.

“Technology is really just a tool. We can use it for good in the world, or we could use it for evil," Gates said.

The current debate on technology is too focused on the threat of automation to jobs, according to a report released Wednesday by the Pathways for Prosperity Commission, a group co-chaired by Gates that studies how to make technology more inclusive in poor countries. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that 14 percent of jobs in advanced economies are at risk of being replaced by artificial intelligence or robots.

“Economists are kind of waking up to the idea that that might not actually be the case," Gates said. When Microsoft created its Excel spreadsheet software, for example, many low-level accountants lost their jobs, but new positions eventually opened up with better pay, she said.

Gloomy forecasts about the job losses from technology “typically ignore the upsides of technological progress in creating new economic opportunities for workers, firms and consumers alike,” the Pathways report said. While history suggests innovation doesn’t destroy jobs on net, the report concedes technology does disrupt jobs and lives.

Policy makers should take steps to ensure people aren’t left behind by technological change, such as by helping workers transition to new jobs, according to the report.

Indonesian Broadband

Asked what types of social safety nets are needed to help workers who lose their jobs to technology, Gates pointed to Indonesia, where the government is investing in expanded Internet access.

“That is policy that they’re putting in place, investments that they’re putting in place, that will benefit their citizens who live on tiny, little remote islands,” Gates said. “That’s the type of thing we need to look at and to recommend for countries around the world.”

Gates said trade disputes won’t help solve the problem of inequality. President Donald Trump has been escalating his trade war with China, slapping tariffs last month on another $200 billion in imports from the Asian nation.

“Bill and I fundamentally believe in open markets,” Gates said. “If you have the right trade policies, they can be inclusive of everyone.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.