Bill Gates: 'The Idea That Innovation Is Slowing Down Is ... Stupid'

New ideas are coming at "a scarily fast pace," he says.
Reuters/Gus Ruelas

Bill Gates is aware that there's a lot of gridlock in Washington. He's just not sure it matters all that much for innovation.

"There's a lot of innovation that isn't dependent on Washington doing anything," the billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder said in a conversation with Atlantic Editor-in-Chief James Bennet on Wednesday evening. "It'd be great to fund basic research in energy more than we do. It'd be great to keep the [National Institutes of Health] budget going up. It would be great to have government at large doing more research into how to do education in a better way. But a lot of the things that will really improve the world fortunately aren't dependent on Washington doing something different."

"It's easy to say, 'Wow, this is different,"' he added, in reference to the fierce debates in the nation's capital over the size of government. "And I wonder if, for the first time, American democracy won't deliver the right set of decisions. Then again, it's supposed to be a self-correcting mechanism."

Speaking at an Atlantic event at the Watergate in Washington, D.C., Gates marveled at the low opinion Americans have of their elected officials.

"One of the statistics that always amazes me is the approval of the Chinese government, not elected, is over 80 percent. The approval of the U.S. government, fully elected, is 19 percent," he said. "Well, we elected these people and they didn't elect those people. Isn't it supposed to be different? Aren't we supposed to like the people that we elected? It's almost like a paradox of democracy."

"Maybe we just have better polling," Bennet responded. "No, this is honest polling!" Gates insisted.

Gates also disagreed forcefully with economists and analysts who say the pace of technological innovation is slowing, and no longer driving productivity and economic growth. "I think the idea that innovation is slowing down is one of the stupidest things anybody ever said," he said. "Innovation is moving at a scarily fast pace."

"Take the potential of how we generate energy, the potential of how we design materials, the potential of how we create medicines, the potential of how we educate people, the way we use virtual reality to make it so you don't have to travel as much or you get fun experiences," he noted. Innovation doesn't always work the way we think it might, he pointed out. For example, when innovation is happening fast enough, it sometimes shrinks GDP by disrupting industries (e.g. the damage the Internet has had on the newspaper industry) or increasing costs (e.g. the proliferation of medical technology).

"I want to meet this guy who sees a pause in innovation and ask them where have they been," he said.

And while Russia's military intervention in Ukraine has renewed claims that the U.S., in an age of austerity and war-weariness, is retreating from the world stage, Gates doesn't see it that way.

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Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global Channel. He was previously the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy.

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