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Can the Internet really "save the world," or are we just wasting our time?

The Internet is not the key to saving the world, according to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

The self-described technocrat believes that continued investment in computing innovations are not as important as protecting the most vulnerable members of our global community from the more visceral threats of disease that they are exposed to every day.

Gates's statement may have been a shock 40 years ago, when he co-founded Microsoft with the vision of a computer on every desk around the globe. His passionate vision of a world where information is available “at your fingertips” carried forward right in to the 90s, establishing Gates as an evangelist of IT innovation and a promoter of computing investment.

Today, it's Mark Zuckerberg who has carried on Gates' mission. His status as the next pioneer of the computing industry has prompted many to herald him as Gates' contemporary incarnation, fighting for a more connected world that allows people to share information with each other from the other side of the world, making societies more open.

Zuckerberg is now heavily involved with, which aims to extend the online reach of the Web to every corner of the globe. Its homepage is emblazoned with the slogan: “Today, the Internet isn’t accessible for two thirds of the world. Imagine a world where it connects us all.”

This hopeful statement alludes to what Zuckerberg terms “one of the big problems of my generation” - the struggle to promote hyper-connectivity. If Gates once evangelised the vision of a world where information is available at the click of a button, Zuckerberg has begun to sound a lot like him, with talk of societies that are able to connect with each other with the tap of a touchscreen.

Yet in 2008 Gates stepped down as CEO of Microsoft, turning his attentions to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation that aims to save lives and eliminate poverty through financially supporting initiatives in education, world health and communities across the globe. Zuckerberg’s predecessor, it would seem, turned away from technology.

Consequently, in an interview with the Financial Times, Gates was asked whether connecting the planet through the internet is more important than coming up with a vaccine for malaria. His answer was illuminating.

“As a priority, it’s a joke,” he said. “Hmm, which is more important, connectivity or malaria vaccine? If you think connectivity is the key thing, that’s great. I don’t.”

The reluctance among technology innovators to turn their attentions to managing humanitarian and immunisation campaigns is something that Gates attributes to their “mundane, practical” images. “It’s not sexy from a scientific point of view”, he says.

The unfortunate side-effect of a lack of research into these areas, however, is that billions of pounds are being poured into glitzy ventures while basic problems are ignored. Using Project Loon as an example, Google’s attempt to use giant balloons to bring the Internet to developing countries, Gates highlights the issue:

“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 diarrhoea, no, there's no website that relieves that. Certainly I'm a huge believer in the digital revolution. And connecting up primary-health-care centres, 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.”

It’s a stance that contrasts heavily with technology heavyweights such as Peter Diamandis, a serial entrepreneur whose latest idea involves trying to mine minerals on passing asteroids. ITProPortal was on the ground in Moscow last week for the Open Innovations Forum 2013, where Diamandis was speaking.

“We’ve taken 1.5 billion people out of poverty in the last 20 years,” the enthusiastic businessman claimed, gesticulating expressively to a room packed full of technological entrepreneurs. “Technology is facilitating this and hyper-connectivity is the conduit.”

It's the innovative solutions proposed by normal individuals, Diamandis believes, that will solve the world’s problems - he even argues that it will usher in a new human evolutionary stage. As people become more and more connected, ideas will spread with greater ease; If Facebook makes it easier to organise a house party between fifty people, Diamandis would argue, it could also prompt fifty thousand people to take action on a disease outbreak in a third world country.

This utopian vision of a connected world may be overly hopeful, and perhaps a little naïve, but it does build an interesting bridge between Zuckerberg and Gates. If we view the virtual joining of people as a conduit in which to brainstorm solutions to poverty and world hunger between like-minded individuals, perhaps the two visions of both technological pioneers, young and old, could be more alike than they realise.

Image Credit: Flickr (oninnovation)