Bill Gates helped create Microsoft, one of the most profitable companies in modern history, but when asked to think about transformative technologies, his mind didn’t go to the circuit board or the internet.
Instead, he thought of plows.
“The plow — like many technologies, both ancient and modern — is about creating more of something and doing it more efficiently, so that more people can benefit,” he wrote in an introduction to his list of "10 Breakthrough Technologies" to look out for in 2019 for the MIT Technology Review.
The plow is in many ways emblematic of Gates' career shift from technologist to philanthropist and humanitarian. Through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he has dedicated his time in recent years to eradicating poverty, preventable diseases, world hunger, and more. The organization has committed $45.5 billion over the years to causes ranging from reducing maternal mortality rates to preventing malaria.
It’s no surprise, then, that improving health outcomes is a major theme running through Gates’ list of world-changing technologies.
“I think the big picture is that it’s better to be born today than ever, and it will be better to be born 20 years from now than today,” Gates said in an interview with the MIT Technology Review.
Here are highlights from Gates’ "Breakthrough Technologies."
1. Blood Tests to Predict Premature Babies
More than 15 million babies are born prematurely each year, and 1 million infants die from resulting complications.
In the years ahead, Gates says that a simple blood test could determine whether a woman is more likely to give birth to a premature baby and then interventions can be taken to preserve the health of both the mother and child.
2. Custom Cancer Vaccines
Child receives vaccine in Burkina Faso.
Cancer remains one of the leading causes of death in the world and treatments often have low success, especially for the more lethal forms of the disease, and for people in low-income countries.
Gates thinks progress will soon be made on custom cancer treatments tailored to a person’s genome.
“If it works as hoped, the vaccine, which triggers a person’s immune system to identify a tumor by its unique mutations, could effectively shut down many types of cancers,” Gates writes.
3. Sanitation Without Sewers
A mother attends a community meeting with her children. Babies are usually carried on the back, fastened securely with a piece of cloth. Her daughter wears a red and white checkered shirt, typical of a Nigerian school uniform.
More than 2.3 billion people lack access to quality sanitation systems worldwide, an injustice that leads to millions of preventable deaths every year.
A major obstacle to improving access to sanitation is that sewage systems are challenging and expensive to build, especially when they have to be incorporated into urban environments that are already heavily overbuilt.
In the years ahead, Gates anticipates sanitation systems that don’t need regular sewage maintenance. For example, systems that contain filters and organisms that can break down human waste can create fertilizer.
4. Gut Probe Pills
“Environmental enteric dysfunction (EED) may be one of the costliest diseases you’ve never heard of,” Gates writes. “Marked by inflamed intestines that are leaky and absorb nutrients poorly, it’s widespread in poor countries and is one reason why many people there are malnourished, have developmental delays, and never reach a normal height.”
In the years ahead, Gates believes that diagnosis of EED will become easier and far cheaper through digestible devices that can scan a person’s intestines.
Read More: Your Poop Could Save Lives. (No, Seriously.)
5. Carbon Dioxide Catcher
The United Nations estimates that countries will need to remove 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
In recent years, breakthroughs have been made in carbon capture technology that pull greenhouse gas emission from the atmosphere and Gates predicts that these innovations will reach a viable stage in the years ahead.
For the full list, go here.
Disclosure: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a funding partner of Global Citizen.
Editor's note: This piece has been updated to include a disclosure that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a funding partner of Global Citizen. We regret the oversight.