OSCAR SCHWARTZ: What Was the TED Talk?​

TED’s archive is a graveyard of ideas. It is a seemingly endless index of stories about the future — the future of science, the future of the environment, the future of work, the future of love and sex, the future of what it means to be human — that never materialized…

Bill Gates wheels a hefty metal barrel out onto a stage. He carefully places it down and then faces the audience, which sits silent in a darkened theater. “When I was a kid, the disaster we worried about most was a nuclear war,” he begins. Gates is speaking at TED’s flagship conference, held in Vancouver in 2015. He wears a salmon pink sweater, and his hair is combed down over his forehead, Caesar-style. “That’s why we had a barrel like this down in our basement, filled with cans of food and water,” he says. “When the nuclear attack came, we were supposed to go downstairs, hunker down, and eat out of that barrel.”

Now that he is an adult, Gates continues, it is no longer nuclear apocalypse that scares him, but pestilence. A year ago, Ebola killed over ten thousand people in West Africa. If the virus had been airborne or spread to a large city center, things would have been far worse. It might’ve snowballed into a pandemic and killed tens of millions of people. Gates tells the TED attendees that humanity is not ready for this scenario — that a pandemic would trigger a global catastrophe at an unimaginable scale. We have no basement to retreat to and no metal barrel filled with supplies to rely on. 

But, Gates adds, the future might turn out okay. He has an idea. Back when he was a kid, the U.S. military had sufficient funding to mobilize for war at any minute. Gates says that we must prepare for a pandemic with the same fearful intensity. We need to build a medical reserve corps….


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