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Jason Pontin

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Dinner with Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Dinner last night with the organizers of Finland’s Millennium Prize, whose mission is to recognize “a technological innovation that brings significant improvement to the quality of life.” Present were Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web and…

  • June 14, 2005

Dinner last night with the organizers of Finland’s Millennium Prize, whose mission is to recognize “a technological innovation that brings significant improvement to the quality of life.” Present were Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web and director of W3 Consortium, who won the first award in 2004; His Excellency Jukka Valtasaari, Finland’s Ambassador to the United States; Dr. Charles Vest, the previous president of MIT (who now sits on the Prize’s selection committee); and Professor Rodney Brooks, the director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artifical Intelligence Lab (CSAIL). The Chairman of the Millennium Prize Foundation, Jaakko Ihamuotila, and the Secretary of the Selection Committee, Tapio Alvesalo, hosted the event.

I was seated beside Sir Tim, and it should be admitted up front that he is (as only a certain kind of English academic can be) one of the most charming men alive. He is a kind of machine for charming away dissent. He speaks very quickly; jokes are lofted into the air and as quickly dropped; and in general, it is hard to keep up with him. Perhaps it was pointless to even try. Sir Tim is much, much more intelligent that I am - so in any disagreement I was immediately routed, utterly vanquished.

Some one said it was at least conceivable that the Gates Foundation had done more good than Windows. For once informed about something Sir Tim did not know, I said that the Gates Foundation was required to give away $250 million every year merely to preserve its charitable status. And I talked about the Gates Foundation’s great innovation in developing cures for infectious diseases: the concept of “purchase agreements” (about which I have written before). Sir Tim looked at me intently and said, “It’s a very complicated question whether you do more good in creating vast wealth or giving it away responsibly.”

Jimmy Guterman, the editor in chief of Forrester Magazine, who was also seated at our table, talked interestingly about the Gates Foundation, and the Ambassador’s lovely and intelligent wife explained Finland’s healthcare crisis: there are now as many people receiving benefits from that country’s national healthcare system as there are people paying taxes.

Andy Plesser, Technology Review’s publicist, was the guiding spirit of the evening; he also represents the Millennium Prize. We are grateful to him for bringing MIT and the Prize together for the evening.

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