Jeff Goodell. Rolling Stone. Volume 1050. April 2008.
Larry Brilliant, the man anointed by Google to give away hundreds of millions of dollars of the company’s money in the next few years, admits that he’s a deeply flawed human being. “I make a hundred mistakes a day,” he says. “I am, and have been, and will continue to be, wrong about almost everything.” When Brilliant speaks of his personal failures, he is not talking just about his late 1990s turn as the head of a couple of Silicon Valley companies that vaporized $100 million or so. And he’s not talking just about his failure, which he knows was not his alone, to keep his friend Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead from killing himself with drugs and excess. He’s talking about deeper things, like the mismatch between what he wants to do for the world and what he can do for the world. He is talking about our tendency as human beings to be distracted by money, glamour, sex and personal glory.
Such philosophical musings run throughout Brilliant’s professional life, often with uncomfortable results. Last February, Fortune magazine invited Brilliant to a round table of top business executives at a swanky restaurant at the foot of Mission Street in San Francisco, The purpose of the dinner, according to one insider, was to “create a high-level salon to give people a chance to share thoughts on what’s happening in the tumultuously changing technology and Internet business.” Most of the executives were in their midthirties to midforties, venture capitalists and CEOs who had spent their lives surfing the ever-cresting wave of progress in the Valley.
Brilliant doesn’t fit this mold. For one thing, he’s sixty-three. For another, he’s not sushi-sleek: He’s a big man with a Buddha-like belly, silvery goatee and patient eyes. And for another, he’s not an engineer or an MBA: He’s a doctor. Not a typical doctor, for sure—in the Sixties, he dropped acid with Woodstock impresario Wavy Gravy; in the Seventies, he delivered a baby during the Native American occupation of Alcatraz, followed spiritual seeker Ram Dass to an ashram in the Himalayas and helped eradicate smallpox in India; in the Eighties, he led an effort to restore sight to blind people in the developing world and cofounded the Well, a pioneering online forum; in the Nineties, he flopped around as an entrepreneur and watched Star Trek reruns. Most of all, he knew suffering. During the smallpox scourge in India, babies died in his arms. He visited towns where the rivers were dammed up by dead bodies. That kind of experience changes your perspective on the world. Among Brilliant’s favorite quotes is from Buddha: “Every person will suffer and die.”
Acute awareness of suffering and death, however, has not turned Brilliant into another disillusioned ex-hippie wondering where all the flowers have gone. Nor has it left him with a grudge against the cruel nature of the universe. Instead, it has turned him into a hard-bitten optimist. He’s seen the worst the world can do, but he’s also seen how mankind can triumph. Global warming? No problem. Mass starvation? Let’s figure out how to feed the world. In Brilliant’s view, what the planet needs today is not simply the invention of a cleaner way to generate energy or better schools in developing nations but a transformation of human consciousness. “It’s a matter of human will,” he says. “And that’s where my optimism comes from, because I’ve seen awful things that were solved by the projection of a positive, and I would say loving, human will.” But mankind’s loving human will was not immediately apparent among the sharks at the Fortune round table. This was all business. Not long after the discussion began, the assembled CEOs and VCs soon found themselves talking about what would happen to social networking sites like Facebook if there were a widespread work stoppage due to, say, a natural disaster. Would people go to the sites to make connections, even if they weren’t at work? Or would online revenues tank?
After a few minutes of debate, the moderator turned to Brilliant and asked if he had any thoughts.
“This is stupid,” Brilliant said bluntly. “If you want to talk about a disaster of that magnitude, then we should be talking about the disaster itself, not about what it might do to our ad revenues.” Then he ran through some issues the CEOs might consider: the impact of climate change on poor people, dwindling water supplies in the developing world, the rising risk of pandemic.
“There’s a lot of smart people in this room,” Brilliant said, trying but failing to avoid a scolding tone. “We need to think about more than just our own industry.”
Eyes dropped. The room quieted. This was not a crowd accustomed to being poked as narrow-minded and greedy. Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce.com, later called it “heart-stopping.” Says another participant, “This was a very high-powered group, and Larry whacked us for being selfish and small-minded. He was right, of course. I don’t know anyone else in the Valley who could pull that off—or would have the guts to try.”
Ever since a young Steve Jobs called the personal computer “a bicycle for our minds,” Silicon Valley has promised to change the world. And by and large, it has. You can download music at Starbucks now. You can trade stocks on your BlackBerry. You can edit Wikipedia from virtually anywhere on the planet. But it is clear now that the problems we face as a civilization—global warming, resource depletion, war, famine, poverty—will not be solved by Mac OS X version 10.9. Changing the world, it turns out, isn’t quite enough. The real question is, can Silicon Valley-style capitalism save the world?
Google is founded on the belief that it can: The company’s unofficial motto is “Don’t be evil.” But a more accurate mantra might be “Fuck with the system.” And there is no system more ready for fucking with than the sleepy old world of philanthropy. “When they speak frankly, most people who work in philanthropy today will admit that the system isn’t working very well,” says Google cofounder Sergey Brin. As William Easterly points out in The White Man’s Burden, a scathing indictment of the World Bank and other institutional do-gooders, the West has spent $2.3 trillion on foreign aid over the last five decades—yet still can’t deliver twelve-cent medicines to prevent children from dying of malaria. “The big problem with foreign aid,” Easterly concludes, “is that the people paying the bills are rich people who have very little knowledge of poor people.”
There’s nothing geeks like more than a big problem to solve, and in recent years, a new generation of so-called “philanthropreneurs” has emerged. Their goal: Apply the lessons of Silicon Valley-style capitalism to intractable social and environmental problems. From Bill Gates to Richard Branson, these new do-gooders are spending tens of billions to transform the developing world. “Sustainability, innovation and scale are specialties of the private sector,” says Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, whose philanthropy encourages entrepreneurialism in the world’s poorest nations. “They are critical to addressing the challenges we face today.”
At first glance, it might seem that the new venture headed by Larry Brilliant—Google.org, or DotOrg, as it’s known within the Googleplex—is barely a drip from this same faucet. So far, DotOrg has invested only $75 million in five initiatives. For a company-with $16 billion in annual revenue, that’s a nanospeck of cash. At a press conference in January to announce the foundation’s new initiatives, one reporter asked Brilliant if the whole operation is simply a “publicity stunt.”
But to look at what Brilliant is up to in straight financial terms misses the point. DotOrg is not just another corporate philanthropy—it’s a bold experiment in philanthropy itself. Its uniqueness begins with its structure. Unlike most foundations, DotOrg has no endowment in the traditional sense and no external board. It was funded with an initial grant of 3 million shares of Google stock, currently valued at $1.3 billion, and a promise of one percent of the company’s profits each year. Its goal is not simply to give away traditional grants like the nonprofits of yore but also to allow Google to invest money in projects that have the potential to do good and turn a profit at the same time. “We have a tremendous amount of flexibility,” Brilliant says. “We can give away grants like a traditional foundation, or we can invest in new companies or even start companies of our own.”
Brilliant calls this approach a “hybrid philanthropy.” In the Old World, the essential dynamic of corporate giving was extract, exploit, get rich, then pass out nickels to charity to atone for past sins. In the New World, Google wants to sink those nickels into clean-energy ventures and promising entrepreneurs in the developing world. “Yes, there maybe profit from that,” Brilliant acknowledged recently. “But the real reason for doing it isn’t to make a profit. It’s because business is a better engine for creating jobs than aid.”
It is, of course, easy to be cynical about all this, especially when it comes to Google. “They’re the stealth Microsoft,” says a senior adviser at one prominent foundation. Despite the lava lamps and “Don’t be evil” slogan, the company’s real goal, these critics say, is the same as every other corporation’s: to take over the world. Consider two of DotOrg’s first initiatives: to develop new sources of renewable energy and to forecast epidemics before they occur. If you think you’re dependent on Google now, consider a world in which the company also supplies your electricity and sends you updates on your cellphone about a deadly new virus that’s just arrived in your neighborhood. Is the goal to save civilization or merely commoditize it? In this view, Larry Brilliant is essentially a human lava lamp, a guy who is useful to Google precisely because he is so colorful and so deeply human that he is the perfect foil for the company’s more rapacious impulses.
But suppose that interpretation is wrong. Suppose Brilliant is not a human lava lamp at all but, as his friend and Grateful Dead co-founder Bob Weir puts it, “a living freakin saint”? Hell, you don’t even have to go that far. Suppose, for a moment, that Brilliant is simply a man with a deep conscience and a deep faith in mankind’s ability to work together and solve big problems. Suppose you married that with Google’s technological prowess and a few billion dollars. What would our future look like then?
It’s a Thursday afternoon, and Brilliant is walking across the lobby of DotOrg’s offices in San Francisco, yanking at his conservative silk tie. His sports coat is dark blue, his face is flushed red. This is not Larry Brilliant the philosopher of human suffering. This is Larry Brilliant the old hippie who can’t quite believe he is a top executive at a $142 billion corporation—even if it is one that offers in-house back massages and cafeteria food that rivals the best San Francisco restaurants. “This is the last time you’ll see me in one of these,” he says, pulling at the tie as if it were a noose.
Like almost everyone else at Google, Brilliant is allergic to the traditional trappings of corporate culture. He prefers a hug to a handshake, carries a rustcolored backpack instead of a ballistic briefcase and would rather talk about his friend Neil Young’s project to turn his Lincoln convertible into a hybrid car than discuss the Dow’s latest moves. Googlers admire Brilliant as a veteran of the revolution and rally around him as an inspirational leader: One recent in-house e-mail raved, “Our own Larry Brilliant ROCKED the Emerging Disease Community this morning in his Key Note address!” But they also roll their eyes at his lack of discipline. “Larry is not a detail person,” says Roger McNamee, a prominent venture capitalist who helped recruit Brilliant for his job at Google. “He is a big picture person, and it only works because Google is the ultimate big-picture company.”
Brilliant weaves past an inflatable Godzilla and the cardboard cutouts of Wonder Woman that clutter the hallways. His office is in the corner, smallish, with a spectacular view of the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island. On the bookshelf is a photo of Wavy Gravy, dressed in a clown outfit and holding a sign that says NUCLEAR WAR is BAD FOR BUSINESS. Next to it is a photo of a barefoot Indian man wrapped in a blanket—Neem Karoli Baba, the guru Brilliant studied with in the Himalayas for two years. Hindu trinkets and statuary cover the walls.
Brilliant believes passionately in the achievements of the counterculture. “The Sixties will be remembered as the time when we opened every book, turned over every rock, asked every question,” he tells me. “Historians will liken it to the Enlightenment or the Revolutionary War.” Brilliant clearly sees himself as part of the deeply rooted, countercultural alliance in the Valley, one that goes all the way back to Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. Google itself, in a sense, is a youthful throwback to that alliance. The company is “the first psychedelically informed superpower,” as one blogger put it recently. “The core mission comes right out of the psychedelic atlas: a vision of superconnectivity and superconductivity which is a hallmark of the psychedelic landscape.”
Brilliant’s journey across the psychedelic atlas (yes, Brilliant is his real name—from the Russian “Brilliantov”) began in Detroit, where he grew up the older of two boys. His father, who had spent his childhood in a neighborhood once the turf of Jewish mobsters like the Purple Gang, worked on the periphery of the music industry, installing jukeboxes and selling appliances. In 1951, when Larry was seven, a young government attorney named Robert Kennedy visited their house to persuade Brilliant’s father to testify about corruption in the music business in front of the Kefauver Committee, the first high-profile inquiry into mob activities in America. “My father, who was not in the mob, struggled with it,” recalls Brilliant. “He knew how dangerous it would be to testify against them.” And he was right. When the elder Brilliant returned from Washington, his business was repeatedly firebombed and the family feared for their lives. “It nearly destroyed him,” Brilliant says.
Brilliant was a good student, albeit preoccupied with Big Questions. “He was always thinking on a higher plane,” recalls his brother Barry. When Brilliant was nineteen, his father died of cancer. A few days later, his grandfather died. Brilliant’s eyes still well up when he talks about it. “I basically spent the better part of a year in my bedroom, reading comic books and eating burnt peanuts,” he says. He was majoring in philosophy at the University of Michigan and planned to go to law school, but in the wake of his father’s death, he missed the application deadlines. Then, at the last minute, Brilliant got accepted to medical school at Wayne State. In 1967, he moved west for a summer job as a civil rights inspector and fell headfirst into the Summer of Love. In 1969, he returned for an internship at a San Francisco hospital.
“Yes, I was wild in those days,” Brilliant exclaims proudly. “We were all wild!” He married his high school girlfriend, Girija, edited an anti-war journal for health professionals called Body Politic, played the doctor in a blessedly forgotten road-trip movie called Medicine Ball Caravan and ended up in a psychedelic-painted bus with Wavy Gravy, his wife, Jahanara (Bob Dylan, with whom she’d had an earlier romance, wrote about her in “Girl of the North Country”), and forty or so friends from Gravy’s Hog Farm commune, rattling across Europe toward Bangladesh. In theory, they were going to bring food and medicine to survivors of a cyclone that had killed more than 500,000 people. “We thought we would embarrass the government,” recalls Wavy Gravy. But civil war had broken out, and the border to Bangladesh was closed. So they turned north into Kathmandu, where they abandoned their bus, and eventually made their way down to New Delhi.
One day, while waiting in line at the American Express office in New Delhi, Wavy met Ram Dass, a.k.a. Richard Alpert, who, along with fellow professor Timothy Leary, had been kicked out of Harvard for experimenting with LSD. Girija persuaded Brilliant to follow Ram Dass into the mountains to meet his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, one of the holiest men in India. It was a seventeen-hour journey, by train and trail, to the ashram, where Brilliant slept on a mat, meditated, chanted, immersed himself in the Ramayana and practiced nishkam karma yoga, which Brilliant has described as “the work of being reunited with God, through actions in the world, without attachments to results.” Over the next thirty years, this simple discipline would become, for Brilliant, “the propellent force in my life.”
One day, the guru tugged Brilliant’s beard and said in Hindi, “You are going to go into villages. You will help eradicate smallpox. Because this is a terrible disease. But with God’s grace, smallpox will be unmulun”—Sanskrit for “torn up by the roots.” The guru instructed Brilliant to go to the office of the World Health Organization in New Delhi and get a job immediately.
“I didn’t even know what smallpox was,” recalls Brilliant. But he left the ashram that night and trooped down to the WHO office with his long hair, beard and white robe. They turned him down flat. But Brilliant persisted, making more than a dozen trips back and forth from the ashram to New Delhi (on one trip he befriended a barefoot traveler with a shaved head named Steve Jobs, who was on his way up to see the guru). Eventually, Brilliant was hired—first as an office assistant, then as a medical officer directing vaccination campaigns in villages.
The year after Brilliant joined the eradication campaign, there were 188,003 cases of smallpox in India. Of those, 31,262 died. To halt the disease, the WHO set out to prevent every local outbreak from spreading by vaccinating everyone who lived close by. That meant traveling to the most remote regions of India, trying to keep one step ahead of the disease. Sometimes, if there were no jeeps available, Brilliant -would rent an elephant. He quickly learned to distinguish the pustules of variola major, a strain of smallpox that kills about a third of the people it infects, from the rash that accompanies hemorrhagic smallpox, which causes victims to bleed out of every orifice, killing almost all of them. In many villages, the elders did not want to admit that the disease had arrived, so the houses had to be searched and, in some cases, the inhabitants vaccinated by force. “Larry has charisma, an ability to manage and organize and inspire,” says Dr. D.A. Henderson, who headed the WHO’s eradication program.
The scale of the effort was mind-boggling. Many villages were searched every month for two years, for a total of more than 2 billion house visits. But it worked. In 1975, three years after Brilliant arrived, smallpox was eradicated from India. Two years later, the world was declared free of the virus.
For Brilliant, helping to wipe out a disease that had killed half a billion people in the last century gave him an adrenaline high that he found addictive: “You want to do it again,” he says now. Shortly after his return to the U.S. in 1978, Brilliant wrote a vivid account of his experience in the eradication campaign. In it, he sound’ ed a theme that he would return to again and again in the coming years: “If smallpox can be conquered in India, then other miracles are surely possible throughout Spaceship Earth.”
When Brilliant returned home in 1978, he morphed from a possession-free hippie into a responsible American citizen. He earned a master’s in public health and began teaching at the University of Michigan. He and Girija had the first of three children, and with help from her, Wavy Gravy and Ram Dass, he organized the Seva Foundation, with the goal of preventing and curing blindness in poor countries. The first check that arrived in the mail was for $5,000. It was from the guy Brilliant had met on the way to the ashram, Steve Jobs.
That same year, Gravy convinced his pals in the Grateful Dead to hold the first of many benefit concerts for Seva in San Francisco. Brilliant and Jerry Garcia forged a long-lasting friendship: “They would get together and talk and talk,” recalls Bob Weir. “The ideas would fly.” Brilliant remembers it differently: “Mostly, we giggled.” When they were on tour, the Dead stayed with him at his house in Michigan, and Brilliant sometimes visited them in the recording studio. Brilliant calls Garcia “a deep, profound, extraordinarily kind man” and still gets teary-eyed talking about the guitarist’s death in a drug-rehab center in 1995. “You know, I’ve lost so many friends to bad drugs,” he says. “It’s hard to maintain an unbiased 19605 enthusiasm for the drug culture.”
Like many spiritual seekers, Brilliant has always been fascinated with technology. In the late 1970s, after a U.N. helicopter crashed in the Himalayas, Brilliant used a computer to participate in a meeting of rescue workers. Recognizing the potential of computer-to-computer communications, he started a company called Network Technologies International, which operated computer conferencing systems. But the idea was ahead of its time, and NETI was slow to take off. Then, at a conference in San Diego in 1984, Brilliant bumped into Stewart Brand, founder of the ‘Whole Earth Catalog, and pitched an idea: Take a group of interesting people, give them a way to chat with each other via computer, then see where it goes. NETI would supply the computer network and software (at a cost of $250,000). Brand would provide the interesting people.
The result was the Well, a pioneering computer bulletin-board system that Brand launched out of his office in Sausalito, California. According to Brand, Brilliant was an ideal hands-off partner, allowing him to grow and evolve the Well as he saw fit. During the late 19805, The Well blossomed, creating the first thriving digital community and introducing a whole generation of computer users to the power of what was then called “Cyberspace.” But funding was a problem. In 1991, after NETI went broke, Brilliant sold his interest in the Well.
By that time, he had moved his family to the Bay Area and begun a new life as an entrepreneur. He helped his brother start a telephone-calling-card company called Brilliant Color Cards and got sucked into several business ventures involving Wi-Fi, the then-blossoming wireless technology. All of them ultimately vanished. “Larry’s not a successful entrepreneur,” says one Silicon Valley executive. “His heart and soul have always been in the philanthropic world.”
Brilliant returned to public health, throwing himself into his work as executive director at Seva, for which he paid himself one dollar a year. He loved the work over the years, Seva built eye clinics and trained medical staff in many of the world’s poorest nations, helping to restore the sight of more than 2 million people. But Brilliant, who had three college-bound kids to support, was looking for a new challenge. “I had no idea what I was going to do next,” he says.
Then, one afternoon in the fall of 2005, while Brilliant was golfing in San Francisco, his cellphone rang. It was Chris Anderson, curator of the TED Conference, an annual gathering of scientists, thinkers and Silicon Valley elites. Anderson informed Brilliant that he had won the TED Prize, which came -with $100,000 to launch a project of his choosing to make the world a better place (other winners have included Bill Clinton, Bono and scientist E.O. Wilson). Brilliant, who didn’t know who Anderson was, thought it was a crank call.
Winning the prize forced Brilliant to come up with a concrete idea about how best to do some good in the world. He asked everyone he knew for suggestions, set up a Web site, even prodded local newspaper columnists to tell readers to e-mail him their ideas. What he decided to tackle, not surprisingly, was the rising threat of a global pandemic.
The year Brilliant won the prize, Bf a deadly new virus known as H5N1 was killing millions of birds worldwide, and many virologists feared it would soon mutate to humans. One top WHO official warned that an outbreak of avian influenza could kill as many as 150 million people. The problem, Brilliant knew, is that people in crowded undeveloped nations are living in ever-closer proximity to animals, creating hot zones for viral mutations and specieshopping. “I could not think of a better way to accelerate the risk from these viruses,” he says.
Brilliant believes that the key to stopping pandemics is “early detection, early response”—finding new ways to identify and isolate viruses before they can infect the world. An organization in Canada, he learned, had picked up on the deadly SARS virus months before it was officially acknowledged by the WHO, simply by using a multilingual search engine to scan public documents and wire stories from around the world for signs of emerging diseases. Brilliant, recognizing the technology’s potential to serve as an early-warning system for pandemics, made it the linchpin of his TED project.
Winning the TED Prize also introduced Brilliant to the Silicon Valley elite, many of whom had been early users of the Well and, like Brilliant, had deeply inhaled during the Sixties. But even the most radical thinkers involved with TED were taken by Brilliant’s powerful sense of optimism—the simple idea that if we can get together and stop smallpox, why can’t we take on global warming and the other most pressing challenges of the day? “Larry is a figure of tremendous hope for a lot of us,” says the musician Peter Gabriel, who had awarded Brilliant the prize onstage at the TED Conference in 2006. “He’s someone in whose presence you feel better.”
Among those whom Brilliant met was John Doerr, the powerful venture capitalist who sits on the board at Google. The company was in the midst of a search for someone to head DotOrg, but it was having trouble finding a leader who not only had expertise in the nonprofit world but who would also be at home in the freewheeling Google culture. “Lots of people from the traditional philanthropic world were interested in this job,” Doerr says. “They weren’t a good fit. But Larry broke the mold. He has not only done great work in the world, but he also knows how to move and inspire people.”
Brilliant was invited to speak at Google. He didn’t know it at the time, but during his talk, the company’s co-founder, Larry Page, and CEO, Eric Schmidt, were sitting in the back of the room. “I guess they liked what they heard,” Brilliant says. “Because when it was over, Eric turned to Larry and said, ‘Let’s hire him.’“
But when Google approached Brilliant about the job, he was hesitant. “I was not a twenty-five-year-old kid who had spent his life dreaming about working at Google,” he says. He was uneasy about DotOrg’s lack of endowment—in effect, the funding was only as good as the company’s word. For Brilliant, it was also a leap into corporate America: “I wasn’t sure I wanted to work at a big company, no matter how well-intended it seemed.” He dithered for weeks. Finally, Doerr invited Brilliant to dinner at his house, where the venture capitalist and his friends put the squeeze on him, arguing that the Google name and Google billions would give Brilliant an unparalleled opportunity to do good in the world.
“Let’s be clear,” Roger McNamee told him. “You have nothing better to do right now. You’re a perfect fit.”
Overnight, Brilliant became the human bridge between Google’s mountains of cash and the world’s impoverished, starving masses. Sometimes he would come home at night to his hilltop house in Mill Valley—a modest, modern place with a photo of his Indian ashram on the wall and a swimming pool in the back yard—and his doorstep would be cluttered with packages from people asking for help. It reminded Brilliant of his time in India. “There are 500 steps between the road and the Ganges,” he tells me one morning as we take a ferry across the bay from his home to his office in San Francisco. “Every step along the way, you see human misery—beggars, lepers, people literally starving. Let’s say you have a couple of rupees to hand out—how do you decide who to give it to? Is a person who is missing a hand more worthy than someone who is missing a leg? Someone who’s starving to death versus a mother with a sick child?”
Brilliant built his DotOrg team from scratch, bringing in experts like Dan Reicher, the assistant secretary of energy in the Clinton administration, and Dr. Mark Smolinski, who had worked on biosecurity with the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative. The core team went through a long list of ideas, winnowing out the best in courtroom-style debates. The question was not just “What does the world need most?” but “Where can Google make the most difference?” Another litmus test: “Will it scale?” That is, if it works, could DotOrg grow it exponentially? A pandemic-warning system, based on Google search technology, would definitely scale. Building roads in Africa, though important, would not. Using these criteria, the group settled on a handful of initial projects: forecasting epidemics, empowering citizens in the developing world to fight for clean water and decent schools, funding small businesses and entrepreneurs, and developing new renewable electricity sources.
From the beginning, it was clear that renewable energy would be a centerpiece of DotOrg’s efforts. Long before Brilliant arrived, Sergey Brin and Larry Page were big believers in the urgent need to replace fossil fuels. They have championed plug-in hybrid vehicles and installed 1.6 megawatts of solar panels at the Googleplex in Mountain View—one of the largest installations on any corporate campus in America. Google’s push for clean power is not entirely unselfish: Cheap, renewable power would reduce the company’s energy bills and free it from worry about blackouts.
But DotOrg’s clean-power initiative is even more ambitious—it’s nothing less than an energy moonshot. The stated goal is to fund research into breakthrough technologies that, within the next decade or so, could produce what the group calls “RE<C”—renewable energy cheaper than coal. DotOrg has announced investments in two companies: Makani Power, which hopes to harness high-altitude wind energy, and eSolar, which uses sunlight to drive conventional steam turbines. Brilliant, with his boundless optimism, believes that both efforts represent a new approach to renewable energy. “Our goal is not to go after short-term profits,” he says, “but to actually develop breakthrough technology that will displace the biggest problem the world has when it comes to global warming: our dependence on coal.”
But Google’s move into energy raises a pressing question: Does the company plan to get into the electricity business, which generates $387 billion in the U.S. alone? “Are we open to it?” Brin says, sitting in a wicker chair at this year’s TED Conference. “Yes, but we don’t know exactly how. Is it as investment? Is it in a partnership? Is it simply to bring power to our data centers? I’m happy to play any of those roles. This is not a charity. And if it pays off, it’s a great investment.”
The initiative closest to Brilliant’s heart, however, is the one he developed for the TED Prize: predicting and preventing the outbreak of new infectious diseases. Along the Mekong River, DotOrg is working with health ministers in Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and China to set up an early-warning system for bird flu. The company has also developed a cellphone-based communication system for emergency-aid workers in disaster zones and is funding research to improve real-time mapping of new disease vectors.
As the system evolves, it’s easy to imagine how Google’s prowess in search technology, satellite imagery and mapping might revolutionize how we respond to epidemics. But as the company moves deeper into the realm of public health, the questions get more complex. Collecting data is one thing; once you get it, what do you do -with it? If you detect an outbreak somewhere in the world, who has the authority to make the call? Who takes responsibility for the warning if it turns out to be wrong? Who profits if it’s right?
“Our objective is purely for the health of the population,” says Dr. Theresa Tarn, who is responsible for the Canadian detection system that won Brilliant’s admiration. “I don’t know what Google’s objective is.”
“Do you know Pierre?” Brilliant asks, leaning close to me and nodding toward Pierre Omidyar, who is standing a few yards away. We’re at a dinner party hosted by Google at the Monterey Bay Aquarium to kick off this year’s TED Conference. Sharks patrol the waters behind us, eels lurk, and the whole room has an aquatic glow.
Brilliant waves Omidyar over, and the eBay founder thin, serious, dressed like a grad student—scoots past Al Gore, who is locked in conversation with Cameron Diaz. Brilliant gives Omidyar a half-hug, and the two chat about Omidyar’s three kids and his upcoming trip to India. “Pierre is one of the finest, most decent people in the world,” Brilliant says after Omidyar moves on.
The brief encounter underscores the challenge Brilliant faces as the leader of Google’s growing philanthropic empire. Hanging out with billionaires, after all, is not the same thing as being a billionaire. As the head of DotOrg, Brilliant derives his power and moral authority from the fact that he is not part of this crowd, that he retains his ability to sit in a room with a bunch of CEOs and tell them that their doomsday profiteering is stupid. It’s his connection to human suffering, not his connection to money, that is his gift. If he loses that connection, he loses everything- and he knows it. “It’s easy to forget the real purpose of my work,” says Brilliant. “Behind all the numbers and the meetings, lives are at stake.”
For Google itself, the risk of launching DotOrg has little to do with money or losing focus on its core business. It has to do with trust. “It has to be clear that this effort is not about gaining commercial advantage but about changing the world,” says Doerr. Right now, Google is able to deflect many questions about privacy and corporate evildoings simply because Sergey Brin and Larry Page seem like honest guys. But the more the company moves into new arenas, like energy and public health, the more danger there is that Google could be revealed to be just another greedy corporation using philanthropy as a mask to hide its plundering and profiteering.
Brilliant, with his unshakable belief in human will, remains certain that DotOrg can be a force for good in the world. What worries him today is not evil corporations, but religious intolerance. After all, for a man who believes that love is all we need, nothing is more frightening than hatred. “I used to think terrorism was a virus, and love was the antidote,” he says. “What keeps me up at night is that Americans don’t understand there is goodness in every religion. What worries me is that we may not understand that we are all in this together. How do we build a world where we love each other more than we hate each other?”
For the moment, Larry Brilliant is balancing on the tightrope between promises made and promises yet to be kept. At the TED Conference, Jeff Skoll, another eBay billionaire turned philanthropreneur, drifts over to talk about a recent trip they took to India together. Movie producer Lawrence Bender says hello, and Brilliant artfully bats down a rumor that he once had an affair with Mia Farrow (“Don’t I wish!” he jokes). Tomorrow night, there will be the billionaires’ dinner, and the following day, eighteen holes at Pebble Beach.
Brilliant is not unaware of the contradictions between the many worlds he inhabits, but it’s clear that he himself, like the philanthropy he is pursuing, is sort of a hybrid—hippie and techie, humanist and capitalist, optimist and realist. When I ask him if he ever fears he has sold his soul for an invitation to the Billionaires Ball, he leans over again, almost whispering in my ear.
“It’s like my friend Wavy says,” he tells me. “The art of life is putting your little bit of good where it will do the most.”