Milken began by introducing Venter, one of the leading scientists of his generation, with a video chronicling his race to decode the human genome. In 2007, Venter published and placed online the most complete genome ever sequenced: 6 billion bit of his own DNA. And just weeks ago, his institute created the first synthesized bacterial genome, the first step toward creating artificial organisms.
Milken asked Venter to review a list of humanity's top ten problems for the next 50 years. "Environmental issues will determine the long-term future of humanity — possibly the survival of our species," he said. "We have to come up with new sources of food, fuel and water to sustain human existence. As we've gone from 6.5 to 9 billion people, the CO2 situation has become dire."
Having discovered a host of new species and genes through DNA sampling on ocean voyages, Venter is convinced he can use synthetic biology to come up with alternatives to oil and coal. "We now have 20 million genes in our database. They are the design components of the future, the tools in our toolset. They will help us find new ways to fix CO2 ... The whole economy will change based on getting off of oil and coal."
Milken asked Venter how to accelerate new cancer treatments and energy breakthroughs. "A lot of science in this country is done is very parochial fashion. It's dependent on government funding — and the government seldom takes risks," Venter explained. "The government is way behind in the energy crisis. It's one of our biggest national security issues, but the funding is a fraction of what goes to simpler fields. The exciting developments are all being driven by venture capitalists now."
Venter noted that it currently costs about $1.5 million to decode a complete human genome today, and the price is coming down. But to achieve real medical breakthroughs, we need much more data. "To scale this, we need at least 10,000 genomes to answer fundamental questions of nature vs. nurture and solve disease," he said. "We need large data sets."
As Milken introduced Yunus, he noted that BusinessWeek called him "one of the greatest entrepreneurs of all time." Yunus, who conceived the notion of microcredit for the poor, started with a $27 loan from his own pocket. He now heads Grameen Bank, which operates in tens of thousands of villages across Bangladesh and in countries around the world.
When asked for the solution to eliminating poverty, Yunus replied, "First we have to believe that it is possible. Experience shows how easily people move out of poverty given the slightest opportunity."
"It is amazing how financial institutions reject such as large number of human beings on this planet, saying they are not creditworthy," he said. "Instead of banking institutions telling people they're not creditworthy, the people should tell the banks whether they are people-worthy."
Yunus recounted how Grameen began giving tiny loans to poor people without demanding collateral or involving lawyers, enabling them to create income-generating activities. "The basic principle of banking is the more you have, the more you can get. We reversed it. The less you have, the higher priority you get." He noted that Grameen has even extended small loans to 100,000 beggars. "Within four years, 11,000 of them have stopped begging completely. They've become successful door-to-door salespersons. The remaining 90,000 ... I would say, they are part-time beggars, in the process of closing down their begging division."
"The entrepreneurial ability in human beings is amazing," he said, noting that Grameen's default rate is below 1 percent. "The poor are like bonsai trees, planted in small confining pots. There's nothing wrong with their seed, but society never allowed them the space to grow tall." He noted that most of the poor in Bangladesh are illiterate, but 100 percent of the children of Grameen families are in school — a trend with the potential to transform Bangladesh in the long term.
Yunus sees information technology offering a host of possibilities to the developing world, from cell phone service in rural villages to solar energy systems that can bring light and entertainment to places that have never had electricity.
Milken noted that the field of finance felt a surge of pride when Yunus won the Nobel Prize for peace rather than economics. "Poverty is a threat to peace, a breeding ground for violence and disorder, which come from a sense of injustice," Yunus explained.
"Capitalism is a wonderful idea and it works so well, but it's not complete. Human beings are multi-dimensional, and the business world cannot capture it. People felt they had to go outside the business world to be charitable or philanthropic. I said no — we can accommodate it in the business world. We can create social businesses to address problems like clean drinking water and health care."
Yunus described an example of this concept: a venture Grameen established with Danone to produce cheap yogurt fortified with micronutrients to reverse malnutrition in the poor children of Bangladesh. Milken summed up the sentiment of many in the room: "You're a living example that doing good is good business."
Milken then turned to introduce Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, noting that in a very short period of time, Google has transformed the way we live, work and interact. He asked Schmidt to describe how he manages a freewheeling company full of minds that think outside the box.
"The company is chaotic by design," Schmidt acknowledged. "Innovation occurs randomly. The important thing is to recognize brilliance when you see it and nurture it to be successful."
"We believe in the power of information and we use it ourselves all the time. We believe in the creativity of small teams. Teams are constantly, constantly coming up with new ideas. We have a set of values, starting 'don't be evil.' That provokes the conversation about where to take new technology. We debate and debate: Is this a good idea? Will people like it?"
Schmidt noted that the rate of change brought about by the Internet is accelerating, not decelerating. "I don't think we really understand the compounding that we're going to see. Ultimately it will be possible to use computers to help us get to real understanding."
He pointed to new opportunities for harnessing computing power to achieve goals such as Venter's project to analyze millions of genomes. Schmidt envisions personalized health records that can be controlled by individuals and carried from provider to provider—and that soon individuals will be able to compare their own genome against others to predict the likelihood of disease.
Schmidt did have a caution for the new information age, however. "We've created devices that are so addictive, we have no time for contemplation — the kind of deep thinking that comes from reading books."
Echoing the hopes of Yunus, Schmidt agreed that the implications of bringing information technology to the developing world are enormous. "The other billion people who have never had access to information will now become part of our world. They'll be able to participate. They'll be able to take advantage of the things that we all saw as we were growing up. And that's a great calling ... The intrinsic creativity of people worldwide when expressed is something we've never seen."