Last time I was in Boston it was gloriously sunny. This time Boston is alternatively a nipple hardening freeze-fest, or worse-than-London-in-February festival of rain. Still, a weekend in Boston is not to be sniffed at. This weekend I’ll see a performance and then be in one.
I head to the Boston Public Library, a fantastic edifice to erudition and, conveniently, next to the half price theatre tickets booth in Copley Square where I randomly pick my evening’s entertainment – a play called ‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane’ by British playwright Joe Orton. I was hoping to see how an American cast would handle the peculiarly English quirks of Orton’s dark humour (and the accents). It turns out the cast is all British, which is no doubt good for the play, but ruins some of my fun.
The library is one of those beautiful, old school, vaulted ceiling places and I feel all proper and Bostonian as I write. My pre-theatre dinner is jollied by a conversation about technology and faith with the sociable Ellis, a Methodist preacher in a sharp suit, with an easy laugh who laments his church’s inability to keep pace with modern means of communication.
Today I stay at Tracy’s flat to read. Tracy herself is out an about for most of the day, including a trip to church with her mum who is aggressively intrigued by me. “Hello,” I say. “I’m staying with Tracy for a few days.” “I can see that!” she exclaims “But who are you?!” I get the impression she thinks I may be some decidedly unsavoury love interest of her daughter’s and when I tell her I’m in Boston researching a book this is met with suspicion but, ultimately, a request for a free copy. Tracy later tells me that her mother is a selfless servant of others and has “difficulty chilling out”.
That evening Tracy has arranged for a group of her (sociable and likeable) friends to see me do a brief set at Harvard’s Comedy Studio, arguable the most intelligent crowd, well, anywhere. It’s the sort of crowd that tends to heckle with technical points, rather than disdain. I don’t get any heckles, but after my set (which, I have to say, went rather well) one medical researcher did approach me to question my reading of a neuro-anatomy paper that forms the basis of one of my routines. Only in Harvard.
As is the tradition at the Comedy Studio after the show the comics and Rick Jenkins (the owner, and tonight’s generous compere) descend to the Karaoke Bar below to listen to drunk students ruin soft rock hits from the eighties (as if those weren’t bad enough already). Tracy takes a rather brilliant photo that juxtaposes Rick and the Karaoke lyrics to a diVinyls hit.
It’s amazing how quickly you can accept international travel as work-a-day. When I started my journey a flight heralded a feeling of adventure in me. Now, it’s like getting in a car. Another thing that’s changed is my attitude to my interviewees. When I first secured an interview with my quarry in Boston I was slightly intimidated. ‘How do you talk to someone like that?’ I asked myself, the ‘that’ in question being Ray Kurzweil. Now, as I come to end of my journey and try to tie it all together I find less trepidation in myself. I’ve spent the last year meeting extraordinary people, and I’ve got used to it. Turns out extraordinary people have plenty enough ordinary about them to get hold of.
I arrive in Boston, deal with the ever rude and superior immigration staff and am picked up by Tracy Wemett, who you may remember as Konarka’s PR woman and driver of some, shall we say, reckless enthusiasm. Tracy, on hearing of my return to Boston has generously offered me her basement for the week, which makes a welcome change from hotels. Still, we’ve got to get to her apartment alive which, given her driving, is not a certainty.
Since I saw Tracy last it seems I haven’t been the only one to notice her maverick approach to the road. One speeding ticket too many and she’s been required to take a driving education course by the state of Massachusetts. The results are reassuring. She tells me, “I was told I’m the sort of person who will make a road where there isn’t one.” She pauses. “Apparently that’s not good.”
I spend the next day preparing for my interview with Ray. (I also take a visit to meet genius-entrepreneur Howard Berke at Konarka, who was, like many genius-entrepreneurs, a mixture of enthralling, socially odd and genuinely entertaining. More on him in my chapter on Solar).
Ray Kurzweil is variously an inventor, guru, madman, prophet or genius depending on who you listen to. One indisputable truth is that Ray is a very good inventor. He invented the first machine that could scan text in any font and convert it into a computer document, a technology he applied to building a reading machine for the blind (which led to him, on the side, inventing the flatbed scanner and the text-to-speech synthesizer too). Stevie Wonder was the first customer – and this in turn led to Ray inventing a new breed of electronic synthesizers that captured the nuances of traditional ones. (In a former life as a musician I coveted the ‘Kurzweil K2000’ but not being very successful musician I could never afford one). Our interview opens in much the same way as Ray’s last book The Singularity is Near (hereafter referred to as TSIN). “The philosophy of my family, the religion, was the power of human ideas and it was personalised,” he says. “My parents told me, ‘you Ray can find the ideas to overcome challenges whether they’re grand challenges of humanity, or personal challenges’ ”.
Ray’s journey to visionary genius/ techno-prophet/ crazy person (delete as appropriate depending on your prejudices) had its genesis in his attempt to work out a way to time his inventions for maximum impact. “I realized that most inventions fail not because the R&D department can’t get them to work but because the timing is wrong. Inventing is a lot like surfing: you have to anticipate and catch the wave at just the right moment,” he writes on page three of TSIN. So Ray started looking at technology trends and he saw something extraordinary – a clear, unmistakable pattern of exponential innovation, something he calls ‘the law of accelerating returns’ – a phenomenon centred around the idea that technology regularly doubles in efficiency. Such doubling is seen, for instance, in the increasing processing power of computers. Reality has kept pace with the predictions of ‘Moore’s law’ with almost unwavering allegiance, with performance per dollar doubling about every 18 months. But Ray says the effects of the law can be found, well, nearly everywhere, that the law of accelerating returns is the governing law of all creation.
To understand the implications of Ray’s idea you have to get your head around how potent a force it is if something has the propensity to double. Think of it this way. Let’s say you travel a metre with each step you take. If you take ten steps you’ll have covered ten metres. Now imagine that instead of each step progressing one metre, it somehow doubles the distance you covered with the last one. So while your first step covers one metre, your second covers two and by your third your stride is four metres. The difference between ‘normal stepping’ you and ‘doubling stepping’ you is extreme and gets ever more so. As a doubling stepper your first ten steps will cover not ten metres, but one thousand and twenty four. Instead of covering the equivalent of about 1/10th of a football field you’ve covered over ten. And with your next step you’ll cover ten more – with the step after that covering another twenty whole pitches.
By the time you’ve done just 27 steps you’ve traversed 67 million metres, or to put it another way, you’ve gone one and a half times round the world. Your next step? You double that distance and do another 67 million metres. At this rate you could walk to the sun and back (and be 85% of the way to Mars) in 38 steps (your last step having covered 137,438,953,000 metres). One can only imagine the trousers you’d need. Meanwhile, normal stepping you is about a third of the way down a football pitch. Now, of course, you can’t step like that but technology, says Ray, can. And he’s not wrong.
Certainly on my trip I’ve seen other examples of mankind’s exponential adventure, in the plummeting cost of genome sequencing, or the ‘cost per watt’ performance of solar technologies for example. Ray cites these examples and others. The first hundred pages of TSIN almost bludgeons the reader with graph after graph, based on historical data showing exponential growth in the number of phone calls per day, cell phone subscriptions, wireless network price-performance, computers connected to the internet, internet bandwidth and so on. These all have a computing flavour, but Ray sees exponential growth of knowledge too, citing exponential growth in nanotechnology patents as an example. What about the economy? Ray plots exponential growth in the value of output per hour (measured in dollars) in private manufacturing and in the per-capita GDP of the US. Ray quotes example after example because he want us to get past what he sees as an inherit prejudice in our human thinking.
“Our intuition is linear and I believe that’s hard-wired in our brains. I have debates with sophisticated scientists all the time, including Nobel prize winners that take a linear projection and say “it’s going to be centuries before we…” and “we know so little about…” and here you can fill in the blank depending on their field of research. They just love to say that. But they’re completely oblivious to the exponential growth of information technology and how it’s invading one field after another, health and medicine being just the latest.”
You can’t get to Mars in 39 steps wearing linear trousers (like the one’s most of our minds wear). You need exponential ones (like technology has). But because we’re hard-wired to think in linear, rather than exponential terms we fail to see when things are coming, argues Ray. We’ll be far further than we think, far quicker than we expect. Ray predicts for instance that by the middle of the century we’ll have artificial intelligence that exceeds human cognition, a game-changing explosion of intelligence that we will merge with to usher in the next stage in our evolution – a human-machine hybrid, enhanced with similar exponential bounty brought to us by entwined revolutions in nanotechnology and biotechnology. Aging will be ‘cured’ and we’ll be able to move onto a more stable platform than our frail biology. At the same time we’ll have solved the energy crisis and dealt conclusively with climate change.
“All these Malthusian concerns that we’re running out of resources are absolutely true if it were the case that the law of accelerating returns didn’t exist,” he says. “For instance, people take current trends in the use of energy and just assume nothing’s going to change, ignoring the fact that we have 10,000 times more energy that falls on the Earth from the Sun every day than we are using. So if we restrict ourselves to 19th Century technologies, these Malthusian concerns would be correct.” In other words, the law of accelerating returns in solar energy will soon see a green energy revolution, as the technology keeps doubling its efficiency. Ray reckons five years from now solar will be taking coal to the cleaners when it comes to cost per watt. We won’t be switching to solar because we want to save the planet, we’ll be doing it to save our bank accounts.
“I just had a debate this week at a conference held by The Economist with Jared Diamond who basically sees our civilization going to hell in a hand-basket and points out various trends and makes this assumption that technology is a disaster and only creates problems and he has really no data to point to, it’s just aphorisms and scoffing at technology with no analysis. But he’s got a bestselling book because people love to read about how we’re heading to disaster.”
Part of understanding what Ray is getting at requires you to understand that he sees all creation as an exercise in information processing. Everything can be expressed as data coming in, some kind of manipulation or interaction, and some data goes out. So, two atoms collide (data in), they interact in some way (data processing) and emit light and heat (data out). This is the most boring way ever to describe fire, but it doesn’t take away from the essential premise that everything can be viewed as a manipulation of information. In other words, everything (including you) is an ‘information technology’ and therefore the law of accelerating returns becomes the fundamental law that governs all creation.
In 1999 Ray published a book called The Age of Spiritual Machines in which he applied this law to make predictions, and handily he made a bunch for the decade from 2009. Critics and advocates alike have lept on these, loudly proclaiming “Ray was right!” or “Ray was wrong!” depending, it seems, on how they view the world – and all ignoring the fact that Ray didn’t say his predictions were for one year, but for the period beginning 2009. “Most of Kurzweil’s predictions are actually astoundingly accurate,” writes one blogger, while another asserts his forecasts are “ludicrously inaccurate.” Oh dear.
My own analysis is that, with the odd caveat, Ray seems to be on the right track with his predictions and many seem extremely prescient. According to Ray 89 are correct, 13 are “essentially correct”, three are partially correct, two are ten years off, and just one is wrong (but he claims it was tongue in cheek anyway). Certainly there is some pride in Kurzweil’s response to his critics and you could argue he’s stretching the point a bit when he defends some of his predictions, massaging the semantics of the prediction to match the current situation, but, all that aside, he’s still been right more often than he hasn’t. By anybody’s reckoning that’s prediction nirvana, and a skill any investor would love to have (oh, Ray’s latest venture? A hedge fund.)
But part of the problem with Ray Kurzweil, or rather part of the problem in talking about Ray Kurzweil is that he raises strong emotions. Trying to separate reasoned debate from the howl of emotion that his work provokes is hard. Take the view of Douglas R. Hofstadter, now a cognitive scientist at Indiana University, but more famously the author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid – an attempt to explain how consciousness can arise from a system, even though the system’s component parts aren’t individually conscious. (This is a key area of study for Ray too, because it is through reverse engineering the human brain that he believes we’ll be able to unlock the mechanisms of mind, replicate them in machines and so free ourselves from the biological limitations of our brain). Here’s what Hofstader has to say about Ray’s ideas:
“I find is that it’s a very bizarre mixture of ideas that are solid and good with ideas that are crazy. It’s as if you took a lot of very good food and some dog excrement and blended it all up so that you can’t possibly figure out what’s good or bad. It’s an intimate mixture of rubbish and good ideas, and it’s very hard to disentangle the two…”
That’s like Stevie Wonder saying, “I can’t work out if Paul McCartney is a genius or a wanker”. Such is the trouble with talking about Ray. (You can see the full text of the interview this comes from here)
As I comment throughout An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, the advance of new technologies, particularly biotechnology, make many people (including me) uncomfortable – and then Ray comes along and says, ‘belt up, things are going way faster than you thought, and by the way, that means I’m not going to die. Would you like to transcend your biology with me? Hurry now’. It’s no wonder our linear-trousered brains are stretched to the limit, no wonder some people find Ray just too difficult to engage with. And on the other side of the coin are those who do see Ray as some kind of prophet, whose ideas save them from the sticky issue of their mortality. Ray’s ‘Singularity’ – the moment at which ‘strong AI’ arrives and we merge with it – has been called “the Rapture of the nerds” (a phrase coined by science fiction author Ken MacLeod). These Utopian-techno-nerds don’t really help Ray’s cause. I advocate the approach of Juan Enriquez, the founder of Harvard Business Schools’ Life Science Project, and another Boston resident, who told me, “Do I always agree with Ray? No. Does he make me think? Always.”
It seems to me (from my linear trousered perspective) that progress in robotics, AI, synthetic biology and genomics brings philosophical questions such as “what does it mean to be human?” into your living room, and not in an ‘interesting-debate-over-a-glass-of-wine’ sort of way, but in a ‘right-in-your-face-what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it?’ sort of way.
When the possibility that the hand your mate Robin lost to cancer three years ago can be replaced by a robotic one with a sense of touch becomes a real option we begin to ask ourselves, ‘Is that hand really part of Robin? If I shake that hand am I really shaking Robert’s hand? Gee I don’t know. I feel kinda weird’. (By the way, Robin isn’t fictional, he’s Robin af Ekenstam and you can watch a video of his new hand being attached here). And just as we can start to engineer robot hands and merge them with humans, we will soon, thanks to the law of accelerating returns, be able to engineer to genuine robot intelligence and merge it with our brains, argues Ray.
“The basic principles of intelligence are not that complicated, and we understand some of them, but we don’t fully understand them yet. When we understand them we’ll be able to amplify them, focus on them – we won’t be limited to a neo-cortex that fits into a less than one cubic foot skull and we certainly won’t run it on a chemical substrate that sends information at a few hundred feet per second, which is a million times slower than electronics. We can take those principles and re-engineer them and we’re going to merge them with our own brains”.
It’s statements like this that bring Ray into conflict with many scientists who think he’s not so much running before he can walk, as getting in jet fighter straight out of the crib. Although, for Ray, that’s kind of the point. Crib to jet fighter is really just a few doublings after all, the law of accelerating returns in action. But for some, Ray is a bit like Tracy. He makes a road where there isn’t one, they say.
One thing is certain. If a conscious human-like intelligence is ‘computable’ (i.e. it can be run on a machine substrate) the processing power to compute it will be within reach of the even your desktop very soon. Hans Moravec wondered, “what processing rate would be necessary to yield performance on par with the human brain?” and came up with the gargantuan figure of 100 trillion instructions per second, which is one of those numbers that generally makes most of us go “hmmm, I think I’ll make a cup of tea now.” To put this number in context, as I was ushered into the world in the early seventies IBM introduced a computer that could perform one million instructions per second. This is onemillionth of Moravec’s figure. By the dawn of the millennium chip-maker, AMD, were selling a microprocessor over three and half thousand times quicker (testament to a technological journey that had been populated with continual exponential leaps in processing power throughout the intervening period). This yielded a chip that is still 280 times less powerful than the brain’s computational prowess (by Moravec’s reckoning) but is a staggering upswing in power nonetheless. Intel have just released their ‘Core i7 Extreme’ chip which is forty times faster than the AMD device from 2000 and computes at the mind-numbing speed of 147,600,000,000 instructions per second – or about one seventh of Moravec’s figure. At this rate your new laptop will achieve the same computational speed as the human brain before the decade is out. Soon after that, if the exponential trend continues, your laptop (or whatever replaces it) will have more hard processing muscle than all human brains put together. This will happen sometime around the middle of the century according to Kurzweil.
Supercomputers have passed Moravec’s milestone and it’s therefore no surprise to find various projects using them to try to simulate parts of animal and human brains, merging neuroscience and computer science in an attempt to get to the bottom of what’s really going on in that skull of yours. It’s important to realise that simulating something often takes more computing power than being something (aircraft simulators have more computers than actual aircraft for instance) and a complete simulation of an entire human brain running in real-time is still beyond the reach of even the most powerful computers. But not for long. Henry Markram’s Blue Brain project (which works by simulating individual brain cells on different processors and then linking them together) believes “It is not impossible to build a brain, and we can do it in ten years.” He’s even joked (or not, depending on how seriously you take the claim) he’ll bring the result to talk at conferences. Markram has similarly upset more conservative voices in the AI field. Even Ray thinks he’s over-optimistic. (The prediction falls outside the curve predicted by Ray’s graphs by a hefty margin).
You can see Markram’s TED talk (where he suggests he’ll be bringing the Blue Brain back to the conference as a speaker within a decade) below.
I find myself thinking back to my talk with George Church, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. If you accept evolution as an explanation of how humanity came to be, that the common genetic code of all living things is proof that you, I and Paris Hilton all, at some point, evolved from the same source (that source being a collection of molecules that became the first cell) then one way of looking at the human being (and therefore the human brain) is ‘simply’ as a collection of unthinking tiny bio-machines computing away – reading genetic code, and spewing out ‘computed’ proteins and the rest. We’re machines too, just wet biological ones. You are an information technology.
Robotics pioneer Rodney Brooks makes this argument as well. “The body, this mass of biomolecules, is a machine that acts according to a set of specified rules,” he writes in Robot: The Future of Flesh and Machines
Needless to say, many people bristle at the use of the word “machine”. They will accept some description of themselves as collections of components that are governed by rules of interaction, and with no component beyond what can be understood with mathematics, physics and chemistry. But that to me is the essence of what a machine is, and I have chosen to use that word to perhaps brutalize the reader a little.
In short, intelligence and consciousness are computable, because you and I are computing it right now. I compute, therefore I am. George Church was less brutal in his take on the ‘human machine’. “I think of us more and more as mechanisms,” he told me. “We’re starting to see more and more of the mechanism exposed and it just makes it more impressive to me, not less. If someone showed me a really intricate clock or computer that had emotions and self awareness and spirituality and so forth I’d be very, very impressed and I think that’s where we are heading, were we can be impressed by the mechanism.”
But something’s not sitting right with me, and it’s not that I don’t like being called a ‘machine’ (believe me, that’s nothing compared to some of the heckles I’ve had). In fact, the machine metaphor makes a kind of sense given what I found out at Harvard.
It was Cynthia Breazeal, head of the personal Robotics lab who I met last time I was in Boston that expressed it best. “The bottom line is there’s still a long way to go before we can have a simulation actually doanything. I mean they can run the simulation but what is it doing that can be seen as being intelligent? How does that grind out into real behaviour, where you show it something and have it respond to it? I still think there’s a lot of understanding that needs to be done. I do, I really do. I think we’re making fantastic strides but I think,” (she dropped to a conspiratorial whisper, smiling) “there’s a lot we still don’t know!”
Cynthia nailed the root of my discomfort. Someone can give you the best calculator in the shop, but if you’ve never learned any maths, it’s largely useless to you. If the brain is computable, it’s not that we won’t have the processing power to recreate its mechanisms, but that we’re still a long way off working out how to drive that simulation. If you’d never learned to read your eyes could take in the shape of every letter on this page, but it’d mean nothing to you, and printing it out photocopying it a hundred times (or even inventing the printer and photocopying machine in order to do so) wouldn’t help you either. Just as you had to learn to read, AI and neuroscience research, collectively, have to tease out not only what it is they’re looking at, but what it means.
Sure, there’s exponential growth in processing power, but the jury is out as to whether there is an equivalent growth in understanding how to use that power more ‘intelligently’, to create (to paraphrase one of Henry Markram’s analogies) a concerto of the mind by playing the grand piano of the brain. If there had been, maybe your new laptop would be one-seventh as smart as you are. But it isn’t. This is where the strength of projects like the Blue Brain (and Cynthia’s work) really lie – as tools to slowly help us to pose the right questions that will lead to a better understanding of intelligence, emotion and consciousness.
This is what I really want to ask Ray. “Have you got any graphs that clearly show an exponential growth in understanding? or in the ability of us to collectively make sense of the great philosophical questions, the intractable questions – ‘What is life?’, ‘What is consciousness?’” I ask. “Have we seen the law of accelerating returns in our understanding of these questions? Is our knowledge, our wisdom also keeping pace?”
“Well, I’m actually working on that in connection with my next book which is called How the mind works and how to build one,”says Ray.
Well he would be, wouldn’t he?
More of my interview with Ray will, of course, be in the book…
I’ve arrived in the Maldivian capital of Malé, the only capital to occupy its own island. Other capitals can be found on islands, but there are no others that are islands. Its two square kilometres host somewhere between 90,000 and 150,000 people (definite figures are hard to come by). Even by lowest estimates this makes Malé one of the most densely occupied cities on the planet. In stark contrast to spacious whole-island resorts for which the country is famed (and which provide a huge proportion of its earnings) Malé is a warren of tight streets, filled with the buzzing of thousands of scooters.
Just as the contrast between the spacious resorts and the teeming metropolis of Malé is stark, so is that between the wealth of visitors and native Maldivians. As the man I’ve come see (newly elected president Mohammed Nasheed) says:
“We have a situation in the Maldives where you have a very poor 3rd world island which is next to a very rich European island.” One of his initiatives to address this disparity is to encourage resorts to link their economies with neighbouring islands by buying labour and supplies.
Nature’s most abundant greenhouse gas, water vapour, makes itself known in the Maldives. The air enjoyed by the Maldivian archipelago is humid, keeping the nights hot and muggy. By the time I’ve spent an hour getting lost in the city’s streets I’m covered in a thin film of perspiration.
By the docks I find hundreds of boats, many offloading strong smelling catches of huge yellow fin tuna. The tuna are dumped unceremoniously into pots with their heads down (and thus obscured) giving them the comic appearance of a strange cross between a cactus and a hat stand.
Fishy Cactus Hatstand
In a tiled hall I witness the fish being gutted and prepared for sale. Huge knives expertly gouge out lidless eyes, heads are ripped off, spines are removed in single, swift and well practiced movements by men smoking cigarettes and made indifferent to their butchery through repetition. I guess ripping the head of a tuna becomes as mundane as processing an invoice if you’ve done it enough times.
Most foreign visitors (whose number is almost double the population of the nation) either never see Malé (transferring directly to and from the resorts) or spend just a single night here in preparation for an early morning return flight. I’m happy to be here longer, getting to see the Maldivian people on their own terms, as well as meet their new president.
Mohamed ‘Anni’ Nasheed has had an extraordinary life, and he’s only 42. In 2008 Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (born in exile in Sri Lanka, and Wiltshire) ended the 30 year dictatorship of Maumoon Adul Gayoom, a man who wasn’t shy of conducting human rights abuses, particularly against those who didn’t like his autocratic government. Detention without trial, torture and politically motivated assassinations were all part of the portfolio.
In a speech given a year before he became president to the UK Conservative Party (who’d helped Nasheed organise and gain international recognition for the MDP) Nasheed said:
“The minute we mention the Maldives it’s very hard for us to convince you that it really is hell for a lot of people, because it’s such a beautiful place. Its beauty doesn’t quite go with brutality, torture and all the atrocities that happen there.”
Two years later Nasheed returned to the Conservative party conference, as the first democratically elected president of the Maldives to say ‘thank you’ and lobby for increased action on combating climate change. He recalled:
“I speak as a man who has personally experienced the worse a regime can contrive in order to suppress its people. I was imprisoned on 16 different occasions and spent a total of 6 years in jail. Of these I spend 18 months in solitary confinement. The thing that saddens me most about these experiences is that I was not able to witness the birth of my two daughters.”
In the same speech he remarked, “Not surprisingly these obscenities were never mentioned internationally as an incentive to visit my country.” Human rights abuses don’t sit well with tourism and the international community was slowly waking up to the unsavoury political picture on the islands. On the home front too things were getting sticky for Gayoom. Despite his penchant for criminal repression, civil unrest was growing. A 2004 protest saw 3,000 democracy protesters take to the streets of the capital to demand reform. (On Malé that’s a huge demonstration). Gayoom sent in the riot police – hundreds were arrested and the day became know as ‘Black Friday’. Internationally, he went on the PR offensive, hiring the London PR firm Hill and Knowlton, who were reportedly paid £13,000 a month for their services. Not long after, the move rather back-fired for both Gayoom and his Soho-based advocates, by attracting a whole bunch of bad press for all concerned and drawing even more attention to his regime’s shortcomings.
Modernisers in his own government convinced Gayoom that if he wasn’t careful he’d have a full scale revolution on his hands and he reluctantly agreed to official recognition of other political parties, the MDP being the first. The Asian tsunami of Boxing Day 2004 also brought indirect pressure. It’s hard to ask for international aid when you’re known for imprisoning and murdering your own people. Elsewhere though he continued to stall on constitutional reform and in 2005 Gayoom reverted to old habits. At a demonstration marking the anniversary of Black Friday Gayoom sent police to arrest Nasheed – and subsequently charged him with terrorism (also telling him the loudspeaker he was using to address the crowd was ‘a weapon’). One wonders what Hill and Knowlton had been teaching Gayoom. Surely in the rule book of PR there’s something that says,
“Rule 46: when under the watchful eye of the international community and human rights organisations try not to arrest popular democracy reformers. In particular don’t send a pack of armed police into a large crowd where lots of people have cameras to drag away one unarmed man. It looks bad, trust us. Instead, we suggest a cocktail reception.”
The arrest, unsurprisingly, sparked further public dissent and international observers voiced concerns that Nasheed would not receive a fair trial. It took a nearly a year but in the end Nasheed walked free, in exchange for a promise not to foment revolution. But the revolution had already happened. Despite Gayoom now trying to paint himself as a political reformer (not and easy task when it’s your own rule that needs reforming) Nasheed won the first free presidential election last year.
In a speech earlier this year, Nasheed gave an example of how democracy is slowly taking root:
“One of the first people released after the election was a man who four years ago held a banner calling for the resignation of my predecessor. I urged him to exercise his new found freedoms to hold the government to account. I’m pleased that the fellow has already started his work and has called for my resignation! I am proud to report that there are no political prisoners in the Maldives.”
Other popular moves included destroying the buildings used for detention and torture, and choosing to turn the opulent multi-million dollar presidential palace built by his predecessor over to the judiciary to house a new supreme court. That palace I think is one of the biggest smoking guns when it comes to nailing Gayoom’s ‘evil bonkers dictator’ reputation. The absolute giveaway is the gold plated toilet (pictured below). I mean, come on. If a bullion-encrusted commode doesn’t cry out, “I really am a self serving bastard” what does?
Nasheed and Gayoom may not share an interest in gaudy bathroom furniture, but they do both understand the power of PR, although Nasheed’s a damn sight better at it than Hill and Knowlton. Nasheed is an ex-journalist (it was criticism of Gayoom in his magazine Sangu that first brought him into direct conflict with the previous regime) and has used his media savvy to bring the most pressing problem the Maldives faces to the international stage.
Not one of the 1190 islands that make up the nation is more than six feet above sea level. So as the planet warms and the seas expand the risk is that they’ll be less and less of the Maldives to see. “The challenges facing us are great,” says Nasheed. “I need not rehearse here the statistics relating to climate change. I will simply tell you that if the process continues unchecked my grandchildren will find their island home has disappeared completely under the seas.” In an impassioned speech to the UN assembly he was unequivocal. “It’s crystal clear to us…. If things go business as usual we will not live. We will die. Our country will not exist.”
He has described the Maldives as the equivalent of the ‘canary in the coal mine’ that miners used to help detect build ups of deadly methane and carbon dioxide. (Above certain concentrations of these gases canaries tend to die, hence the analogy of the ‘canary in the coal mine’ as a warning to others that prevails today). Nasheed argues that, “If we cannot save 350,000 Maldivians from rising seas today we cannot save the millions in New York, London or Mumbai tomorrow.” To the world he says, “we are all Maldivians now” and compares his country to Poland in the second world war, ‘a frontline state’ in the global battle against CO2 rise. But Nasheed isn’t a pessimist, instead using the climate challenge problem to position the Maldives as a nation-sized laboratory of change, an example to the world of how we might battle global warming.
“The Maldives is determined to break old habits,” he told the UN. “From now on we will no longer be content to shout about the perils of climate change. Instead we believe our acute vulnerability provides us with the clarity of vision to understand how the problem may be solved.”
Too much of the debate over climate change has been debilitating he argues. “The Kyoto protocol and the current narrative about global climatic change has been about not doing things, about not emitting gas, about not going on holiday, about not having an icecream,” Nasheed told Al Jazeera. “My feeling is this is the wrong way to go about it. We should be demanding we do things, do greener things, invest in renewable energy. Renewable energy is doable, it’s feasible and will give you a handsome return.”
He wants to provide a template, or ‘survival kit’ for other nations. One of his first big announcements upon coming to power was to commit his nation to becoming carbon neutral within 10 years, and I’ve been reliably informed that some concrete announcements will be made concerning this plan in the coming week or two. This might go some way to answering Nasheed’s critics who claim he’s all publicity but has little political substance.
Those same critics will no doubt see tomorrow’s attention grabbing event as another example of a president interested more with publicity than policy. Nasheed will lead the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting, three metres below the waves, complete with a table, national flags and a scuba support team.