Lunch with Mikhail Gorbachev

April 19, 2005 by Ray Kurzweil

With only 53,000 engineering graduates a year compared to Russia’s 200,000, the U.S. needs to “communicate the importance of science in today’s world,” Mikhail Gorbachev told Ray Kurzweil in a luncheon discussion that ranged from blogs to nuclear disarmament and longevity.

On April 12, 2005, Mikhail Gorbachev delivered the keynote address at the annual Spring meeting of the Massachusetts Software Council (MSC), of which I am a board member. He started with reminiscences of his days as the last leader of the Soviet Union. He recalled that his first impression of Ronald Reagan was that he was a "dinosaur," and later heard that Reagan’s first impression of him was that Gorbachev was a "diehard Bolshevik."

A few days after these negative first impression, however, their relationship warmed, and this first Summit produced an arms control agreement expressing for the first time the idea that nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought. He referred to these early efforts as bridges that were built to overcome decades of distrust. The bridges now need renovation, and the remarkable information technology revolution is a key new bridge being built.

He reflected on the perestroika movement that he initiated. He quoted a Chinese prime minister who was asked what the impact of the French revolution had been on China, and responded "too soon to tell." Similarly, we cannot yet judge perestroika, but if he had to answer in a word whether it had won or lost, he would say it had won. "The clock will not be turned back in Russia. . . . We thought we could solve many problems in a short period of time. . .We freed Eastern Europe. . . We settled the animosity with China with a new friendship. . .We built a new relationship of cooperation with the United States."

He recalled how in 1986, he told the Communist Party Congress meeting (his first as leader) that "we are living in an interdependent and interrelated world." He said this was a new idea twenty years ago, but is now an article of faith. It was ten years later, in 1996, that he first heard the word "outsourcing" at an information technology industry conference. He said that Russia and Ukraine are benefiting from the Internet’s ability to create a single world information economy, with a billion dollars of annual information exports and a growth rate of 50 percent.

For a more complete recollection of Gorbachev’s keynote address, see Dan Bricklin’s excellent blog.

Gorbachev received a very enthusiastic standing ovation. There was a private reception, and then a small private lunch. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to sit next to Gorbachev and his long time translator (Pavel Palazchenko). To my right was Dan Bricklin (creator of VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet software), and to his right was Gorbachev’s daughter Irina who runs the Gorbachev Foundation. Also sitting with us at the head table was John Cullinane (software industry pioneer, cofounder of the MSC), Bob Metcalfe (inventor of Ethernet, recent recipient of the National Medal of Technology), George Bell (founder of uPromise, current Chairman of the MSC), Joyce Plotkin (MSC President, who did an outstanding job organizing this historic event), and Monster executives Jeff Taylor and Andy McKelvey.

Here is my recollection of some of our conversation during the 90-minute luncheon:

Ray Kurzweil: You spoke about the role of the technology revolution in building new bridges of understanding. I’m concerned about the difficulty we’re having in this country in attracting our young people into technical careers. I’ve been gathering statistics on this. Ten years ago, we had about 60,000 engineering graduates in the U.S. That figure is now around 53,000. In China, the comparable figure ten years ago was about 10,000, a small fraction of the U.S., but has now soared to over 300,000. There is a similar trend in all scientific areas, and also at the doctoral level. India is much the same. How is this going in Russia?

Mikhail Gorbachev: The figure in Russia is over 200,000 engineering graduates per year.

Ray: So, how are you accomplishing this?

Mikhail: Science has always been an attraction for our talented students. They understand its importance in today’s world, and they value the hard work it represents. We need both engineering and the liberal arts, and the waves of interest in these respectively go up and down.

Ray: How can we do better here?

Mikhail: You have to communicate the importance of science in today’s world.

Ray: You would think that would be obvious. I think the leadership has to come from the top.

Mikhail: Indeed.

Ray: There was a spurt of interest in science careers in the United States about four decades ago that your country was responsible for.

Mikhail: (smiling) Yes, today is the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space, the first person in outer space. We were competitors then, now we work together.

Dan Bricklin: What information technologies do you use?

Mikhail: I use a cell phone, a computer, a laptop, and the Internet, but not email. I do use the web a lot to get information, but generally not search engines. There are newspapers in Russia that are published only on the web, and that have excellent political and social commentary. I read about a dozen of these.

Dan: Kind of like blogs?

Mikhail: They’re not considered blogs, but they are similar. The Internet has a lot of freedom in Russia, and much important journalism and discussion takes place there.

Dan: One of our commentators, Chris Daly, wrote recently that blogs and online journalism play a similar role today as the pamphlets of the United States revolutionary times.

Mikhail: (smiling) Yes, very much so.

Ray: It has been my view that the Internet is a major factor in the democratization we’ve seen in the world over the past fifteen years.

Mikhail: That’s a fair statement.

Ray: My first book, which I wrote in the 1980s, while you were President, talked about how the emerging decentralized electronic communication – fax machines, teletype-based email – would ultimately foster democracy in the Soviet Union.

Mikhail: It was a big factor, to be sure. But today, the Internet also spreads hate.

Ray: Yes, well, technology is always a double-edged sword.

Mikhail: We have to bring the benefits of technology to everyone. The rich-poor divide is getting worse, and poverty in the world underlies much of the instability we see.

Ray: A major source of instability is the rise of fundamentalism. Fundamentalist leaders don’t seem to come from the poor.

Mikhail: The leaders, that’s true. But the support and attraction for fundamentalist and destructive movements is fueled by the despair of poverty.

Ray: There is a lot of attention – appropriate attention to be sure – on nuclear disarmament, but surprising little attention to the fact that the United States and Russia still have these enormous stockpiles of thermonuclear weapons that represent an existential threat to human survival. Despite the apparent friendship of Russia and America, these stockpiles have not been reduced at all.

Mikhail: Yes, it is a tragedy. The U.S. still has a doctrine that allows for the possibility of use of these weapons. A new doctrine is needed that would allow these weapons to be reduced.

Ray: That would certainly move the world in a safer direction, and also inspire the overall nuclear disarmament effort.

Mikhail: Very much so. It would also be good if America would agree to a comprehensive test ban treaty.

Ray: You should discuss this with Putin and Bush.

Mikhail: (smiling) Okay.

Ray: How often do you talk with President Putin?

Mikhail: We talk on occasion, and he listens to my ideas. But he is, of course, an independent thinker and leader. He is a strong supporter of free speech, which I personally benefit from.

Jeff Taylor: What is your view of the Yukos affair?

Mikhail: Well, people should pay their taxes.

Jeff: Do you think the actions against Khodorkovsky were politically motivated?

Mikhail: Really, I don’t. Too many powerful people in Russia have not been paying their taxes, and this situation must be confronted. Khodorkovsky did not make his money from the ground up the way, say, Bill Gates did. He was given the opportunity to take over a public asset, which of course was legal and appropriate. But he is obligated to pay the taxes he owes. The situation has some similarities to your Enron affair.

Ray (after giving Gorbachev an inscribed copy of my book, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, coauthored with Terry Grossman, M.D.): Here’s to your health, so that you can continue to contribute to the world for many decades to come.

Mikhail: (laughing) Oh I think it is too late for me.

Ray: You are very active, no?

Mikhail: Yes, I walk a great deal.

Ray: That’s my main exercise also. That’s the best exercise.

Mikhail: I enjoy an occasional vodka.

Ray: Actually, we recommend moderate use of alcohol, it appears to benefit longevity.

Mikhail: (Smiling) Well, then, maybe I will live a long time.

Ray: I would bet on it.

Dan: As someone who has changed the world, what advice would you give to kids today who want to change the world?

Mikhail: My advice would be to have a dialogue with people, to help overcome prejudice, to build bridges of understanding.

Mikhail’s first toast: I’d like to toast the Massachusetts Software Council and everyone who made this event possible, with thanks for your warmth and hospitality.

Mikhail’s second toast: To the future success of the Russian and American information industries.

Mikhail’s third toast: It is a tradition in our country that the third toast is always for the women. So, to the health of all the lovely women here at the luncheon.

Mikhail’s fourth toast: Only monks and nuns do their thinking alone. We need to communicate our thoughts and work together.

At the end of the lunch, Gorbachev gave warm bear hugs to Dan Bricklin, Joyce Plotkin, and myself, which was an unexpected treat.