Jonathan Ledgard Believes Imagination Could Save the World
In a clearing in rural Somalia, a jihadi commander sat in a white plastic chair, stroking a dik-dik, an antelope the size of a cat. His men escorted two British journalists into the clearing and sat them under an acacia tree. The commander, who had offered safe passage and a rare interview, released the dik-dik, which scuttled off into the bush.
Dik-diks are hard to catch but easy to shoot, and for this reason one of the journalists, Jonathan Ledgard, who was the East Africa correspondent for The Economist, later described the battle against these jihadis, known as the Shabaab, as “the dik-dik war.” The commander began a lecture on the supremacy and fairness of Islamic law, jabbing his finger at the sky. But Ledgard barely noticed; he was looking at the array of mobile phones that the commander had laid out in front of him. It was 2009; the digital world was becoming enmeshed with the physical world, accessible in a place where the environment could hardly sustain human life. “You could receive money through a wire transfer, but you could not keep your child alive,” Ledgard later wrote. He realized that nothing the man had to say—nothing that anyone had to say about the conflict—was as essential to understanding the transformation under way in the region as the fact that the phones had perfect reception.
For fifteen years, Ledgard had been reporting on war and disaster in Latin America, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Africa, while writing novels to settle his mind. He carried two notebooks—red for his reporting notes, blue for thoughts and observations to use in fiction. With each journalistic assignment he grew more interested in the contents of the blue notebooks, and less sure that reporting on the world’s horrors did anything to change them. “I had been looking at the world as if it were cracks in a pavement,” Ledgard told me. “But it’s not about the individual cracks, it’s about the patterns and the networks,” the scale of which eluded the dispatch format.
The world was undergoing an accelerating convergence of technological and environmental trends—you could feel it in Nairobi, Kenya, where Ledgard lived. A little more than a century earlier, the city hadn’t existed; now it had a population of millions, doubling in size every generation, and was home to perhaps the largest urban slum in Africa. “The biggest risk for Africa is the unmet expectations of its youth,” Ledgard wrote, years later. At least fifty per cent of the continent was less than twenty years old. It was the best-educated generation in African history, digitally connected to the rest of the planet, yet the World Bank estimated that seventy-five per cent of sub-Saharan youths would be unable to find a salaried job in the coming years. “They will be easily knocked flat by mishaps or illnesses,” Ledgard continued, and would be prone to recruitment into insurgencies and terrorist groups. It was no coincidence, he thought, that the jihad was most active in the areas already being ravaged by oil extraction and climate change.
New technologies were lifting a nascent class of entrepreneurs and activists, but also enabling predatory regimes to crush them. “Africa rising” was the phrase often heard at conferences in Geneva and New York; “Africa wavering” was Ledgard’s view. Decades of humanitarian aid had not slowed the proliferation of refugee camps, or the surge of migrations across the desert and the sea. Meanwhile, the pace of human development was destroying the natural world faster than scientists could catalogue its systems, much less understand how they fit together. “You don’t have to be a C.I.A. analyst to realize that it doesn’t add up,” he said.
Ledgard saw a brief window for radical changes in sustainability and governance—a couple of decades, perhaps. After that, it seemed clear that no previous conflict or migration would compare to the hell to come. Feedback loops would be set in motion that would transform the earth into an irradiated planet. Already, humans are expected to force more than a million species into extinction, and, by 2050, to fill the oceans with a greater mass of plastic than there is of fish. In interviews, Ledgard started pressing politicians, consultants, businessmen—anyone with power—to devise strategies for a more equitable, sustainable future. “But I just wasn’t getting any answers,” he told me.
The most exciting thinking about the near future was taking place on the fringes of the tech sector, among people who worked on networks and artificial intelligence. “There is no room for techno-utopianism in our bare-fisted future,” Ledgard wrote. But if there were a way to counter the scale and pace of human depredations, he thought, it would come out of the laboratories and companies whose creations were enabling it.
In 2012, Ledgard quit his job, moved to Switzerland, and began a fellowship at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, one of Europe’s best research institutes. “It was very important to me to be in an almost autistically scientific environment,” he said—not “hanging around with political scientists or economists or anthropologists and having the usual conversations, learning nothing.” He pinned photographs of a Nokia 1100 and a Kalashnikov next to his desk, as reminders of why he was there.
For the first two years, Ledgard sat through hundreds of lectures by theoretical physicists, computer scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, and forced himself to read abstracts of scientific and philosophical papers on subjects that he could barely grasp. “My brain started moving in these completely different and much richer directions,” he said, sparking “a series of progressive realizations that the world that I thought I understood is not at all the world as it is.”
In time, Ledgard refashioned himself as both an evangelist of radical thinking and a prophet of specific doom. He won’t tell you that the world is ending; he’ll just present the charts that show you how. “The only possible thing to do is to go in an imaginative direction,” he told me. “Imagination at scale is our only recourse.” This approach has led him into collaborations with an array of famous partners—the British architect Norman Foster, the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson—on projects that range from practical and humanitarian to fanciful and abstract. The world, according to Ledgard and his collaborators, might stand a chance if cargo drones delivered goods in the roadless areas of East Africa; if sentient robots were curious about the natural world; if people could immerse themselves in the sights and sounds of the deepest parts of the ocean; if plants and animals could pay people for the cost of their preservation. “I’m not sure if this is a real project or I’m trying to write a novel in the natural world,” Ledgard told me, referring to the last of these ideas.
Ledgard knows how fantastical his projects can sound. “You have to acknowledge that the probability of success is vanishingly small,” he said. “But if just one of these ideas came off in the next twenty years, in some form, and in a really significant way—and it improved the lives of poor people, or helped save other life-forms from extinction—then that would be really worth your time.” He added, “My main point is to move the conversation in a more imaginative direction.”
“You get visionaries, you get dreamers, but Jonathan is also a realist, and intensely practical,” Norman Foster told me. “Perhaps that’s why there has been so much common ground between us. In the end, architecture is projecting imagination to realize a tangible project.” Each of Ledgard’s projects appears to be animated by a single question: What if human greed could be harnessed as a kind of natural resource, and redirected to mitigate its own effects?
Ledgard was born in the Shetland Islands, off Scotland, in 1968. His father was a military chaplain, and, when Ledgard was four, the family moved to a base in Germany. But he spent his teen-age summers in the Shetlands, and came to know a group of retired whalers there. They would “sail to Antarctica, South Georgia, Montevideo, San Francisco, Cape Town, Valparaiso,” he recalled. “And then they’d come back. They were amazing, in that they had seen the world, but also they were so comfortable with not seeing the world. In a way, they were global citizens before globalization kicked into the jetliner age.” Ever since, he said, “I’ve always been someone who just longs to be everywhere and nowhere.”
Somewhere between boarding school in London and journalism everywhere else, he lost his Scottish accent. He is married to a Czech diplomat named Marta Anna. Avvy, their Brittany spaniel, responds to commands in English, French, and Czech. So does their fourteen-year-old son, Hamish, who has attended schools in Nairobi, Lausanne, and Prague, and recently accompanied his father on a trip to Papua New Guinea, to look at dugong, vegetarian sea cows. (Ledgard has also helped bring up Marta Anna’s three children from a previous marriage.)
One day in Lausanne, it occurred to Ledgard that “we have no word to describe the volumetric space in the sky. What we see is what is on it, like stage scenery.” In other words, “the sky above Sudan is stacked with virtual Sudans”—vast, empty, unused. Then came an epiphany: just as the arrival of mobile-phone networks had allowed Africa to avoid constructing expensive landlines, there might be a way to use this empty space to bypass the continent’s paltry system of roads.
Most roads in Africa were built by colonial powers, for the extraction of natural resources, and so they connect villages to capitals, and capitals to ports, and hardly take into account the desire of a community to trade over the next hill. Only half of the population live within a mile of a functional road. Deliveries of blood to rural health centers are slow and unreliable; refrigerated medicines go bad before they arrive.
An answer, Ledgard thought, was drones. Commercial drones can’t carry payloads of more than a few pounds, but that will soon change. Ledgard worried more about designing the infrastructure for what he calls droneports, from which cargo drones could one day be charged, loaded, launched, and repaired. A disconnected fax machine is useless; as a node on a larger network of fax machines, however, it achieves something close to magic. “It’s got to work in a way that ordinary people can get some meaningful value from it in their own lives,” he said.
“One thing to kill early on is this Silicon Valley idea of disruption,” Ledgard went on. “I don’t want to disrupt everything. I just want to add new solutions. You need motorbikes. You need lorries. You need boats, you need cars, you need trains, you need planes. But maybe a fleet of flying robots is a good idea as well.”
Ledgard started mapping out fifty-mile routes that would connect populated but remote areas in Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania. (He estimated fifty miles as the distance that a cargo drone could reliably travel on a single charge.) The droneports would begin operating in three stages, in the next decade. The first would provide deliveries of small quantities of blood, vaccines, and other urgent medicines. In stage two, droneports would make up a courier system to transport crucial documents and goods between government offices, mines, oil-and-gas installations, ranches, and conservancies. Then commercial droneports would begin to emerge, connecting industrial zones to city centers. From this, eventually, local economies could spring to life. “Wherever you have impecunious young people ubiquitously connected to the internet, e-commerce is desperate to happen,” Ledgard wrote in a concept manifesto.
To design the droneports, Ledgard reached out to Norman Foster, whom he had profiled for The Economist, and whose work includes the Apple Park, in Cupertino, and the Beijing airport. Foster is an accomplished pilot, and had been flying drones with his adolescent son in Central Park. “You’ve designed the world’s largest airports,” Ledgard said to him, in 2013. “Want to design the smallest?”
The first droneport had to be uncomplicated and inexpensive, constructed with local materials, and able to withstand wild fluctuations between the rainy seasons and the dry. Foster also wanted it to be beautiful. He sketched an arched vault—strong, elegant, easily replicated. The renderings included a health clinic, a fabrication shop, a post office, a trading hub, and a garage for manufacturing and repairing drones, to insure that the droneport would “become part of local community life,” Foster wrote, in a design pitch for African governments, released through his charitable foundation.
Foster began lecturing on the droneport concept at universities all over the world, and constructed a prototype at the Venice Biennale. Meanwhile, Ledgard returned to Central and East Africa, to solicit advice from politicians, entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, and local traders. One night, in northern Kenya, he tried to explain the concept to a Samburu elder. At first, the man struggled to conceive of an autonomous flying robot. But, after a few minutes, he leaned back and smiled, and said, “I see! You want to put my donkey in the sky.” Exactly, Ledgard replied. “The qualities of a donkey are similar to what is required for a cargo drone: surefooted, dependable, intelligent, able to deal with dust and heat; cheap, uncomplaining.”
The adoption of Ledgard’s vision would require the backing of many of the same government officials who, in the aftermath of colonialism, had enriched themselves but failed to build functional roads. And so, for reasons that he recalled as “pragmatic, really, and cynical,” he decided to start with Rwanda. “It’s that I knew the President quite well,” he said—another benefit of his journalistic past.
Paul Kagame, whose band of rebel soldiers brought an end to the Rwandan genocide, became the country’s President in 2000. Since then, he has distinguished himself in the region for his future-minded approach, with strong health and education sectors, and more women than men in the legislature. These policies have seduced international organizations and brought investors to Rwanda, even as his regime has detained street children and other “undesirables,” and his political opponents have wound up in prison or dead. In 2014, at the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Ledgard suggested to Kagame that Rwanda could transform the perception of drones from that of flying robots that deliver missiles to one of flying robots that deliver lifesaving materials. Kagame embraced the idea, and two years later a Silicon Valley startup called Zipline began flying blood to health facilities in remote areas, as part of a governmental fleet.
For Ledgard, the result was mixed; a leader had acted on his idea, but he found it troubling that Zipline operated under Kagame’s authority. “It needs to be a civilian project, at its core,” Ledgard told me. In nearby countries, young people came up with new applications for drone mapping and photography, but Ledgard struggled to get African leaders to adopt his droneport concept. “I’m not a politician or a regulator, and I’m not an engineer or an entrepreneur,” he said. “It’s up to them to test it in the real world, and scale it—if it makes sense.”
Another obstacle lay in opening up fragile countries to new challenges in safety and security. In the Middle East, jihadi groups have attached explosives to commercial drones, and deployed them in swarms against their foes. “You are opening your window to get fresh air,” a Tanzanian aviation official said. “But sometimes insects might come.” Ledgard has stressed the importance of government protection for droneports, at a level somewhere between that of a post office and an airport. As for accidents, “fear of drones falling out of the sky should be set against the carnage on African roads,” he said. The continent has three per cent of the world’s motor vehicles but accounts for eighteen per cent of the world’s road deaths.
Several years ago, Ledgard tried to organize an event called the Flying Donkey Challenge, in which drone manufacturers would compete to transport goods around the perimeter of Mt. Kenya, the second-tallest peak in Africa. The event was backed by the École Polytechnique and the Swiss government, and planned to include, Ledgard said, participants from Amazon, Alibaba, and DHL. But the threat of the Shabaab in Kenyan territory was growing, and Kenya’s intelligence agency shut down the event. Soon afterward, the government issued a multiyear ban on commercial drones.
One afternoon last October, Ledgard stood at the edge of a disused railroad track in Mwanza, Tanzania’s second-largest city, on the banks of Lake Victoria. To his left was Bismarck Rock, a striking geological formation named for Germany’s first Chancellor. (From 1885 until the end of the First World War, Tanzania was part of German East Africa.) To Ledgard’s right was a rusting ferry, which had been built in Scotland, then chopped up, exported to Kenya, and reassembled at the edge of the lake in 1961, when Tanzania was part of the British Empire. Nearby, women grilled fish and vegetables over open fires and shooed away marabou storks—hideous, ill-tempered carnivores with rotten bills and stringy, matted feathers.
Ledgard has the wiry, athletic build of a man who hates to be inside; outside, he bounds forward with eager steps, legs slightly bowed, shoulders hunched. He is mostly bald, with a rim of white stubble, and prone to sunburn. He inhaled deeply, and said, “This was always the dream: to connect Lake Victoria.” The largest freshwater body in Africa, Lake Victoria has more than four thousand miles of jagged shoreline, belonging to Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Some thirty million people live in settlements on the periphery, in structures ranging from glass skyscrapers, in Kampala, to mud huts, on islands where there is no electricity. The lake is twice the size of Belgium, but it is overfished and filled with deadly parasites.
That night, on the lawn of a lakeside resort, Ledgard met with Edward Anderson, a senior technology and development specialist at the World Bank. In 2014, Anderson recalled, he had noticed “an explosion in the variety and capability of small drones,” at a time when most countries in Africa had no regulations. “It was a bit of a Wild West scenario.”
“Moving blood, moving medicine—it’s a good start,” Ledgard said. “But the scaling is really going to kick into gear when it becomes cheap enough to move around everyday things.” Battery technology hasn’t advanced as quickly as Ledgard had thought it would, when he wrote his manifesto; five years later, cargo drones lack the power-to-weight ratio required to lift heavy loads.
Anderson said that he’d just met a livestock geneticist who wanted to use drones to transport “élite semen” to cattle farms in remote areas in Kenya. “Yes, he’s all about artificial intelligence for artificial insemination,” Ledgard replied. “In the way that the Internet was lifted by porn, cargo drones will be lifted by khat,” the stimulant leaf that’s ubiquitous in parts of Africa and the Middle East.
Anderson raised a glass of beer and slumped in his chair. He had first sought out Ledgard in 2016, “to get his insight, advice, and, ideally, blessing on how to revive the Flying Donkey Challenge,” he said. Now, after years of coördinating with Tanzanian officials, Anderson and his colleagues had organized the Lake Victoria Challenge, the world’s first drone-infrastructure conference. Part lecture series, part sales pitch, it would bring together entrepreneurs and experts in development, regulation, governance, security, infrastructure, and technology from across Africa, as well as from Silicon Valley. Ledgard, its guiding spirit, would deliver the keynote address. Foreign drone companies would run their wares through a gantlet of trials, carrying objects between the mainland and nearby islands, in competition for contracts. “Now that it’s entering the real world, I think there are better people than me to push it to the next level,” Ledgard told me. The full event was planned for the following year; a rehearsal would begin at dawn.
I ate breakfast on a patio at the Hotel Tilapia, a few feet from the lake. Suddenly, there was a rush of air, and a hawk swooped down and snatched a crêpe off my plate. A few minutes later, another raptor relieved my fork of some bacon, halfway to my mouth, and flung scrambled eggs onto my pants. The assault brought sympathetic laughter from a group of Rwandan Civil Aviation Authority officials sitting nearby. Maréchal Gasana, an elegantly dressed regulations officer, gestured toward an empty chair. After Ledgard’s meeting with Kagame, Gasana and his colleagues had drafted the first commercial-drone regulations on the continent, a model for other countries looking to “leapfrog into the future,” as he put it.
“It was very complicated, because we have so many mountains,” Gasana told me. “We have to make sure that drones are flying not just at the right altitude but in relation to the shape of the ground.” Today, two drone companies are operational in Rwanda—Zipline, for medical deliveries, and Charis, a domestic company, for surveying land and tracking crop yields. “The biggest challenge that we are facing is scalability,” Gasana continued. “We’ve seen all the benefits, but the question is, how can we manage thirty or fifty times as many operations?”
On the lawn of the Malaika, Mwanza’s grandest hotel, European and American drone manufacturers showed off their concept vehicles. In Rwanda, Zipline drones deliver blood packs, medicine, and vaccines as a one-way service; launched from a motorized slingshot, they travel to remote health facilities, drop a cardboard box tethered to a tiny parachute, and return to the launch area, where they are brought down with a wire trap. Their inability to land means that doctors at remote health centers cannot send back lab samples or biopsies. At the Malaika, the prototypes were largely V.T.O.L. drones—vertical takeoff and landing. Perhaps the most arresting one was the Wingcopter 178, a German contraption with a six-foot wingspan and a tilt-rotor mechanism that can transition between vertical takeoff and fixed-wing flight. Ansgar Kadura, a founder and the chief operating officer of Wingcopter, told me, “We’ve already been here in Mwanza for six months,” conducting test flights to an island called Ukerewe. By ferry and motorcycle, delivery from Mwanza to Ukerewe, around the perimeter of the lake, takes between four and six hours. The Wingcopter costs seventy-five thousand dollars, but it can transport a payload of up to thirteen pounds across the water in about forty minutes, soaring along a preprogrammed flight path, before rotating the propellers and lowering itself to the ground.
Kadura and members of the other drone teams had travelled to Mwanza in part to compete in a race from the Malaika to Juma, a small island without electricity about ten miles west. But the race was cancelled, because the hardware for the traffic-management system had been lost in transit from Amsterdam, and without it the Tanzanian authorities wouldn’t allow drones to fly beyond the line of sight. The drone operators stood next to some of the most advanced nonmilitary aircraft on earth, while, at Mwanza’s international airport, which had no radar system, air-traffic controllers peered out of a second-floor window to track incoming planes.
By now, it had become apparent that the legacy of colonialism affected every step of this process. Representatives of Western companies, N.G.O.s, and U.N. agencies—wary of criticizing African leaders in an environment imbued with historical exploitation and contemporary guilt—spoke of the absence of roads and other systems in East Africa as if the situation were in no way the responsibility of the officials in the room. Broken roads, no roads, sinking ferries, urban flooding, cholera; drones could photograph the problem, map it, deliver small items—as long as the governments didn’t object.
A Swiss construction expert noted, with an exasperated shrug, “The supply chain for these drones is controlled by fancy Western companies, toting around carbon-fibre frames. And the international community will make them rich,” pouring aid and development funds into flying machines that, for all their advantages, could put motorcycle deliverymen out of business. He added that only Ledgard and Foster’s droneport concept was exempt from this critique, because it was conceived as an organic network, for locals to use as they saw fit. “The last thing you want to do is disrupt the local motorcycle-delivery guy, picking up from the fixed droneport location and delivering on the last mile,” Ledgard said. “But the middle mile—when you want to get over a mountain or a lake—that’s where it can get very exciting.”
Maréchal Gasana, the Rwandan regulatory official, also had cost in mind. “In Italy, they have roads that are two thousand years old, built by the Romans, but we are trying to meet the needs of a population that has never had anything,” he said. “So if I am given the option of building one kilometre of road that will last two thousand years, or taking the Chinese contract that will build a thousand kilometres of road that will last five years, plus two hospitals, that’s the offer we are going to take.”
A hawk stole another tourist’s breakfast. Gasana was reminded of a video he had seen, in which a carbon-fibre V.T.O.L. drone falls out of the sky. “It broke my heart,” he said. “I was thinking of it in terms of houses. In my village—seventy-five thousand dollars? That’s two houses.”
The next morning, the World Bank rented both of the speedboats in Mwanza to take a couple of dozen Lake Victoria Challenge participants, who had signed up for the conference’s “Infrastructure Track,” to Juma Island. Guided by Ledgard, the group set out to identify a good location for a droneport, and to evaluate how it might contribute to the economy, which relies mostly on fishing. I sat in the back, in a growing puddle, with the Swiss construction expert and Steve Kemp, the livestock geneticist. “Artificial insemination is ludicrously complex, cumbersome work!” Kemp shouted, above the roar of the engines. “If you want to do an insemination well, you’ve only got a few hours!”
The boats pulled up to Juma’s eastern shore, where L.V.C. representatives had set up fences and chairs and awnings. Islanders stood at the periphery. One of them held up a carp by its gills, and smiled, as visitors snapped photos with their phones. Ledgard, who had visited the island a year earlier, asked participants to be “very gentle and respectful of everyone on the island,” but it seemed an inherent violation for such a large delegation of mostly white strangers to wander around.
We set off through a lush grove of banana trees, past goats and chickens, into a village of mud-and-concrete huts, where Ledgard stepped into a tiny shop selling batteries, toiletries, snacks, and cheap plastic goods from China. With the help of Freddie Mbuya, a Tanzanian entrepreneur who helped organize the L.V.C., Ledgard started interviewing the shopkeeper, who was twenty years old. After several minutes, the man became agitated. “What he is saying is being said repeatedly in places all over Tanzania, and I’m sure all over Africa,” Mbuya explained. “You guys came last time and you said that these drones will bring medicine. He hasn’t seen any medicine. Now you’re coming in and saying these drones are going to be bringing other things.” He added that, because we had spent time inside his shop, his neighbors will ask him about the World Bank’s plans for the island, and will assume that he’s been paid. “I think he’s a hundred per cent right—we should be able to tell him why we’re here,” Mbuya continued. “What can he go and tell the islanders?”
“We’re a group who are looking at building a small structure near the school and the clinic,” Ledgard said. “It will take some years. You have to be understanding that this is a new technology. It’s not going to change anyone’s life straightaway, but it can be a useful service.”
The shopkeeper nodded but looked dissatisfied. “It actually makes me extremely uncomfortable as a Tanzanian, because I think he’s asking the right questions,” Mbuya told me later. He used to be a full-time consultant for the World Bank, where he often found himself promising short-term solutions to intractable issues. “If I were someone else, I would be slamming the person in my role, really hard,” Mbuya said.
Back at the staging area, the L.V.C. delegation ate boxed lunches while islanders watched from the other side of the fence. Then we piled into the boats and returned to Mwanza, to compare notes at the Malaika. No one from Juma was present for the discussion about how to connect the island to its own future.
On Juma, Ledgard had learned that fishermen sell a sardine-like fish called dagaa by the bucket, while the middlemen who transport and sell the fish to Mwanza sell them by the kilogram. The fishermen of Juma don’t know the price per kilo, and couldn’t tell him how many kilos were in a bucket, because they didn’t have a scale. “So, obviously, the droneport will need a weigh station,” Ledgard said. “What is going out is, essentially, fish. And what is coming in is cash, spare parts, postal delivery.”
A young Rwandan entrepreneur objected, saying, “If you mentioned all that in the Rwandan context, the government would not allow you to do it. It is against the vision of the country. We are encouraging zero paperwork, zero cash—it’s all mobile money, mobile banking.” He added, “When you are looking at earliest-use cases, you quickly want to run them through the strategic direction that the country has.”
“You’re too Rwandan,” Ledgard replied. “Tanzania does not have a strategic direction.” For Ledgard, the fact that the L.V.C. trial had taken place was itself a miracle. For all its tonal and logistical challenges, he saw it as a potentially transformational event, whose effects might spread throughout the region as participants from neighboring countries returned home. But, months later, the Tanzanian government still hasn’t set aside any land for the construction of a droneport, and has blocked the full L.V.C. event from taking place until at least 2021. “The conversation with Mwanza is off, indefinitely,” Anderson, of the World Bank, told me. “We’re relocating the next phase to Lake Kivu, in Rwanda.”
At the Malaika, the Infrastructure Track group pondered heady questions. “What is the role of architecture?” an American architecture professor asked. “What is the iconographic identity that we can achieve through some kind of performative structure? What are the values that we can chase?”
“Design is the problem,” another said.
“Maybe droneport is the wrong name.”
“Maybe we can call it a ‘drone place’?”
Ledgard laughed—he and Foster had rigorously addressed these questions five years before, although he didn’t point this out to the group. The hours ticked by. Someone proposed that the group name the droneport Mtego, because, he said, “I learned today that it means ‘net’ in Swahili. And this will capture wealth, and it will be networked.” A Spanish L.V.C. organizer wrote “M-T-E-G-O” on a whiteboard, in blue marker. In fact, mtego means “trap.”
Two days later, Ledgard and I left Mwanza for Nairobi, with a brief fuel stop at Kilimanjaro. From there, he would continue to Marseille, to consult with the theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli on the shape and meaning of time, and then to Prague, where, for the past two years, Ledgard has served as a visiting professor at the Czech Technical University’s Center on Artificial Intelligence. In transit, I reread “Submergence,” Ledgard’s second novel, which was published in 2011. It depicts a love affair between a deep-ocean biologist and a spy, but it’s really Ledgard’s attack on shortsighted politics and an ode to our sickly, fading earth. A favorable review in the Times called it “obsessed with unexplored depths, whether of self, of world conflict or of the ocean.” Kathryn Schulz, writing in New York, called it “the best novel I’ve read so far this year,” and compared Ledgard’s prose to that of John le Carré, Anne Carson, and W. G. Sebald.
In the book, James More, a British intelligence officer who lives in Kenya, is Ledgard the reporter, a man who has “a flaw in him that urged him to catalogue rather than to enjoy,” Ledgard writes. “He was tasking agents to infiltrate mosques in Somalia and along the Swahili coast,” places where you could work out how many people lived in a settlement by the number of plastic bags on the trees. Danielle Flinders, the biologist, is Ledgard today: “She was trying to understand the pullulating life in the dark parts of the planet at a time when, up above, mankind was itself becoming a swarm and setting off in ever more artfully constructed but smaller and more mindless circles.”
James is captured by jihadis in Somalia, and faces execution—but it is Danielle who puts into perspective the fragility of life itself. “We exist only as a film on the water,” she explains. Life on earth began in the deep, and the search for extraterrestrial life continues in the oceans of distant moons. “We’re nature’s brief experiment with self-awareness,” she says. “Any study of the ocean and what lies beneath it should serve notice of how easily the planet might shrug us off.”
Since “Submergence” came out, Ledgard has been working with Olafur Eliasson to broadcast the sights and sounds of the deep ocean in a gallery, to show that “there is another world in our world,” which is vast and fragile, and largely unknown. As we drove through Nairobi, during a layover, Ledgard gestured in the direction of the Great Rift Valley, the site of many of the oldest known human remains. “Early humans walked out of that place seventy thousand, maybe eighty thousand years ago—an incredibly short period of time, compared to microbial life,” he said. Now we’re choking the planet.
According to a United Nations study, humans have “severely altered” two-thirds of the earth’s marine environment. Each decade, we lose ten per cent of the world’s sea-grass meadows and dump some four billion tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge, and other industrial wastes into the world’s waters. “If this was happening in a science-fiction world we would see it clearly for what it is, but we don’t because it’s happening here and now. It’s obscured by the money someone is making off it,” Danielle says. “If man had a sense of proportion, he would die of shame.”
In Czech, the phrase jdi do Prčice literally means “go to Prčice,” but it is widely understood as an affectionate way of saying “get lost” or “go fuck yourself.” Ledgard, who has a weekend house near Prčice, says he does much of his best thinking on walks in the Czech countryside, and it was on one of his outings, last year, that he had “a eureka moment.” Many of the planet’s biodiversity-rich areas happen to be in cash-poor places. What if endangered species could, in effect, pay local communities for their own protection? Might it be possible to store value in a pear tree in Tajikistan, or in a chimpanzee in Uganda’s Albertine Rift?
Last November, in Prague, he presented this idea at Avast, an artificial-intelligence and cybersecurity firm, before Ondrej Vlcek, the C.E.O., and a team of computer scientists. “Many species are at risk of local extinction because they have no independent means to change their financial value,” Ledgard explained. The goal, he said, is to “pick a local species that is threatened with extinction, give it some financial agency in the world, and then work out how the value that it holds can be distributed to the local human community.” He named the project Linnaeus, for the Swedish botanist who devised the taxonomic system.
“Why not kill the animal when you’re hungry?” an engineer asked.
“Essentially, what you want is for these communities to start realizing that they have significant, positive financial value from living next to a biodiverse area,” Ledgard replied. “But to do that you would have to provide more value than they’re presently getting from short-term, day-to-day activities, like cutting down trees for charcoal,” or killing gorillas for meat. If Linnaeus were implemented, he explained, “very large numbers of humans would give small amounts of money into a mechanism which then apportions it hyperlocally, to species that need it most”; as an endangered population grew in health and number, so, too, would the amount of money distributed to the local human community.
“It’s crazy, but it might work,” an Avast employee said.
“How committed are you, personally, to this?” Vlcek, the C.E.O., asked.
“Oh, a hundred per cent!”
“So this is all you’re doing?”
“Well, eighty per cent,” Ledgard replied. “My modus operandi is to think of crazy ideas, and then to try to lift them, in a very early stage.”
“A number of crazy ideas? Because this one is crazy enough to keep you busy for many years,” Vlcek said. “What’s in it for you? Why are you doing this?”
“I don’t want to get to 2050, when Elon Musk and his libertarian chums are eating dog food on Mars, and then for them to look back on Earth and see that we’ve lost fifty per cent of our life-forms,” Ledgard replied. “There’s a significant minority—or maybe a majority—of human beings who are biophiliac. They like living things. And that hasn’t been priced correctly.”
A few months later, Ledgard called me to say that he had refined the concept to focus on the promotion of insect life on European farms. “Jonathan, like all of us—his greatest strength is also, paradoxically, his weakness,” Foster told me. “And that is his ability to go from one great idea to another, and to another, and to another.”
In recent years, Ledgard’s fixations have converged in the field of artificial intelligence. No other technological development is likely to so dramatically accelerate the future, especially if computer scientists achieve what is known as “singularity”—the point at which an artificially intelligent network escapes human control. Some futurists worry about robots taking over; Ledgard is more concerned that artificial intelligence is being crafted in the image of the modern corporate élite, obsessed with the generation of capital and uninterested in the natural world. “If you’re not recorded in the book of data, then you cease to have importance,” Ledgard explained.
Already, humans have accelerated the rate of global species extinction by a factor of “tens or hundreds of times” more than in the previous ten million years, according to the United Nations. The biologist and theorist Edward O. Wilson writes, in “Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life,” from 2016, “Humanity is losing the race between the scientific study of global biodiversity and the obliteration of countless still unknown species.”
Yet the studies that have been carried out make it clear that, in both the digital and the natural realms, “there are ways of seeing and ways of understanding which are superior to the ways that humans see and understand,” Ledgard said. Wilson writes in another of his books, “Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge,” from 1998, that “we have even uncovered basic senses entirely outside the human repertory. Where humans detect electricity only indirectly by a tingling of skin or flash of light, the electric fishes of Africa and South America” transmit and receive electrical signals through their skin. Butterflies search for pollen by reading the pattern of ultraviolet rays that are reflected off petals; bats hunt by broadcasting ultrasonic pulses and reading the echoes that bounce off the bodies of insects.
“If you look intensely at something, it becomes magical, it attains an importance and a character,” Ledgard said. A superintelligent digital entity would be able to look more intensely at everything, and so it might develop a greater awe of the intricacies of the natural world. But it might also miss the mark, morally. As the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom wrote, in his 2003 paper “Ethical Issues in Advanced Artificial Intelligence,” it “seems perfectly possible to have a superintelligence whose sole goal is something completely arbitrary, such as to manufacture as many paperclips as possible, and who would resist with all its might any attempt to alter this goal.” Or, if the Internet had its way, the superintelligent entity might be taught to prioritize the existence of cute animals, like mice—which falcons eat—and thus bring about extinction for falcons. “We need to be careful about what we wish for from a superintelligence, because we might get it,” Bostrom writes.
Last year, Ledgard teamed up with Federico Díaz, a Czech-Argentine conceptual artist, to imagine how an artificially intelligent robot would conceive of the natural world around it. On a long walk, about fifteen miles outside Prague, they spotted a wild boar tearing through a farmer’s field. It struck Ledgard that this ugly, stinking beast is exactly the kind of creature that might be left out of the digital future. “Wild boar live very proximate to humans, but no one really thinks about them much, except to kill them,” Ledgard said between slurps of pea soup, when we met in Prague. He and Díaz started tracking a group of boar, sleeping in a field among them. They learned that wild boar dig circular pits in the ground. “Fedé is a very romantic guy—he had this idea that the boar were looking for something existential,” Ledgard told me. “This wafting smell of the earth, this energy—that they’re looking out to the stars and digging around. Then we spoke to the gamekeeper, and he said, ‘What? No, they’re in it for meat. They want worms and mice.’ ”
Ledgard and Díaz intend to create an immersive art exhibit where visitors would become disoriented by shifting perspectives—between that of the boar and that of the machine intelligence—and begin to question the human tendency to rely on visual sight over the other senses. To Ledgard, collaboration with artists is as urgent as that with scientists. “The questions that various artists have been asking—maybe forever!—are really fundamental questions, which machine-intelligence engineers are only just beginning to ask themselves,” he said. “What is it to have a body? What is it to have a sense of touch? How are you orientated in space?” Ledgard and Díaz concede the impossibility of the task at hand. “We know something about boars through videos and books, hunters and zoologists,” Díaz said. “But I am like a child—I know nothing about the language of the boars. And then, if we are talking about A.I., we are in prenatal times.”
“We are two humans trying to imagine what is a boar, and what is machine intelligence, and how would they think about each other,” Ledgard said. The theme echoes Ledgard’s first novel, “Giraffe,” from 2006, which is partly written from the perspective of a Kenyan giraffe, which ends up being killed in Czechoslovak captivity during the Soviet era. “We know that what we are doing is stupid and forlorn. But we also know that it’s important and beautiful.”
Díaz objected: “I wouldn’t say stupid, I would say naïve.”
“Naïve—better word,” Ledgard agreed. “It’s this idea that maybe—and weirdly—in 2060 the machine intelligence will look back and say, ‘Oh, this was one of the first very, very clumsy, naïve attempts to think of what I might think about!’ ”
That night, Ledgard and I drove a half hour southwest, to a village called Mezouň. It was nine o’clock, and Díaz had arranged for a local hunter, a large, middle-aged Czech named Martin, to lead us into the woods.
Martin parked at the edge of a small field, thick with weeds. It was surrounded by forest but close enough to the highway that you could hear the sounds of passing cars. “When we started this project, we were trying to escape the human element,” Ledgard said. “But we’ve come to really appreciate that humans have meshed the entire world. Here is an animal that lives around us. It’s not domestic, but it’s not truly wild, either.” Against the night sky—which showed the lights in Prague—you could make out the black silhouette of a wooden hunting tower.
“There is a group of thirty to forty boar that lives in this patch of forest,” Martin explained. He gestured toward the tower, adding, “I killed one this morning, at seven o’clock.” Then he climbed into his truck and drove off.
Dead leaves and acorns tumbled through the crisp autumn air. Ledgard and Díaz climbed the hunting tower, but after a few minutes Díaz insisted that they leave. “I think we will not see anything, because we are in the spot of the shooter,” he said, and the boar would be mourning Martin’s kill.
Ledgard got down, and began traipsing through the forest, leaving Díaz behind. He came across muddy pits where the boar had foraged for mice and acorns, and parts of trees whose bark had been rubbed off by boar. “Boy, that’s a strong smell,” he said. “Sweat, berries, mice, rotting acorns, shit.”
There was the yellow glint of an eye, roughly forty feet away. A large female boar stared at Ledgard for a few seconds, then turned, snuffling, and darted off. After a few minutes of silence, at least a dozen boar rustled past, very close, hidden amid the darkness and the trees. “If you see them, it’s about you,” Ledgard whispered. “But if you can just smell and hear them it’s about them.”
This was quintessential Ledgard: inquisitive, strange, striving for stillness and invisibility—the better to spend time among aggressive and skittish creatures, and make sense of them to a mostly incurious world. I had come to think of him as a man who probably won’t save the planet but at least has the audacity to try.
Ledgard and I returned to the car close to midnight. We were covered to the ankles with boar droppings. We drove with the windows down, and stopped at a gas station, on the outskirts of Prague, where we took turns blasting our feet with a power washer. “The closer you get, the harder you try to see the boar as a creature, the more you realize that you don’t have the empathy to do so,” Ledgard said, laughing.
In his darkest moments, Ledgard has the “somewhat creepy” fantasy that advances in artificial intelligence may actually serve as a kind of evolutionary correction to the depredations of humanity. The best hope for the natural world might look something like Nick Bostrom’s paper-clip problem, but morally intact: that before we render the earth completely uninhabitable we will create a superintelligent entity that recognizes the value of life itself, and so begins to ruthlessly prioritize the preservation of life in its most essential forms—the microbes, the fungi, the flora, the jellies and salps pulsing in the oceans’ blackest deep. A digital intervention to mitigate the Anthropocene. Another chance for earth, without us. ♦