Setting aside the recurrent individual attempts of the stupid empowered primates flapping around like headless chickens, it is clear that human species is now in the process —and very likely at a critical moment in that process— of conquering the Earth. Humanity currently sits at a precipice. Our collective actions clearly have global consequences, but we are not yet in control of those consequences.
Here is a brief update on initiatives and ideas addressing this relevant theme, the evolution of collective intelligence on planet Earth.
Intelligence as a planetary scale process
Adam Frank, David Grinspoon, and Sara Imari Walker analyze how viewing intelligence as a planetary scale process can help us adapt to and learn to harness the changes we are driving for our own long-term sustainability. The appearance of technological intelligence may represent a kind of planetary scale transition. In this way, it might be seen not as something which happens on a planet but to a planet.
Conventionally, intelligence is seen as a property of individuals. However, it is also known to be a property of collectives. Here, we broaden the idea of intelligence as a collective property and extend it to the planetary scale. We consider the ways in which the appearance of technological intelligence may represent a kind of planetary scale transition, and thus might be seen not as something which happens on a planet but to a planet, much as some models propose the origin of life itself was a planetary phenomenon. Our approach follows the recognition among researchers that the correct scale to understand key aspects of life and its evolution is planetary, as opposed to the more traditional focus on individual species. We explore ways in which the concept may prove useful for three distinct domains: Earth Systems and Exoplanet studies; Anthropocene and Sustainability studies; and the study of Technosignatures and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). We argue that explorations of planetary intelligence, defined as the acquisition and application of collective knowledge operating at a planetary scale and integrated into the function of coupled planetary systems, can prove a useful framework for understanding possible paths of the long-term evolution of inhabited planets including future trajectories for life on Earth and predicting features of intelligentially steered planetary evolution on other worlds.Frank, Adam, David Grinspoon, and Sara Walker. ‘Intelligence as a Planetary Scale Process’. International Journal of Astrobiology 21, no. 2 (April 2022): 47–61. https://doi.org/10.1017/S147355042100029X.
Destination Earth (DestinE) is a project launched by the European Commission to develop a fully simulated digital twin of Earth’s climate. It aims to develop – on a global scale – a highly accurate digital model of the Earth to monitor and predict the interaction between natural phenomena and human activities. As part of the European Commission’s Green Deal and Digital Strategy, DestinE will contribute to achieving the objectives of the twin transition, green and digital.
The first stakeholders workshop on DestinE was organized in November 2019 to announce the initiative and collect feedback from potentially interested stakeholders. A public online event was organised on 30 March 2022 to officially launch the initiative in presence of the representatives of the three implementing entities, key stakeholders and general public.
DestinE will be developed gradually through the following key milestones:
- By 2024: Development of the core service platform, the data lake and the first two digital twins on extreme natural events and climate change adaptation.
- By 2027: Further enhancement of the DestinE system and integration of additional digital twins and related services.
- By 2030: A ‘full’ digital replica of the Earth.
With the same idea, NVIDIA announced a similarly ambitious project called Earth-2.
To make our future a reality today, simulation is the answer. To develop the best strategies for mitigation and adaptation, we need climate models that can predict the climate in different regions of the globe over decades.
Unlike predicting the weather, which primarily models atmospheric physics, climate models are multidecade simulations that model the physics, chemistry and biology of the atmosphere, waters, ice, land and human activities. Climate simulations are configured today at 10- to 100-kilometer resolutions.
But greater resolution is needed to model changes in the global water cycle — water movement from the ocean, sea ice, land surface and groundwater through the atmosphere and clouds. Changes in this system lead to intensifying storms and droughts.
Meter-scale resolution is needed to simulate clouds that reflect sunlight back to space. Scientists estimate that these resolutions will demand millions to billions of times more computing power than what’s currently available. It would take decades to achieve that through the ordinary course of computing advances, which accelerate 10x every five years.
Antikythera is a new program to examine the implications of an unfolding radical philosophical event: the emergence of planetary-scale computation.
The Earth is in the process of growing a planetary-scale technostructure of computation — an almost inconceivably vast and complex interlocking system (or system of systems) of sensors, satellites, cables, communications protocols and software. The development of this structure reveals and deepens our fundamental condition of planetarity
To help us understand the implications of this event, the Berggruen Institute is launching a new research program area, in partnership with the One Project foundation: Antikythera, a project to explore the speculative philosophy of computation, incubated under the direction of philosopher of technology Benjamin Bratton.
The purpose of Antikythera is to use the emergence of planetary-scale computation as an opportunity to rethink the fundamental categories that have long been used to make sense of the world: economics, politics, society, intelligence and even the very idea of the human as distinct from both machines and nature. Questioning these concepts has of course long been at the heart of the Berggruen Institute’s research agenda, from the Future of Capitalism and the Future of Democracy, to Planetary Governance, the Transformations of the Human, and Future Humans. The Antikythera program described here exists on its own, but also in dialogue with each of these other areas.
These concepts has of course long been at the heart of the Berggruen Institute’s research agenda, from the Future of Capitalism and the Future of Democracy, to Planetary Governance, the Transformations of the Human, and Future Humans
Benjamin Bratton is a philosopher of technology and professor at University of California, San Diego. He is the author of numerous books, including “The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty” (MIT Press, 2016) and “The Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-Pandemic World” (Verso Press, 2021). With Berggruen Institute, he will be directing a new research program on the speculative philosophy of computation.
One Project is a non-profit initiative working globally with communities to design, implement, and scale new forms of governance and economics that are equitable, ecological, and effective.
The whole proccess is well framed in a speculative paper published by Michael R Gillings, Martin Hilbert and Darrell J Kemp, in Trends in Ecology and Eevolution six years ago, very much in line with the pioneering vision of John Maynard Smith.
Information in the Biosphere
Evolution has transformed life through key innovations in information storage and replication, including: RNA; DNA; multicellularity; culture and language. We argue that the carbon-based biosphere has generated a cognitive system (humans) capable of creating technology that will result in a comparable evolutionary transition. Digital information has reached a similar magnitude to information in the biosphere. It increases exponentially, exhibits high-fidelity replication, evolves through differential fitness, is expressed through artificial intelligence, and has facility for virtually limitless recombination. Like previous evolutionary transitions, the potential symbiosis between biological and digital information will reach a critical point where these codes could compete via natural selection. Alternatively, this fusion could create a higher-level superorganism employing a low-conflict division of labour in performing informational tasks.Gillings, Michael R., Martin Hilbert, and Darrell J. Kemp. ‘Information in the Biosphere: Biological and Digital Worlds’. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 31, no. 3 (2016): 180–89.
Whether we will be an eventually failed plague, or we will actually manage to take over the full resources of the planet is still to be seen.
Featured Image: The Antikythera mechanism (fragment – front and rear), described as the oldest example of an analogue computer (Wikipedia)