Why not manage nature with nature? Artificial Intelligence based in our sense of human and natural processes yields the greatest benefits.
Asteroids. Tsunamis. SARS. For years the news and Hollywood have featured nature out of balance. These events show nature in a variation on the ancient story of defeating the monster, with the ‘monster’ as the perfect storm. And wild weather events on the scale we have seen in the last few years, such as Hurricane Katrina, make the old reptilian nightmares of campfire stories seem positively benign in comparison.
Common views of nature see a fragile imbalance, or as a balance that is hostile to human life. Both views seem to arise out of a Romantic 19th century worldview. On the other hand, 20th century scientific scepticism casts long shadows, not the least of which include idealizing and romanticizing nature as a kind of goddess, while simultaneously acting as if nature were a larder of patents and grain mutations to feed the hungry millions.
Early on in this new century we have experienced wild weather events such as Hurricane Katrina and the South East Asian Tsunami, epidemiological threats in the spectres of SARS and biowarfare, and a new view of nature is slowly being formed out of the cauldron of these emotionally charged events, a new view informed by the fields IT, biotech, and artificial intelligence. But before examining this new view it is good to appreciate the old memes of nature still around.
The old memes of nature are still alive and at work, and have consequences of their own. The ancient views of nature as alien, the Romantic views of nature as fragile, hostile and imbalanced, and the modern views of nature as passively inert and divine all have the same source. All these views are human projections. By projecting these qualities onto nature, we gain some small experience of freedom from those qualities we project.
On the other hand, traditionally nature has been a kind of teacher whereby we became aware of our alien-ness, fragility, aggression, imbalance, apathy and religiosity. But none of these memes necessarily inhere to nature itself. They have their source in humans, and in a collective denial that allows us to treat nature in a wide variety of odd, unpredictable, inconsistent, and destructive ways.
So suppose we own these ‘natural’ qualities ourselves. Where does that leave nature? What characterises nature when we have let go of the above primitive, anthropomorphic and scientific projections? I feel there are two answers to that: one is based in natural scientifically studied processes, and the other based in subjective and experiential qualities.
What processes characterize nature? Is nature the monstrous vortex of a tsunami or hurricane? Is nature the sum harmony and balance of trillions of relationships involving predators and prey, symbioses, and species striving on the fluctuating margin between starvation and population? Is nature ably represented by the notion of homeostasis, where heat and light transfer through life and death into cool and dark via multiple loops of recycling and catchment?
Whatever one’s idea of nature is, it would seem that natural processes themselves continue to prove more subtle than our scientific models at present. Partly this is because our knowledge of physics and biology is so incomplete, and partly this is the problem of modelling. For natural processes to be known they must be mapped to a high granularity; the map must be isomorphic to the territory. Such precision of mapping is something we can suppose an artificial intelligence would excel at.
One final characteristic of nature is the experiential. If one strips away the common projections onto nature, it becomes obvious that a deep human tendency is to project the sense of the Other, alien, strange and uncanny onto nature. This is only sensible: nature is not-human, a non-human intelligence which is literally alien to us, and for much of humankind’s deep past it has been a permanent source of danger and opportunity.
So at the present time we are faced with the mystery of the Other as nature, the inexplicably alien presence of non-human intelligence, and this bears a direct analogy to our relationship to artificial intelligences. A strong AI would be irreducibly strange and alien, a supermind beyond our comprehension, it is said. I would like to suggest that in fact this image of a strong AI is a representation of nature, and that how we comes to terms with nature determines greatly how we may come to terms with a strong AI or posthuman intelligence.
We are unable to bear the strangeness of our own biosphere without in some measure distancing it from us. The key move in human consciousness that allows us to interact with nature is that of turning the real, phenomenal, astonishing direct experience of the natural into a symbol. A symbol of nature makes nature manageable.
At present the Global Positioning System, the Global Information System, and the various early-warning systems act to inform us when disaster is about to erupt. But that is not enough. We need an integrated biological management system, made out of the fabric itself of nature’s systems. The more seamless a system the better: if it runs on light like plants, scavenges forest floors like mammals, scales the canopy and recognises when fruit is in season like primates and birds and other animals, all the better.
If nature has an intelligence in any recognizable sense to us, then it is either inarticulate, or it is us ourselves. That is to say, either we must learn how to translate for our own benefit what nature signifies, or we must find meaning for natural events and processes in the events and processes of nature themselves. And either choice, translating or giving voice to nature, amount to the same thing:
I suggest the first workable AI may be based on nature. And I don’t simply mean biomimicry, although the successful AI may have many such features. I feel that the metaphor of ‘computing’ a living mind is a misnomer: an artificial intelligence may emerge in the same way nature does. In fact, it must do so: our relationship to the Other, to the idea of the outsider or alien, is completely overdetermined by nature itself. The search for life on other planets seems to be stalled at present, perhaps because we cannot yet afford to bear the psychological burden of possible contact with something completely alien to ourselves .
We cannot but create a ‘natural’ artificial intelligence. It is presently beyond our abilities to do otherwise than create a Gaian AI, any more than it is outside our abilities to live far from this planet for any length of time. Earth remains the context and crucible of our efforts. When we have the ability to make an artificial intelligence it cannot but reflect nature and our feelings and attitudes towards the biosphere.
The emergence of artificial intelligence with bio-engineering abilities seems not simply a chance concurrence, but a significant development in our ability to interact with the irreducibly alien realm of nature itself. None of the AI and biotech we can create can diminish the mystery of living processes and systems, but to be successful, AI must augment and give voice to nature. And in a world of unpredictable natural events, an artificial intelligence able to caution and provide insight into nature, represents a symbiosis of the human and the natural that can potentially provide great benefit.