AI Is The Key To Planetary Self-Awareness

The response to anthropogenic climate change will need to be equally anthropogenic.

Anna Bu Kliewer for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Back in the 1950s, the paleontologist, philosopher and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin foresaw an evolution of human civilization in which communication networks spanning the globe would connect everyone, creating a collective realm of reason he called the “noosphere” (after the Greek word “noos,” meaning reason or mind), analogous and complementary to the atmosphere and biosphere.

More than half a century later, the worldwide infrastructure of the internet is in place, along with the computational prowess of artificial intelligence to process and make sense of all the data flowing across the cloud of servers, satellites and undersea fiberoptic cables. What Teilhard may not have imagined in his day is that these same anthropogenic advances in technology, which enabled the emergence of a global mind, have also generated a whole-Earth awareness that the industrialized endeavors of human reason, conceived as above and apart from nature, are cumulatively destroying the biosphere that is the condition of their existence. 

It is this convergence of a fortified global mind and a degraded biosphere that is creating something entirely new: planetary self-awareness. That consciousness necessarily unravels the old paradigm of mind divorced from nature rooted in 17th-century science, and reintegrates them. The noosphere encompasses the biosphere and vice versa. 

As Benjamin Bratton writes in Noema this week, “Planetary-scale computation may have first emerged largely from the context of a ‘Western’ science and ‘humanist’ inquiry, but its implications in the disclosure of planetary conditions will upend and disrupt the conceits of such historical distinctions as much as Darwinian biology evacuated the church of its final biopolitical authority.”

He goes on: “The emergence of planetary-scale computation thus appears as both a geological and geophilosophical fact. In addition to evolving countless animal, vegetal and microbial species, Earth has also very recently evolved a smart exoskeleton, a distributed sensory organ and cognitive layer capable of calculating things like: How old is the planet? Is the planet getting warmer? The knowledge of ‘climate change’ is an epistemological accomplishment of planetary-scale computation. Over the past few centuries, humans have chaotically and in many cases accidentally transformed Earth’s ecosystems. Now, in response, the emergent intelligence represented by planetary-scale computation makes it possible, and indeed necessary, to conceive an intentional, directed and worthwhile planetary-scale terraforming,” or a conscious effort by human civilization to align itself with the natural resilience of the planet as a singular self-regulating organism. 

“Instead of reviving ideas of nature,” says Bratton, “we must reclaim the artificial — not fake, but designed. For this, human-machine intelligence and urban-scale automation become part of an expanded landscape of life, information and labor. They are part of a living ecology, not a substitute for one. Put more specifically: The response to anthropogenic climate change will need to be equally anthropogenic.” 

As Bratton sees it, the concept of “planetarity” is a kind of “synthetic intelligence” based “on the secular disenchantment of Earth through the ongoing artificialization of intelligence and the emergence of a general sapience,” or wisdom, “that conjoins human and nonhuman cognition.”

For Bratton, it is planetary-scale computation that has “revealed” whole-Earth thinking and retrieves it from the false concept that mind and nature exist in realms of their own. For the anthropologist Tobias Rees, what we are witnessing is not a revelation, but the construction of a totally new epoch in which artificial intelligence thrives alongside other multiple intelligences, from microbes to the ecology of forests, in symbiotic interactions that, together, amount to what he calls “planetary reason.”

As Rees says in an interview with Noema, “Planetarity itself is constituted by the technologies that we have built. It’s not about ‘revealing,’ in the sense that there was something always there, waiting to show itself; it’s more that with the becoming technical of intelligence, with the becoming artificial of intelligence, beyond the narrow confines of biological organisms, we now have distributed intelligent systems that produce a knowledge object called the planetary or whole-Earth system. This knowledge object did not and could not exist before; it is contingent on technologies.”

Whether the epoch we are entering is something revealed or newly constituted, is a philosophical question of the nature of being. But what is clear is that only when intelligence becomes artificial through computational capacity will we thus be capable of rising to the challenge we’ve created for ourselves.

There is one huge hazard ahead if this concept of “planetarity” is corrupted or compromised by the momentum of human hubris encoded into computational algorithms. It would then transmute into a system of managing the ecological commons instead of integrating ourselves into it. 

This concern was long ago raised by that prophet of the era of limits and champion of human autonomy, Ivan Illich. In a conversation at his rustic retreat in Ocotepec, Mexico in 1989, he argued that the idea of “sustainable growth” was a dangerous delusion, an attempt at “pain management” of a depleting environment while sticking to the ideology of development. For Illich, the “information revolution,” then in its very early days, “injected new life into what would otherwise have been the exhausted logic of industrial development. This encourages expectations that, through his tools, man can escape the limits of his condition.” 

Illich warned that, absent “culturally bounded, politically sanctioned limits to growth,” what would emerge is “an administrative-intensive global ecology following from the utilitarian ethic of management. In this ectopia, we will see technologically assisted management of man from sperm to worm.” For Illich, this was “the shadow our future throws.”

If we are to commit to the planetary mutation Bratton and Rees envision, Illich’s sage reticence should remain uppermost in our evolving mind.