From Biosphere To Technosphere

Technology emerges from the lineage of life on Earth.

Jonathan Zawada for Noema Magazine

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

It takes the expansive perspective of an astrobiologist and theoretical physicist who ponders the origins and unfolding of the universe to place today’s parochial debates over intelligent technology in the context of planetary evolution.

In Noema, Sara Walker bends the modern mind to link the coming future to the primordial past. “The technologies we are and that we produce are part of the same ancient strand of information propagating through and structuring matter on our planet,” she writes. “This structure of information across time emerged with the origin of life on Earth.”

Walker asks us to consider how “thinking” technologies are an extension of evolutionary history that represents “the next major transition in the planetary evolution of life on Earth. It is what we might expect as societies scale up and become more complex, just as life simpler than us has done in the past. The functional capabilities of a society have their deepest roots in ancient life, a lineage of information that propagates through physical materials. Just as a cell might evolve along a specific lineage into a multicellular structure (something that’s not inevitable but has happened independently on Earth at least 25 times), the emergence of artificial intelligences and planetary-scale data and computation can be seen as an evolutionary progression — a biosphere becoming a technosphere.”

Technology Is Life

For Walker, human technologies are not much different from other innovations produced in our planet’s 3.8-billion-year living history. By way of example, she writes that “multicellular organisms evolved vision; what I will call ‘multisocietial aggregates’ of humans evolved microscopes and telescopes, which are capable of seeing into the smallest and largest scales of our universe. Life seeing life.” Indeed, for Walker, “technology is not artificially replacing life — it is life.”

Since intelligence improves via evolution, she argues, it generates more complex systems: from cells to “multicellular aggregates like humans, societies, artificial intelligence and now multisocietial aggregates like international companies and groups that interact at the planetary scale.”

The so-called “artificial intelligences” we see emerging today such as large language models, computer vision, automated devices, robotics and more, she writes, “are often discussed as disembodied and disengaged from any evolutionary context.”  But these technologies “represent the recapitulation of life’s innovations into new substrates, and these are allowing the emergence of intelligent life at a new scale — the planetary. There is no ‘intelligence’ in isolation; rather, complex ecosystems of technologies interact with biology to bring about new capabilities.” 

Walker traces how “the technology of computation first emerged from the brains of humans, which themselves evolved over billions of years, in an attempt to build a mathematical abstraction that captured the structure of human thought. Just as we outsource some of our sensory perceptions to technologies we built over centuries, we are now outsourcing some of the functioning of our own minds. This allows the same principles that operate within us to function now at higher levels of organization, moving up from localized societies to global ones.”

What therefore is emerging now on Earth is “planetary-scale, multisocietal life with a new brain-like functionality capable of integrating many of the technologies we have been constructing as a species over millennia,” she argues.

Aware that this concept is not the easiest to grasp, she acknowledges “it is hard for us to see this because it is ahead of us in evolutionary time, not behind us, and therefore is a structure much larger in time than we are. Furthermore, it is hard to see because we are accustomed to viewing life on the scale of a human lifespan, not in terms of the trajectory of a planet.”

Not Yet The Pinnacle of Evolution

Though the convergence of lineages has advanced to this remarkable point in time, Walker avers, we have not yet arrived at “the pinnacle of evolution.”

What our planet can generate may just be getting started. In all likelihood, we are already a few rungs down in the hierarchy of informational systems that might be considered ‘alive’ on this planet right now. 

We need to recognize our world teems with life and also that life is what we are evolving into. It is only when we understand ourselves in this context that we have any hope of recognizing whatever life, currently unimagined and evolving along radically different lineages, might exist, or we might generate to co-evolve with us.

Complexity Yields Consciousness

Back in the mid-20th century, well before the internet or AI, the paleontologist and Darwinian-oriented Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin theorized the successive stages of Earth’s evolution. In his scheme, first came the early geosphere, which generated a biosphere conducive to the growth and development of manifold lifeforms. Out of that fertile environment, he envisioned the appearance of the “noosphere,” or “planetary sphere of reason,” as communication technologies enabled the global interaction of human minds. Not unlike Walker, his “Law of Complexity/Consciousness” posited that ever more complex social networks forge an ever-higher level of intelligence and collective self-awareness.

More recently, the Chinese science fiction writer Hao Jingfang, who wrote “Folding Beijing,” imagined cities in the age of cyberspace and smart technology like self-driving cars and the “internet of things” becoming large neural networks that will develop their own mind and consciousness.

That Walker’s compelling logic is also reflected in the intuitive speculation of earlier thinkers and in contemporary literary fiction suggests she is onto something big: A pivotal shift in evolution that is the cumulative consequence of the lineage of life on Earth so far.