Planetary Sapience

Planetary-scale computation — an emergent intelligence that is both machine and human — gave us the perspective to see Earth as an interconnected whole; with it we must now conceive an intentional and worthwhile planetary-scale terraforming.

Markus Kanzler

Benjamin Bratton is a professor of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego, and the director of the terraforming program at the Strelka Institute in Moscow.

Consider a thought experiment: What if the famous Blue Marble image of Earth taken by Apollo 17 astronauts was instead the Blue Marble movie that portrayed the whole 4.5-billion-year career of the planet in a kind of super fast-forward? You would see volcanoes and storms, continents break apart and realign, primordial oceans and, with the appearance of biological life after the Great Oxygenation Event, the emergence of an atmosphere to incubate yet more life.

In the very last moments of the movie, however, you would also see something unusual: the sprouting of clouds of satellites, and the wrapping of the land and seas with wires made of metal and glass. You would see the sudden appearance of an intricate artificial planetary crust capable of tremendous feats of communication and calculation, enabling planetary self-awareness — indeed, planetary sapience. 

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. The vision for this is not to be found in computing infrastructure itself, but in the purposes to which we put it.  

“The Earth has very recently evolved a smart exoskeleton, a distributed sensory organ and cognitive layer capable of calculating things like: How old is the planet?”

But let’s back up a moment. The concept of “the planetary” suggests both the very small and the very large. It implicates deep time and the abyss of space as the precondition of our thoughts. It names the depth of biological and inorganic interrelations. It offers an understanding of the Earth, not so much as a “world” in the phenomenological sense, but as a planet in the geologic and biogeochemical sense. The planetary is what gives birth to sapience — and now represents that sapience’s greatest challenge. The planet did not appear suddenly as a “world picture,” as Martin Heidegger would have it, but rather as the habitat of a particular species that was able to construct an exterior image that, finally, could present a planetary condition from which that species and its world emerged. It was there all along — but we’ve only just become able to see it.

For contemporary philosophy, the provocative concept of the planetary (and its corollary, “planetarity”) has been put forward as an alternative to “the global,” an expired notion that is static and flattened and Eurocentric. The term planetarity is said to have reappeared at the end of the last century, after a few decades of hibernation, through the work of the literary theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s. I extend and depart from Spivak’s connotation to focus on a planetarity that is, first, revealed as the precondition of any philosophy and, second, the name of the project before us as we contemplate how to preserve, curate and extend complex life. 

So: There is an astronomical planetarity and a political-philosophical planetarity, and while they are different, each should inspire correspondence and mutual reinforcement. There is no workable political-philosophical planetarity that does not define itself through the disclosures of the astronomic understanding of what a planet is, where it goes and how a sapient species emerges from it. Together they annihilate the pre-Copernican, pre-Darwinian fantasies of humans as unique self-transparent subjects bound only by immanent signifiers, and both undermine political superstitions of place, horizon and ground that plague our modernities. 

The Revelation Of The Planetary 

The question implicitly posed by the Blue Marble movie, but which it cannot answer on its own, is: “What is planetary-scale computation for?” As something that literally evolves from its host planet, what should it do? What contribution to a viable planetarity can it make? 

A preliminary answer is that it makes the contemporary notion of the planetary possible. It doesn’t cause the planetary as a condition to come into being, but in concert with scientific and philosophical inquiries, it makes it possible for the primary sapient species within that circumstance to grasp the terms of its own emergence. It shows intelligence where and how it came to be. 

Planetary-scale computation is an example of what may be called, after the great Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem, an “epistemological technology. The most important social impact of some technologies is not just in what they allow people to do, but in what they reveal about how the world works. This can lead to trouble. While anxiety about technology is expressed in accounts of its pernicious effects, that unease is sometimes rooted in what technology uncovers that was always there all along. Microscopes did not conjure microbes into being, but once we knew they were there, we could never see surfaces the same way again.

Such unrequested demystifications are disturbing, especially when they seem to demote us humans from a place of presumed privilege. Even as such technologies reorganize personal and global economies, their deeper philosophical implication concerns how they introduce a Copernican trauma, unsettling our previous understanding of the cosmos. Such traumas are not always recognized for their significance (including in Copernicus’ time) and usually take generations to reverberate. 

The revelation of the planetary — so different from the “international,” the “global” or the “world” — is a condition that comes into view via the location of human culture as an emergent phenomenon of an ancient and deep biogeochemical flux. 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.


The technologies of a planetary society are ongoing processes over which we have agency. In its current commercial form, the primary purpose of planetary-scale computation is to measure and model individual people in order to predict their next impulse. But a more aspirational goal would be to contribute to the comprehension, composition and enforcement of a shared future that is more rich, diverse and viable.

Instead of reviving ideas of nature, 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.

“Some unrequested demystifications are disturbing, especially when they seem to demote us humans from a place of presumed privilege.”

The critical apparatuses of such a response include automation, (understood as an ecological principle of inter-entanglement more than a reductive autonomy); geoengineering (understood in terms of climate-scale effects more than a specific portfolio of techniques); the rotation of planetary-scale computation away from individual users and toward processes more relevant for long-term ecological viability; the deliberate self-design of sapient species toward variation, including reproductive technologies, universal medical services and synthetic gene therapies; the cultivation of artificial mathematical, linguistic and robotic intelligences with which general sapience deliberately evolves; the deployment of experimental expertise with biotechnologies, through which living matter composes living matter; the intensification of urban habitats and technologies as media for the general provision of universal and niche services; the projective migration outside the Kármán line, the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, from where the existing and potential terrestrial planetarity comes into focus; and, finally, the aggregation of creative governing intelligences capable of architecting such mobilizations. 

I call this terraforming — not of another planet, but of our own. It is a deliberate, practical, political and programmatic project to conceive and compose a viable planetarity based on the secular disenchantment of Earth through the ongoing artificialization of intelligence and the emergence of a general sapience that conjoins human and nonhuman cognition. It names a future condition realized by the rationalization of ecosystems toward diversification and order. And it names the liberation of synthetic intelligence.

Synthetic Intelligence

It is almost certain that today the growth of machine intelligence is hamstrung by various ideologies of “artificial intelligence,” which are in turn hobbled by misconceptions about what is and is not artificial and what is and is not intelligent. Foremost among these is the presumption that machine intelligence must be recognizably “human-like” to qualify as intelligence. Multiple anthropomorphic biases and presumptions have left us with inadequate allegories for the remarkable things that machine intelligence does accomplish. Most of these look nothing like human thought — though some do, like the very large natural language processing models.

Recently, researchers at the Moscow-based Strelka Institute and I have been revisiting the distinction between the “artificial” and the “synthetic” posed by the economist Herbert Simon half a century ago. The artificial refers to something that merely resembles an original (such as a cheap plastic “diamond”) whereas the synthetic is a genuine and meaningful version of something that was deliberately created (such as a laboratory-grown diamond identical to a “natural” one at the molecular level). Thus, artificial intelligence merely seems smart, but synthetic intelligence really is. We should be pursuing synthetic intelligence, not artificial intelligence. 

There is another connotation of synthetic intelligence that is perhaps even more important: the synthesis of human and machine intelligence in pursuit of insights or creativity that would be impossible for either on their own. A now-famous example of this occurred in the Go match between Lee Sodol and AlphaGo in 2016. The AI’s move 37 in the second game was one that Go experts have said no human could have imagined. But in the next game, Sodol’s move 35 was equally unexpected and creative. If the first move proved that AlphaGo was in some way not just “smart” in a narrow sense, but also capable of creating novelty, the second move proved that in response to this, a human saw the game differently and so produced a brilliant move that also never would have happened otherwise. This is a synthesis of intelligences, a glimpse of what a general sapience may look like. 

“Any refusal or acceptance of the costs of synthetic intelligence must also consider the price of natural intelligence.”

The planetarity of computation forms what I have called an “accidental megastructure” comprised of overlapping functional layers. Quite literally, it is a stack extending down to the mines of central Africa through subterranean data centers and transoceanic cables to interlaced urban networks up to the glowing glass rectangles through which we view it and it views us. Planetary-scale computation is not virtual. It is a kind of terraforming of its host planet. 

To measure the weight of planetary-scale computation includes a sober reckoning with the physical costs of its sprawling infrastructures, which includes differentiating essential purpose from the trivial, and ultimately pondering the price of intelligence itself. In the context that really matters most, the cultivation of synthetic intelligences capable of collaboration with our own most virtuous ambitious and virtuoso expressions is precious. The syntheses they portend are available only if we pursue them with resolve and clarity about their high costs. 

Any refusal or acceptance of the costs of synthetic intelligence must also consider the price of natural intelligence. It was not only symbiotic social cooperation but also tumultuous mountains of gore that lead our common ancestors from Olduvai Gorge to Göbekli Tepe, and to the literate cultures of Mesopotamia, East Asia and Mesoamerica. The deepest values are at stake. Is the very long-term evolution of “intelligence” — human, animal, machine, hybrids — a fundamental purpose of the organization and complexification of life itself? If so, now that intelligence begins to migrate to the inorganic substrate of silicon, what planetarities does this portend?

An Ecological Theory Of Automation 

Intelligence does not live in a petri dish or laboratory or inside a single skull; it lives out in the open, it lives in and as our cities. A city is not just architecture plus dwellers; it is an artificial environment par excellence. As the designer and programmer Ben Cerveny has said, the city is “perhaps the longest continuous process that humans have created.” Introducing synthetic computational intelligence into urban systems augments existing forms of embedded sensing and intelligence, and in so doing produces novel qualities.

I am reminded of Gakutensokua massive robot built in Osaka in the 1920s by Makoto Nishimura. Nishimura was appalled by the mechanistic humanoid robots in Karel Čapek’s play “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” which introduced the term “robot.” So he set out to make an automaton that manifested what he saw as the most noble and fragile aspects of human culture, complete with intricate facial expressions and the ability to transcribe poetry. 

When I visited a factory in Shenzhen that makes cases for Android phones and employs many robots and people working side by side, I was struck by an unexpected feeling, a kind of serenity. The mood was calm, not frantic. Some things were moving quickly but quietly, while other things were quite still, as if waiting their turn. It did not feel like a “factory” in the Charlie Chaplin sense; it felt much more like a garden of machines in the Richard Brautigan sense. 

“Intelligence does not live in a petri dish or laboratory or inside a single skull; it lives out in the open, it lives in and as our cities.”

I remarked to my colleague that I would very much like to spend time in a cafe like this, that it would make for a lovely kind of public gathering spot. As I spoke, I realized that this was no joke. The present locus of automation will inevitably spill out into the city, and as it does we must be aware of the deceptively simple fact that automation creates a particular kind of ambiance. It is more than form following function; it is a functionalism becoming a delicate formation. Or at least it can be. 

To avoid the miserable future in which urban computational automation is trained foremost on the optimization of the most arbitrary and banal aspects of human spatial logistics (parking, security, vending, etc.), a different understanding of automation is needed. First, automation is not primarily about autonomy, and second, globalization didn’t cause automation, automation caused globalization. In the densest city or jungle, causality and determination is everywhere, but its processes and techniques are themselves indeterminate. If we were to imagine these as dominos, their arrangement extends deep into the heart of things, and the agency of their cascade goes beyond the intention of any first tipping. 

These systems are choreographed, but they also evolve with each iteration, learning as they go and shaping and being shaped by the worlds in which they are situated. As urban infrastructure they remember and encode specific decisions that can be repeated over and over. The superficial appearance of autonomy — of a machine, process, person — is an illusion. Their causal relations upon relations have been set in advance by previous stages and positions, and so the whole automated set-piece is itself automated. Our synthetic automation makes use of existing footprints and previous patterns of urbanization, and also forces others that generate quite different geographies. New niches emerge, while others go dark. 

The Situation Of Intelligence

The most critical relation between the planetarity that has been revealed and the planetary that must be composed depends on the position of intelligence from which any such intervention might take place, and how that position might comprehend the situation of its agency. This is far more difficult than some would have us believe. It is to be born into unpayable debt.

The decisive paradox for general sapience is the dual recognition that, first, its existence is extremely rare and extremely fragile, vulnerable to numerous threats of extinction in the near and long term, and second that the ecological consequences of its own historical emergence have been a chief driver of the conditions that establish this very same precarity. The approach to these questions cannot avoid the correspondence between honing our own sapience through machinations of war and strategic violence, and the emergence of machine intelligence that is dependent upon the provisions of material extraction, military applications and their ecological and social devastations.

“What future would make the past worth it?”

Both modes of intelligence are also modes of planetarity. Both are positions from which reason exercises its agency, for better or worse. Both are also tied to what we all may recognize as our most inspired aspirations. But if planetary intelligence is to survive the consequences of its own appearance, in the short term and in the long term, it must reform its trajectory or risk extinction and disappearance. 

This historical moment seems long but may be fleeting. It is defined by a paradoxical challenge. How can the ongoing emergence of planetary intelligence comprehend its own evolution and the astronomical preciousness of sapience and simultaneously recognize itself in the reflection of the violence from which it emerged and against which it struggles to survive? It is possible that our privilege of retroactive hindsight will decide that, for some final register, this history was a worthwhile and even perhaps necessary condition for the ultimate emergence of planetary intelligence. Even if so, its development and its survival depend on a decisive graduation from primordial habits.  

What future would make the past worth it? Perhaps the future of planetary intelligence is now as existentially entwined with a radically different career for composition, foresight and order-giving as its advent was from the cascading centuries of pilotless destruction. Taking this new existential condition seriously demands a radically different sort of philosophy.