Look, where are we going?
[Editor’s Note: We acknowledge that the topics the author discusses in this article may be controversial, and we invite comments and alternative perspectives on the advanced technologies it explores.]
“In all this complexity of things,” wrote Mardy Murie, matriarch of American conservation, “where is the voice to say: ‘Look, where are we going?’” At the time, Mardy and her husband Olaus were leading the wilderness movement and the contentious effort to establish the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, which Olaus said symbolized the emerging question “of what is the human species to do with this earth?” Their thinking was in the context of the future of the Earth, the globe, the planet, and humanity.
They worried about “human arrogance,” “idolatry of the machine,” and “our plundered planet.” “Perhaps man is going to be overwhelmed by his own cleverness,” Mardy presciently wrote, “somewhere along the line we have lost control over the beings we have created.” This was during the 1950s post-WWII march of progress, an era of then unprecedented environmental degradation and technological change. Mardy and Olaus were among the earliest to realize that future generations might not inherit the same Earth. But even these visionaries couldn’t have imagined the terra incognita our accelerating environmental degradations and our exponentially advancing technologies are leading us to.
We are creating an anomalous, non-analogue future with possibilities and perils that now depend on not only what we will do with this Earth but also on how our technology will shape our evolution as a species.
Where are we now?
We’ve entered the Anthropocene, this pivotal era wherein human activity is becoming a dominant, disturbing, and destabilizing force upon the entire Earth system. At an accelerating rate, our species is making this planet less habitable for itself and causing the mass extinction of others.
We are nearly out of time to halt or reverse these changes according to recent climate assessments. Look at today’s trends, and the models, projections, and warnings from the IPCC, NOAA, the National Academy of Sciences, the Nobel Foundation, and the American Meteorological Society. Last year, again, records were set for increased planetary surface temperature, ocean temperature, and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, and this July has been the hottest in recorded history.
You can forget the Paris 1.5 degree C global warming limit to prevent irreparable Earth system change. We’ll likely zoom past it and continue toward climate tipping points. And for the Arctic that the Muries knew, warming is happening twice as fast there as anywhere else on the globe.
But worse, the Anthropocene isn’t just about climate change; it’s everything change. There are also increasing amounts and toxicity of synthetic chemicals humans inject into the Earth’s metabolism, plastic pollution of the oceans and soils, loss of biodiversity, pharmaceutical pollution, changes in the Earth’s surface, its hydrology, and mineral and nutrient cycling. The list of planetary boundaries being pushed and perhaps exceeded is long. These perturbations will increasingly interact synergistically with and exacerbate climate change, weakening the resilience of natural systems.
Consider, for example, what a meta-analysis of the best science has documented and predicts for the Murie’s Arctic Refuge: shifts in the range and composition of plant and animal communities, increased shrub cover, decline in wetlands and soil moisture, changes in water temperature, chemistry, and alkalinity, increased fire frequency and intensity, more likelihood of invasives and pathogens, advancing treeline, earlier breakup, later freeze-up, and rapid permafrost thawing with myriad potential consequences from that alone.
Our rate of environmental alteration is markedly accelerating. And looming are those tipping points, “sleeping giants” where change becomes abrupt, cascading, irreversible, and more rapid than humans can effectively respond to. Summarizing our global risk, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently warned that:
“We are on a fast track to climate disaster: Major cities underwater. Unprecedented heatwaves. Terrifying storms. Widespread water shortages. The extinction of a million species of plants and animals. This is not fiction or exaggeration. It is what science tells us . . .”
Exacerbating the threat are increasing global population and per capita impact. As well, there are some 2 billion people currently living in poverty who, understandably, are seeking the comforts and conveniences of our unsustainable lifestyles. And throughout the U.S. and the world there’s deepening inequity, divisiveness, polarization, instability, and ideological extremism. Every year they further lessen the likelihood of timely, really substantive, international and global-scale action, the only chance for saving humanity . . . as we know it. But as you know, such action is nowhere on the horizon.
Our Failing Conservation Paradigm
The sorry fact is that our 19th century conservation paradigm, still largely focused on maintaining species and conditions as they are or were, is becoming less and less adequate for addressing the impending changes of the Anthropocene. Conservation developed primarily for protecting valued resources and landscapes from local development, exploitation, and damaging uses has been fairly successful, at local scales. But the conservation paradigm is becoming increasingly ill-suited for addressing the ever-more complex and urgent global-scale threats we now face.
Yes, hopeful conservation actions are being taken. People are changing their lightbulbs and bringing reusable bags to the supermarket, some are buying hybrid or electric vehicles, and a few even install solar panels. Politicians pass some modest legislation and businesses buy carbon off-sets. Bless them all. But—and I’m really sorry to say this—such actions are largely symbolic in the larger scheme of things. In reality, these small actions do little more than relieve the dissonance between our knowing what’s happening to the planet and our unwillingness to significantly change the consumptive, profligate, and environmentally degrading lifestyles that we know underlie it. Isn’t that true, and for you too? And really, how realistic is the hope for technological rescue—geo and climate engineering, microbial engineering, and nuclear fission or fusion (all with potential unintended consequences)—for maintaining the planetary boundaries necessary to support humanity . . . as we know it? The down-to-Earth fact is, we are losing the race to become sustainable before critical tipping points are reached.
A main impediment is that our conservation ethic is deeply grounded in an evolutionary heritage (that is, neural algorithms) that simply didn’t equip us to understand and address complex and rapidly changing problems that are so unlike any in the past, and with such unthinkable implications. Our intuitions, our mental model of the world, and our neural algorithms, evolved for local, gradual, and linear thinking while change is now occurring globally, rapidly, and increasingly, exponentially.
Evolution did, however, equip our minds with defense mechanisms for avoiding or minimizing the stress of multifarious change coming faster than human brains can effectively process: disbelief and denial. We intuitively respond with them, increasingly to our peril. Yes, it’s natural for us to disbelieve or discount the disturbing projections of Earth system scientists and technological trend analysts, just as it was for our predecessors to disbelieve the upsetting findings of Darwin, Galileo, and Copernicus who began our species’s displacement from its imagined primacy in the Universe.
So it’s natural for us to (mis)place hope in our long-standing conservation paradigm, despite its failure to bring us to the substantial lifestyle and economic system changes, sacrifices, and global-scale governance actions necessary, really necessary, for a sustainable human future. You know that it’s just not happening, and without these, I’m afraid that hope for a human (as we know it) future could be just hopium.
But wait—this unfolding reality is not to say there is no hope for the future. There is, but not for a future like the past, and maybe not for future generations . . . like us.
The Exponential Age
A far different future lies ahead and not just because of our Anthropocene Earth system perturbations. Accelerating environmental change is coinciding with exponentially advancing artificial intelligence (AI) systems and related technologies. Snowballing AI is converging with amazing and dazing advancements in nanotechnology, quantum computing, molecular engineering, synthetic biology, genetic engineering, directed evolution, and most recently, organoid computing. More and more, breakthroughs in AI and these fields are building upon and mutually reinforcing each other to a degree that no human mind can grasp the full picture of where we’re going. They are moving us into the Exponential Age, so called because AI and related breakthroughs are increasing at ever-decreasing intervals, faster and faster. The rate of these breakthroughs will eventually exceed the speed at which humans can absorb and effectively respond to change.
As leading futurist Ray Kurzweil says, we won’t experience 100 years of AI progress in the next century—it will be more like thousands of years of progress. Or as Byron Reese wrote in The Fourth Age, his book on conscious computers and the future of humanity, “We will probably see more change in the next fifty years than we have seen in the last 5,000.”
Exponential change is leading to what may come to be the most monumental, epochal mind-step in human history: AI’s emerging capacity for “recursive self-improvement.” That is, it is learning how to learn. Crawling through the internet and absorbing its burgeoning resources, deep learning AI systems are improving their programed algorithms. Really scary though is their growing potential to create new self-improving, self-programming algorithms. AI is evolving the capacity to evolve itself.
AI is thus moving toward artificial general intelligence (AGI) which, if/when it occurs, will have as much cognitive capability and far more memory than the average human. From there, AI engineers now predict the inevitable evolution of artificial super intelligence (ASI), outperforming humans at nearly every cognitive task, and perhaps sentient. Yes, it is possible, as Mardy Murie warned, to lose control over the beings we are creating.
Powered by quantum or perhaps organoid computing, and with immediate access to all the world’s databases, ASI would be thousands of times faster and better at cognitive processing than any human brain. Futurists call it an “intelligence explosion” and if/when it occurs, it will go far beyond the intent, or even the comprehension of human programmers.
I don’t like it either. But I take some solace in predictions that for the next few decades AI “progress” will mostly be focused on human intelligence amplification, that is, bionic enhancement of—cyborgizing—the human brain. We’re already seeing computer-brain interfaces that enable telepathic functions like controlling robotic prostheses, operating computers, and even brain-to-brain interfaces (BBIs). AI algorithms like Stable Diffusion are already generating images from not just texts and verbal prompts, but also from human brainwaves.
You may well see something like that supercomputer in your pocket, the stuff of science fiction just a generation ago, become integrated with your brain, providing cybernetic connection to the ballooning resources of the internet. It would provide access to all the world’s knowledge bases, with vastly, vastly more processing capability and speed. Maybe you won’t have to ask your personal-confidant digital assistant anything because before you could formulate the question, it will, and then tell you what you should know.
But there are limitations as to how well our stone-age-formed neural synapses, already thousands of times slower than digital connections, will be able to interface with coming AI systems. And given the competitive nature of the world markets, governments, and militaries driving AI, we aren’t likely to stop with just mind and body enhancements. We should face the real possibility that AI will not continue to be just a tool as your computer is today. If or when artificial intelligence exceeds our own, AGI then ASI tipping points could, possibly, usher us into the Singularity.
The Singularity Hypothesis
Ray Kurtzweil defines the Singularity as the “future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreparably transformed.” The Singularity is forecast to occur when the curve of computational and related advancements, having gone from linear to exponential, approaches vertical. Like the black hole-physics the term it was borrowed from, the Singularity is something the human mind can’t see beyond or even fully comprehend.
How might humans, as we are today, interact with ASI in the Singularity? With our cognitive ability, memory, and speed minuscule compared to predicted ASI systems, probably not well. And there is no reason to believe this progeny of ours would “think” like us or even be us. We wouldn’t, and won’t ever be able to compete with AI.
As theorized, the next step for us may be to merge with or upload ourselves to some form of computational cloud, a cyberspace “metaversal” artificial neural network. That substrate may be biologically inspired, perhaps developed through reverse engineering of the human brain or, more likely, engineered from scratch. There are a number of theorized pathways of mind migration to a metaversal life, the most discussed today being mind uploading wherein the human brain is copied and emulated in the substrate. Of course, any form of merger would/will require significant technological advances, but considering the accelerating, even exponential rate of AI-related breakthroughs, it could well happen within this century. If this cognitive revolution is realized, it is predicted to lead us through a trans-human stage when our thinking will be a hybrid of biological and non-biological processes to a post-human, synthetic future.
Likely or not, good or bad (from our anthropocentric perspective) the transformational Singularity is at least plausible. So, given the enormity of the potential outcomes, dystopian or utopian, why aren’t we thinking about resisting or welcoming the possibility? Why aren’t we more proactive in exploring ways of putting safeguards in place, guiding, or at least influencing this potential future?
We’re not, largely because our brains evolved to extrapolate linear trends; disbelief and denial protect us from recognizing and acting toward the approaching exponential transformation. Further reducing the likelihood of significantly restraining the AI revolution is the technological imperative—our seemingly innate tendency and competitive push to develop and adopt technology without adequately considering its consequences. (If we don’t do it now, another company or another country will). And technology is now so embedded in our thinking that we can hardly grasp its impact on us, let alone our future. As Forest Service futurist David Bengston summarized our cognitive shortcomings, “We don’t think about things we don’t like to think about.”
Of course you may not want to think about our species’s possible ascension from organic to synthetic, digital life, about us merging with the technology we are creating. But wishing it weren’t so doesn’t change the trajectory we’re on. And remember, transformative change is how the creative and inscrutable process of our origin—evolution—works. It’s why the progression of life didn’t stop with microbes. It’s why you are not more like a chimpanzee, and the difference between the chimp’s intellect and yours may well be comparable to that of yours and your Metaverse-merged descendants.
As for your self, you are probably thinking you’d rather not merge with a computational substrate. Well, first, you are not likely to be around if/when mind uploading begins. But consider the shifting baseline, that increasing trend of gadget-addicted kids spending less time in nature and more in virtual reality. The prospect of human/AI symbiosis will be much less alien to your grandchildren.
But might some people opt to remain biological and live in something like an Amish colony? Some believe it possible, but as historian of the future Yuval Harari says, to best imagine how our post-human descendants would relate to such holdouts, we should look at how we treat animals. This is how different our intellects may be. And you know how we treat animals.
But wait again—this isn’t likely to be the dystopian nightmare of science fiction that you might be thinking. Try to imagine one’s mental world uplifted to a Metaverse, with these vulnerable, aging, and death-bound carbon-based bodies replaced by an enduring silicon-based synthetic existence with vastly more understanding, insight, memory, and creativity.
Perhaps you resist or deny the possibility of the Singularity out of fear that what you most value—those human feelings and sensations, your personal identity and consciousness—may be lost in a metaversal existence. But they needn’t be. Consider, for example, how neuroscientists can induce various emotional states by stimulating the right neurons—without embodied experience. And consider what neuroscience is revealing about those feelings of satisfaction, well-being, happiness, love, passion, joy, contentment, imagination, spirituality, and such that are central to the human experience and identity. Those are, we are learning, just functions of electrochemical data processing algorithms that evolved to regulate mood and emotion hormones beneficial to our survival and reproductive fitness. Such algorithms might also be uploaded, and even enhanced. If/when that happens, what need would there be for these flesh and blood bodies?
Again, I don’t like it either, but these disconcerting ideas need to be discussed. We need to recognize that in light of recent breakthroughs, it’s at least possible (and would certainly be beneficial for other species on the planet and probably our descendants as well) for humans to become beings of pure mind.
Many AI engineers are now asking what we might do to avoid or make the best of runaway AI’s potential threat to humanity as we know it. Recently over 100 prominent AI experts and tech company leaders issued a Statement of Risk, warning that “The risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.” And Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak are among the 1,100 prominent AI technologists and researchers calling for a moratorium on producing AI systems more powerful than GPT-4. But such a moratorium would only work if it were global and enforceable. And given the enormous investment in AI by nations and powerful high-tech corporations, and the world’s inability to halt even the proliferation of nuclear weapons, a workable global moratorium on the race toward AI seems quite unlikely.
Let’s face it, if we can’t or won’t apply the precautionary principle and significantly slow AI development down and, if we can’t or won’t consciously decide what Homo sapiens are to do with this Earth and how we will evolve as a species, it may be futile to resist a Singularian future, for which we are manifestly unready. Given that the Singularity is at least plausible, we ought to be thinking about how we might best make the transition. We ought to address the fundamental questions: What would/will it mean to be human in the ASI-Singularity? How might the essence of our specie’s and our individual identity be retained in an evolving metaversal substrate? What might we do to ensure that its values and goals would align with ours? And the overarching question: To what degree would the human component even remain in control?
But then, why should it?
So let’s step outside of our specie’s bias for a moment, look beyond our human-centric worldview, and imagine humanity’s future from a larger, more Earth-system, cosmological, and perhaps even spiritual perspective.
Transcend Our Species Supremacy?
Whether grounded in the belief that the planet was created just for us humans and that it is the will of Providence that we subdue and have dominion over it, or from a secular perspective presuming Homo sapiens to be the pinnacle of the Earth’s four billion-year-old process of life evolution, our species supremacism inhibits our thinking about what could be our descendant’s place in the Brave New World we are creating.
Perhaps they will live in a Metaverse with no dependence on, domination of, or impact upon the Earth system (once the energy requirement for powering the Metaverse is solved). Just a few generations hence, our descendants may be pioneers in a new realm of evolution, one in which we don’t compete with other lifeforms. If so, there would be no more human-caused extinctions; the other life forms and their ecological and evolutionary processes left free to follow their unfettered destiny. The myths, dogmas, and supernaturalism that have sanctioned our speciesism and treatment of the Earth and each other are replaced by unity with an ultimacy as unimaginable and incomprehensible to us today as our lives and technology would have been to our Homo erectus ancestors.
Look, where are we going?
When Mardy Murie asked that question, the answer we must now give would have been inconceivable. As she and Olaus feared, future generations won’t inherit the same Earth, and as she predicted, we are losing control over the beings we are creating. We don’t know if our species will be augmented by, merged with, or live within AI systems. We don’t know if those systems might save us from ourselves or, if so, at what cost to our humanity.
But we are only emulating ostriches if we go into the future thinking it will be pretty much like the past. And we are terribly short-sighted if we don’t rethink conservation and technology and proactively confront those fundamental questions of what humans are to do with this Earth and how we will evolve as a species.
If the Singularity is where we’re going, this century could see our descendants—hybrid, synthetic, or virtual—become the natural next step in the unfolding of life in the Cosmos. They might, as some predict, become the pivotal step in the evolution of the Cosmos becoming conscious of itself. Enlarge, transcend your received thinking for a moment and consider: Might that not be a better legacy to leave, and might that not be a more hopeful destiny to aspire to than the one we’re going toward now?
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This essay was written without the use of AI generative technology.
Roger Kaye has worked for the USFWS in Alaska for 41 years, as a planner, pilot, Native liaison and in recent years, as the agency’s Alaska wilderness coordinator. He has a Ph.D from the University of Alaska where he has taught courses on wilderness, environmental psychology, and the Anthropocene. He is the author of Last Great Wilderness: The Campaign to Establish the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and numerous journal and popular articles related to wilderness. Currently, he is working on a book considering the future of the wildness of Wilderness in the Anthropocene.