To solve our global problems, we need to evolve into a global collective, taking inspiration from DNA, ants, and our own social success.
By Sara Walker
Earth hangs in the balance, and it is up to us humans to nudge it in the right direction. (Credit: Gaia exhibition at Rochester Cathedral, Alamy)
Try to imagine the future. What will our world be like? A techno-dream? A chaotic dystopia? You can find endless conflicting models of where we are headed, but they all start from the same premise: As long as humans are around, tomorrow’s Earth will be shaped by us, more than eight billion people burning, building, calculating, producing, discarding, and otherwise engaging with our planet.
Enabled by our ever-increasing scientific knowledge and technological capacity, we have transformed the land, water, and air of our planet, and we seem poised for bigger transformations to come. With all that activity we have also conjured unprecedented problems for our species, including climate change, widespread extinctions, nuclear weapons, and the threat of runaway artificial intelligence. It is difficult for us to comprehend our power for creation and destruction because that power operates on scales of space and time far beyond those of our individual experiences. A cough on the subway or a long commute to work does not hint at the possibility of a global pandemic or warn of a warming planet.
To make sense of our impact—and to guide ourselves toward a future we want, not one we merely succumb to—we need an entirely new conceptual framework. Along with my colleagues Adam Frank and David Grinspoon, I describe that framework as planetary intelligence. In our view, intelligent individuals like you and me may be a passing evolutionary phase on the path to a more advanced, collective intelligence, one that can operate intentionally at a global scale. The future of Earth and the future of intelligence may be, in this sense, one and the same.
Fantastical as the idea may sound, similar transitions have played out repeatedly in the history of life. Time and again, individuals have given way to collectives, because collectives often are better at responding to information about their environment and coming up with strategies for survival. Consider the social insects. No one ant in a colony has access to enough information to make intelligent decisions; individual ants seeking a new nest site cannot visit every possible home. Instead, they have evolved decision-making mechanisms that operate at the colony level, comparing the quality of potential nest sites based on the combined experiences of many ants that have each seen only a small subset of the options. Such information sharing has made ants and other social species highly successful, to the point that they cannot survive outside their social groups.
Socially, our species is already collective. A typical modern human can survive only hours to weeks in the wild, away from all societal comforts. Our technology, which makes it possible for us to live comfortably in nearly every habitat on Earth, was invented through our social behavior. Our technology has progressed so quickly that our current social structures are no longer sufficient to steer it, however. Things invented only decades ago are already becoming outdated. A prominent example is nuclear arms proliferation. After World War II it became clear that new global norms had to be established to prevent a nuclear catastrophe. We came to understand the threat, but we have still not intelligently resolved it. The treaties and other makeshift solutions of the last century are not resilient enough to contain countries that might want to defect from these agreements.
We need to invent new collectives that can compensate for our technological advances. Like ants, we cannot individually comprehend all the information required to make the right decisions for survival. That is why we must nurture planetary intelligence, creating systems to sustain life on the same scales of space and time at which our technology operates. The history of evolution tells us that this transition can happen, and that it must.
The roots of collective intelligence stretch back to the earliest stages of life on Earth. It was the cooperative action of many molecules, interacting through complex webs of chemical reactions, that gave rise to the first living organisms. On their own, no atoms in an organism are alive, yet collectively they are. You are a self-assembling living system, a set of nested feedback loops of molecules that process information specific to producing other molecules—the molecules that compose you. You are a collective.
In this view, the boundaries of what constitutes a living thing are not well defined, because the chains of information propagating through molecules and other matter extend beyond the boundaries of what we call an individual organism. Across both space and time, every living thing is part of persistent ecosystems that include food webs of predator and prey species continuously cycling resources.
Extending this idea to the planetary scale leads us to the concept of the biosphere, the collective activity of all life on Earth, a concept introduced by the Russian-Ukrainian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky in 1926. A key feature of the biosphere is that it maintains itself by shaping the whole Earth to be more conducive to the biosphere’s own ability to continue. In the 1970s, British environmentalist James Lovelock and American biologist Lynn Margulis built on Vernadsky’s work and proposed the Gaia theory, which holds that the biosphere’s self-sustaining process is somehow intelligent and even purposeful.
From the Gaia-level perspective, it becomes apparent that a defining feature of life is its lineages of information that self-produce and persist across time. The patterns that define you as you last far longer than the molecules that are constantly in flux, assembled and disassembled, moving in and out of your body. In cells, molecules need to survive degradation long enough to have their information copied, as is the case with DNA, or to be repeatedly rebuilt, as is the case with other biomolecules. Likewise for the knowledge in our minds: If we could not convey it to anyone else, it would not continue to exist.
Sometimes these two ways of propagating information, biological and conceptual, are discussed in terms of genes and memes. These are two of the most obvious projections of the many ways that information structures our reality as it propagates through the physical systems that we are and that we interact with. All life on Earth is part of one information structure generating novel, self-sustaining patterns. Our technology maintains the same pattern of propagation: The genes in our cells and the memes in our minds ultimately trace their information lineage all the way back to the origin of life.
The first living organism invented the first planetary-scale information processing system, what we now know as the genetic code. Most likely, many versions of life arose on the early Earth, each using its own coding system and therefore unable to share information with the others. Life went global by evolving a common genetic code and biochemical machinery that could read it. The origin of life was a planetary-scale phenomenon for standardized sharing of information.
That process is not so different from our modern standardization of internet protocols, which in principle give anybody on Earth access to the same information. Although our human cultures emerged locally, we are becoming integrated into a technologically mediated, planetary-scale system. This transition, too, was anticipated by Vladimir Vernadsky in his concept of the noosphere, a global ecosystem of thought. He predicted a future phase of evolution in which the planet is enveloped in technology and intelligently steered by it. We have already entered that future, but we are not yet controlling where we are going.
From the collection of molecules that formed the first self-reproducing organism to today, intelligence has operated on increasing scales of space and time. That expansion is an evolutionary response to the threats posed to collectives—threats that can be managed only by organizing at an even higher scale. Planetary intelligence is a natural next stage. Our survival may depend on a successful transition to a globally integrated, technological intelligence.
What can we learn about how to build a sustainable future by viewing the past this way?
In the past evolution of life, major transitions have been driven by new modes of information processing and storage, as beautifully summarized by Hungarian evolutionary biologist Eörs Szathmáry and British mathematician John Maynard Smith in their book, The Major Transitions in Evolution. Examples include the transition from single cells to multicellularity (which required division of labor and information sharing among cell types) and the transition from individuals to human societies (mediated by communication through language).
It stands to reason that the next major evolutionary transition will be one from societies to globally integrated planetary intelligence, able to process the unprecedented amount of information humans are accumulating. The challenge we face is that, even with our global technology, we haven’t yet reached this scale of global intelligence. Earth is too technologically immature to deal with our existential problems because we have not yet evolved intelligence that operates on the scale at which these problems exist.
Take climate change, which is altering the environment across the globe and will make itself felt over many lifetimes. None of us experiences information on those scales, so it is hard for us to be motivated as individuals to solve the threat and decide on the best ways to do it. Our current top-down regulations and restrictions exist in entities, mainly governments and corporations, that are much smaller in time and space than the systems they aim to regulate.
It may well be that we cannot solve our threats this way. That is why the concept of planetary intelligence is so important. A handful of regulations enacted over a period of several years cannot address our current existential crises. We need intelligent systems, including automated monitoring of the planetary environment and of our technological infrastructure, that have evolved to operate on the relevant timescales of decades or centuries.
Planetary intelligence is likeliest to emerge from the collective behavior of our technology and ourselves, acting in concert just as tissues work together to form functioning multicellular organisms. The cellular hardware and software of life have persisted for some 3.8 billion years. We have not yet evolved any technology that might last so long. Perhaps we could, though. To do that, we must transcend our human cognition. We need to think fundamentally differently about the scales of the problems we face and about what it will take to address them.
There is a common misconception that intelligence is just a form of computing and that we can engineer our way to a human-level (or even superhuman) intelligence by building the right individual algorithms into a box. This is the motivation behind most current big AI projects. Artificial general intelligence, however, should not be our end goal—assuming it is even possible. What we need is artificial global intelligence, which will not emerge from the current model computer scientists are using to design our most (so-called) intelligent systems.
As with previous forms of collective intelligence, planetary intelligence is likely to look like a transition rather than a single invention. Our technologies are already starting to work in concert with us in novel ways that we may not even perceive for what they are; they are beginning to act collectively, and we are part of that feedback loop. Take, for instance, open-source software platforms like WordPress, which provides unbounded space for computer software to evolve because its source code is available to study, modify, and share, both by humans and by other algorithms. For now, such systems are still mostly human-mediated, but part of being a good ancestor is setting up ecosystems that can continue to flourish far into the future, long after those of us alive today persist only as traces of information propagating in the technology we created.
It is not much of a stretch to imagine comparable systems emerging to manage energy and resources on a global scale. Our awareness of climate change is already an example of the Earth modeling its own possible futures, as pointed out by philosopher Benjamin Bratton. The pressing question for us now is: How quickly can we evolve technological systems that not only anticipate possible futures but also steer us collectively to the ones we want?
Unlike cells or ants, we have the capacity to absorb the lessons from major transitions in the history of life. We also have the self-awareness to recognize problems unfolding on scales that we, as individuals, are not evolved to deal with. Now it is up to us to facilitate the planetary intelligence needed to solve them.
November 18, 2022
I was reading a paper titled "Intelligence as a Planetary Scale Process," and one sentence leaped out at me. The authors wrote that technology "might be seen not as something which happens on a planet but to a planet." It's the kind of idea that looks strange the first time you read it, and inspiring the second time. We often think of technology as something that is inherently opposed to nature; here was an argument that technology (like life itself) might be integral to the way our planet changes over time.
I asked Sara Walker, one of the paper's authors, to explain how her "planetary intelligence" perspective can help guide us to new types of problem-solving while erasing the perceived boundary between natural and human-generated ones. This essay is her response. It deliberately does not tick off specific policy prescriptions. Rather, it offers a novel conceptual frame for evaluating the kinds of actions and decisions that might lead us to a more stable, successful future. Such a framework is essential for being, in Walker's words, a "good ancestor" to generations to come.
—Corey S. Powell, co-editor, OpenMind