We are at an existential turning point in the human story and, with it, the habitability of our planetary home.
So-called Artificial Intelligence (AI), for all its creative ingenuity, is an imminent threat to humanity, already wedded to misappropriated power and wealth, and values to suit. In recent days, respected thinkers like Yuval Noah Harari, and a consortium of scholars and opinion makers in a collective Statement by the Centre for AI Safety have appealed for action to address the rapid rise, Artificial Intelligence. It is arguable whether this is really ‘intelligence’, but it is clear that it is a level of technological development which can gather, collate, synthesise, interpret, and influence the human condition, local and global affairs through a digital world, for better or worse. With the emergence of quantum computing, its power will be unimaginable. Extinction of humankind is a possibility. Likenesses of each or all of us, our sustenance and connections may be indistinguishable, even if they fall far short of who we actually are.
We need to be able to know who we are with certainty. Past experience tells us that we can be misused, enslaved, and monetised by those we allow, or to whom we assign governance. Language of various kind has provided some security whether visual, spoken or written, asserting our identity, its connectedness, continuity, conservation, and constraints. Its robustness across many generations, in diverse localities, in discovery and in conflict resolution has been evident. More recently, discourse is evolving digitally, with Bayesian yes/no characteristics and algorithmic pathways. Yet we are more analogue than digital, with quantum complexity of our socioecology and biology. At our presumed performance limits, we assign more and more of our lives, livelihoods and even identity to a supposedly artificial world of ‘intelligence’, grossly under recognising and understanding the collective wisdom and requirements of human civilisation. But it is not just the pretence of intelligence in this technology that may have more of a marketing and mercantilic raison d’être that is problematic. It is its capacity to replicate and empower the artificial versions for good or ill; to have fake versions of us, our identities, and our lives; and to draw on population and personal profiles to direct our health and wellbeing now and in the future with algorithms, economics and increasing dependency. We have been groomed for this through inequities, less access to the natural world and synchrony with its rhythms, loneliness, indebtedness, pandemics, addictive activities, thinking that we are time and recreation poor, and being personally insecure. We feel dysfunctional without a smart phone even when others look for real contact and nature awaits to fulfill us.
The human story tells something of who we are
Thanks to ancestral records, and pooled technologies, our knowledge of the human story is extending back further and richer than the 200-300,000 years we understood it was and enriches our sense of identity, girding us against the artificial. This we should welcome. For some 60,000 years of that, early records such as rock art in Australia, including the first representation of a human face in the Burrup Peninsula in Western Australia, provide us with a remarkable continuum of that story. This was not a written, but a visual engraved story, antedating the Egyptian pyramids by millennia. More than that, an oral history often powerfully told gave an even more geographically eventful story. My late cousin, the Gondwana land eco-botanist Prof Ray Specht, was a member of Australia’s Arnhem land expedition in the 1940s, living with Indigenous Australians, who told of what was a verifiable historical tsunami in the Gulf of Carpentaria, hundreds of years before European colonisation. In similar, if more cosmological, vein my musician brother, on a Council for the Arts project about Indigenous music, lived with the traditional keeper of Uluru in the 1970s; he learned that conversations with the landscape were ancient and ongoing, a ‘Dreamtime’ as we would oversimplify it. My late Chinese wife’s Hakka ancestry is written on hometown village walls, and on secreted scrolls, unearthed and copied by me; a record of some 127 generations to about the time of Confucius, describing a journey from China’s north to south. Without a literature, the Greek philosophers Aristotle, Socrates and Plato have conferred ways of thinking about ourselves which have endured until today. A young boy, William Shakespeare, in an English village, shaped a language and penetrated the mind, behaviour and social phenomena with ongoing relevance. For my part, my Swedish grandfather left the home of his school headmaster father after his mother died, went to sea, and swam ashore in Australia becoming an illegal migrant. The letters exchanged and treasured keep the times alive and consequential. Whether by locality, travel or migration, the music, dance, hieroglyphics, and words constitute the stories of our journey and bolster human socio-ecobiology.
Our identities depend on such stories. Will AI respect or intrude, plunder, reformat and monetise our stories and identities?
There is much to gain and lose, and we know already that these very practices are what has created great wealth of the few, and corralled the many into paying regular dues to them at the expense of livelihood. Now and again there is a philanthropic Wikipedia or U-tube some such to benefit the many. AI builds on these metaphors, but presents the ultimate risk to humanity and the planet of taking, despoiling, and controlling more than is tolerable.
The yearning of Indigenous peoples for a Voice to Parliament transcends the digital world. Perhaps being heard will rescue a little of the loss of immeasurable multigenerational knowledge and wisdom and enable for it to permeate the country at large. What might AI do for that Voice if it were to capture the Indigenous story respectfully and truthfully, being freely available?
Socioecology -beyond the digital
Our intrinsic orientation and confirmation of person and presence is provided by knowing where we are and to whom and what we are connected. Optimally, this will be with access to public open space (POS) and the natural world, and with family, friends, and colleagues.
We do not and cannot function well unless we have these connections. Our biology is conjoint with that of nature, whether by sensory, microbiomic, homeostatic-endocrine, nutritional, atmospheric or locomotor functionalities. These are complex, synergistic, integrative, and analogue in type. It is naïve to think these can be simulated by digital technology. What looks like us may not be us, certainly not without context and its sheer degree. This gives us some pause in anticipation of a so-called AI future. The thing is that what is said to be intelligence is aeons away from human or even planetary let alone cosmological intelligence. Yet our story is one of ecosocial and cosmological intelligence. We are socioecological creatures.
Cosmology – energy
The universe is considered to have begun with the ‘big bang’ when energy was released, and the cosmos emerged. In due course some of that energy in the solar system gave rise to life as we know it.
This would have depended on amino acids assembling in such a way as to allow transport across a membrane, aided by ATP. Much of our health disorder is a feature of energy dysregulation manifest in body compositional, metabolic, immunoinflammatory, homeostatic and degenerative problems like malnutrition obesity, diabetes, infection, gut microbiomic and neurodegenerative diseases. We need to restore our energy synchronicity with the planet and cosmos. The energy cost of digitisation is formidable, and likely to take us to the planetary sustainability cliff, let alone a biomedical crumble albeit diagnosable with greater effect.
Mental, social, and physical health
We have seen how from households to community and society at large, we depend on trust, rules and guidelines, and sanctions: and what happens when these fail. For example, there were days past when people did not lock their houses; otherwise, they thought they would be considered not to trust their neighbours. When this custom was abused, Neighbourhood Watch gained traction, and connected communities. Can AI do better?
There used to be bartering of locally produced food and goods, without monetisation. There were cooperatives adding food security and environmental protection. Investment has been shown to depend on more than balance sheets and purported profit – there are other poorly understood or measurable factors which people sense. Can that be digitised, or are we unwittingly assigned to charlatans?
As for our health, AI takes us down the route of algorithmic diagnosis and management protocols with less and less nuance and learned or acquired optimisation in individual care. This is becoming a management straitjacket, albeit one of greater transparency and accountability
What if we, in the near future, have all the information we think we need for self-diagnosis, and that our digital health practitioner ‘thinks’ so too? Personalised care has always been the goal, but that is now erroneously equated with ‘precision medicine’ (PM), especially grounded in genomics, even microbiomics. But PM and AI fall short on context, setting and sociocultural mindset. In more recent clinical practice, it is welcome that patients seek advice rather than prescriptive approaches, and incorporate this into their own framework. Will AI support or limit this trend?
Behind the clinical and public health operation is scientific evidence. Yet this too is now capable of assembly not from innovation, but by AI compilation. Perhaps discovery will be encouraged and enhanced; or discouraged through lack of recognition of informational source, copyright, and reward.
Meanwhile, the key is that health and wellbeing depend on our socioecology.
Intergenerationality informs intelligence
One of the attractions of large data base assembly and search would be the construct of family trees in historical, geographic, and migratory context for healthcare discovery, prevention, and intervention, for persons and their providers. Intergenerational health determinants through environmental exposures, where epigenetics and gene expression is altered and retained from parent to offspring, is now par for the health system course, and could be amplified one way or another by AI. Our identity is strongly affected and valued by inheritability, naming, culture, and livelihood. The downside is that we may be unduly concerned about such identity, and penalised by society, autocracies, or insurers. AI will challenge it.
Resilience – in family, community, and the natural world
Understanding who we are, especially our socioecology, ought to give us preference for environmental sustainability and conflict minimisation, so being more resilient to unanticipated or projected change, as with climate, displacement, migration, or pandemic. AI might allow us to be better prepared. But it may make us more vulnerable if we become more digitally (and regime) dependent and automatonic in various and multiple ways
We should disabuse ourselves of living on another planet. Our ecobiology is finely tuned to the Earth in multiple ways. Here we are and this is our home. We desperately need to ensure earthly sustainability and liveability without divesting our humanity to devices over which we do not have control, becoming hybrid socioecological -digital or quantum beings.
Livelihood and The Commons
What matters most is whether we and those for whom we care and are responsible have a sustainable livelihood – shelter, food, clothing, warmth in the cold, communication with others, education health care, transport and freedom of movement, recreation, personal security. The UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 are worthy, and may well be advantaged by judicious AI. It may also be confounded by it.
While AI might contribute to a sustainable livelihood whole, its commercialisation will likely lead to its fragmentation, segmentation, and community irrelevance unless we invoke and implement principles in its operation as articulated for The Commons (Ostrom).
AI urgently needs a regulatory framework
As a first attempt at its regulation, the Australian government foreshadows the prohibition of algorithmic exposure and ‘deep fakes’. Yuval Harari recommends transparency about what is real and what is not, but trust in this approach may falter. It is profoundly disturbing to be unable to distinguish between the one we know, and the one who pretends to be known, let alone a robotic replica! Already, we have such experiences with our smart phones, a growing recipe for socioecological catastrophe.