Planetary intelligence: animals, plants, AI and machines
I recently read one of the most original, comprehensive, and thought-provoking books I’ve seen in some time, titled Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for Planetary Intelligence by writer, artist and technologist James Bridle, and I’m glad he was able to answer a few questions about his seminal book.1.2
why did you write Ways of being: animals, plants, machines?
I am an artist and a writer. Over the past few years, I have focused my practice around ecology and the environment, creating art on the subject of renewable energy and energy redistribution, learning to build physical and lasting things and trying to practice a more mindful and regenerative life. As I moved from the city to a small island, I tried to figure out what was useful in what I already know – technology, the internet, AI – to bring to discussions about the planetary crisis.
Ways to be is one of the results of this: an attempt to understand where we have gone wrong, how we misunderstand the world, the other beings in it, and how we relate to them. It’s been part of my own process of moving from a place of uncertainty and fear to a place of action and even hope, accompanied, I now find, by a whole host of new friends and collaborators.
Source: James Bridle, used with permission.
The definition of intelligence that we have used for so long – i.e. “what humans do” – is woefully inadequate and grossly incorrect, especially when conceptualized and deployed by powerful and rapacious corporations. , whose profit motives and lack of concern for humanity and the rest of the planet are woven into the code they write. However, by revealing to us that other non-human types of intelligence are possible, AI opens the door to a reassessment and reimagining of what intelligence is – something more than human, and something something that doesn’t just happen in our heads, but it’s a quality of our relationships with each other, perhaps even an emergent quality of life itself.
Who is your target audience?
The book is truly for everyone.
What are some of the topics you weave into your book and what are some of your main messages?
I realized quite early in researching and writing the book that “intelligence” as we usually conceive of it isn’t always a helpful way to define how we should relate to each other and the world, but it’s important to understand how we’ve always done it. The story of how we assess other people’s abilities is key here, so I look at how we judge other creatures’ abilities, from putting monkeys and elephants in front of mirrors to see if they recognize themselves or give them tools to open doors or find food. It turns out that most of these methods are deeply flawed – indeed, the abilities they are supposed to test also vary widely across human cultures – but they are telling.
For example, gibbons have long been considered less intelligent than other apes because in experiments they refused to use sticks to pick up food or lift cups with snacks hidden under them. But it was finally realized that gibbons simply see and experience the world differently because they mostly live in trees: their long fingers are not suited for picking up objects from the ground and they take their tools from above. their head. Gibbons are intelligent in all sorts of ways, but their intelligence differs because it is embodied: it reflects the pattern of their lives and the pattern of their bodies, just like ours and that of all other beings.
Other intelligences differ in much larger ways. Slime molds, for example – strange single-celled creatures somewhere between fungi and amoebas – can solve complex mathematical problems much faster and more efficiently than humans or our most advanced supercomputers. And we don’t really know how they do it, and maybe we can learn, but we can also recognize that as intelligence and learn from it to better relate to other beings when we see them as having their own agency, intelligence and ways of being in the world.
It turns out that most of our categories and processes for recognizing agency and intelligence in other creatures, as well as the hierarchies of species and abilities that we have constructed, are fundamentally flawed and detrimental to our mutual understanding and our ability to grow. If we recognize this, we can start doing things differently. In the book, I explore ways to build technology that could be more generative, such as non-binary and biological computing, delve into the history of cybernetics, crab computers, and random number generation – drawing music, math and cephalopod lessons along the way. And I also suggest that meaningful awareness of this awareness involves building a new kind of politics, one that recognizes and trusts the intelligence of other beings, learns from them, and moves forward together.
How does your book differ from others dealing with some of the same general topics?
There’s huge cultural interest in AI right now, and that’s fascinating in itself. Why are we so obsessed with technology that aims to put us out of work, take over what we love, and ultimately supplant us? Most of the writing on this is either tech booster or catastrophic eschatology.
I take a different route: first, arguing that there is nothing “artificial” about AI; second, by treating this new form of intelligence as a colleague and compatriot rather than a potential slave or master; and third, by bringing it into dialogue with all the other intelligences around us, which reveals something new about both our own conception of it and the larger world in which it is inevitably entangled.3
Is there anything else you would like to tell readers?
Everything is alive and everything is intelligent. The fear and pain that many of us are experiencing right now – whether due to political and social unrest or the breakdown of our ecological relationships, which are at the heart of the climate crisis – are the result of deep-rooted Western ideas of power, domination, human superiority, racism and speciesism. But the world knows differently, and by looking outside of ourselves, listening, and connecting with the billions of other lives we share the planet with, we can discover new ways of being and do that can change our perspective, and therefore our ability to change and move forward together.