Book Review: Planetary Health and Artificial Intelligence

Ways of Being. Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence , by James Bridle (Penguin Books, 2023)

If you read the cover of James Bridle’s book, you might think it is just another essay on the ontological turn or multispecies ethnography. But James Bridle is not a philosopher or an anthropologist analyzing alternative ontologies: he is a writer and artist who tells stories of computer sciences in a compelling and inspiring way. His main argument is that artificial intelligence should be reorganized to express the movement of living beings. While he wants to share with his readers a sense of wonder towards non-human life and of admiration toward human technologies, he is also animated by a sense of urgency toward “existential threats, from extreme weather events to sea level rises, from desertification to zoonotic pandemics” (282). While he doesn’t use the term “planetary health,” which is increasingly discussed in medical anthropology and history of sciences, I want to use this term to discuss the challenges of this book, as it indicates how an expansion of artificial intelligence toward non-human life might shape a better future for the planet.

I must confess that I am not fascinated, as James Bridle says he is at the beginning of chapter 1, by “the idea of self-driving car”: for me, it is just an ideology of West Coast start-up companies who want to sell more computers and cars. But I became immediately interested by the criticism made by Bridle of what he calls “corporate intelligence”. “Corporations mostly use humans as their sensors and effectors…They are hive organisms…which pursue the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability and pain avoidance.” (9) All the debate about artificial intelligence is whether machines will replace humans in this corporate intelligence. Bridle inverses this debate. He proposes to consider artificial intelligence as an ecology, defined by Ernst Haeckel as the science of the study of the organism to the environment. “Ecology is just as interested in how the availability of nesting materials affects bird populations, or how urban planning shapes the spread of diseases as it is in how honeybees pollinate marigolds and cleaner wrasses delouse surgeon fish.” (12) And if technology is defined, following Ursula Le Guin, as “the active human interface with the material world,” we can understand a self-driving car as part of an ecology that “imagines an environment red in tooth and claw, in which naked and frail humanity must battle with devastating forces and subdue them, bending them to his will (and it is usually his) in the form of agriculture, architecture, animal husbandry and domestication.” (27) Hence Bridle’s call to “thinking otherwise” by looking not at the corporate intelligence of self-driving cars but at the planetary intelligence of animals and plants.

“Intelligence is not something to be tested, but something to be recognized.” (52) Bridle recounts the experiments of those humans who have tried to enter the ways non-human animals – from primates to elephants – perceive their environment or umwelt. “What if, instead of being the thing that separates us from the world and ultimately supplants us, artificial intelligence is another flowering, wholly its own invention, but one which, shepherded by us, leads us to a greater accommodation with the world? Rather than being a tool to further exploit the planet and one another, artificial intelligence is an opening to other minds.” (57) This notion of “flowering” leads Bridle to analyze the intelligence of plants, from research on mycorrhiza – the networks of fungi connecting trees through sign communication – celebrated by novelist Richard Powers in The Overstory, to the dream of a “cybernetic forest/filled with pines and electronics” eulogized by poet Richard Brautigan (p. 65). Bridle also mentions two scientific hypotheses that challenged our views of the “tree of life”: the discovery by Carl Woese in the 1960s of the traces of archea – microbes still living in extreme environments and replicating not like bacteria by division but by horizontal gene transfer – and the concept of endosymbiosis proposed by Lynn Margulis to explain how eukariots resulted from a mutually beneficial relationship between two bacteria.

Computer technologies, Bridle argues, rather than drifting us away from this “tree of life,” allow us to pay attention to its ramifications, for instance by following how plants and animals migrate to adapt to climate change. The computational environment is not discontinuous from the natural environment, first because humans communicate with plants and animals as they do with machines, second because computers are “made out of rocks and minerals, constrained by physical laws, they exist in the world with us. A flood or lightning storm can knock them out; excess heat or humidity is detrimental to their performance.” (155) We have to take care and pay attention to the lives of our computers because “they speak like stones” (171) – a sentence that can be understood, according to Bridle, if we listen to Aboriginal stories about the language of minerals. Rather than making a world like a computer based on corporate intelligence, we should understand that computers have a world, or rather that they are “like the world” (190). This is how Bridle brilliantly summarizes the Gaia hypothesis made by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis to explain that the Earth is a cybernetic feedback system that works like a homeostat when balances between organic and non-organic life are regulated to produce the conditions of life.

While Gaia is one of the most celebrated concepts in contemporary science studies, following its philosophical enhancement by Bruno Latour as a goddess of Earth-bounds, Bridle more modestly replaces Gaia in Delphi, “the home of the oracle” (190). Many cybernetic machines, he says, work like oracles, such as the Cockroach Controlled Mobile Robot that explores its environment based on the reactions of a cockroach to light. These relationships between humans, machines and cockroaches, Bridle argues, are “based on unknowing, require a kind of trust, even of solidarity. They require us to open ourselves to the possibility not merely of other intelligences, but to the idea that they might want to help us – or not – and thus might predispose us to the creation of mutually agreeable conditions in which they might deign to assist us voluntarily.” (213) This connection between unknowing, trust and solidarity is a strong political claim. Bridle argues that animals and plants introduce randomness in the mineral world of computers. “Randomness increases intra-action. Each and every thing matters; everyone matters.” (249)

This claim allows him to make an original contribution to the debate on animal agency. Animals have rights not because they are intelligent or sensitive but because they have a capacity to escape the traps and cages in which humans want to capture and enclose them. We therefore need not only a theory of mind but an “escapology” (254) to understand how other-than-human animals trace their own movements outside of human plans, how they “associate, make alliances, dispute, vote and make decisions.” (255). Peter Kropotkin’s views on mutual aid among animals in 1906 are paths in this direction, says Bridle. Another one is the call launched by Edward O. Wilson to protect half the surface of the Earth against human intervention in his 1984 book Biophilia. Bridle chooses to call “solidarity” this sharing of affects of care across species. “To declare solidarity with the more-than-human world means to acknowledge the radical differences which exist between ourselves and other beings, while insisting on the possibility of mutual aid, care and growth. We share a world, and we imagine better worlds together… This kind of solidarity with the more-than-human world consists in listening and working with, in mitigating, repairing, restoring and engendering new possibilities through collaboration and consensus. It is the result of encounters, not assumptions and the repudiation of human exceptionalism and anthropocentrism.” (280) The book ends with a praise for the Internet of animals as “putting the tools of surveillance to work to build a more-than-human parliament” (307) and with an MIT program in which “they had taught spinach to use email, which it used to warn them of explosive materials in the soil.” (311)

If I was convinced and even enthusiastic when reading Bridle’s views on planetary intelligence, I remain skeptical about his definition of solidarity. I was surprised that while he talked about zoonoses and pandemics, he never mentioned the terms “disease” or “pathogen.” However, computers, like animals and plants, have viruses that cause pathologies when they derail their biological mechanisms of replication and disrupt their cybernetic modes of regulations. If we need care and support between living beings, it is not only because we should pay attention to the diversity of ways of being but because we should remediate to the negativity of pathologies. Corporate intelligence is not just an “enemy” (306) we have to fight through an alliance with other-than-humans: it is a method to mitigate pathologies which may have turned out to be more dangerous than pathologies themselves, but which needs to be understood from within its own failures, among other techniques of transforming enemies into allies. Solidarity, if we consider the genealogy of the term within French socialism, is more than mutual aid between groups or species that have different ways of living: it is an anticipation of future crises based on the awareness of mutual debts between these groups and species.  

To conclude, if we want to connect planetary health and artificial intelligence, we need to understand not only how randomness brings machines closer to animals and plants, but also how crises and conflicts draw boundaries between species that should be described in their historical construction. From that perspective, animals and plants are not only sensors informing humans about other ways to inhabit the world: they are sentinels perceiving the signs of the enemy on the border between species and between territories.

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