We have entered the sixth mass extinction in the history of life on Earth. Some estimates predict that two thirds of all terrestrial species will be extinct by the end of this century. Though mass extinction is nothing new under the sun, the cause of the ongoing mass extinction is novel. The current extinction is being caused by human activity. This is the first time a single species has caused such an extinction. Philip Cafaro’s essay “Three ways to think about the sixth mass extinction,” struggles with how we should conceptualize the human relation to the biosphere in light of the ways we are inflicting massive damage on it. Of the three ways of conceptualizing the sixth mass extinction that Cafaro discusses, I want to focus on one in particular: humanity as a cancer on the biosphere, i.e., our destructiveness is inevitable. I will argue that basic ecological principles provide strong support for the contention that the relation of humanity to the biosphere is best understood as a cancerous one. I will also contend that, other than self-annihilation, Transhumanism, the idea that humans can use technology to augment ourselves and our civilization to the extent that we can entirely transcend our biology and our dependence on Earth systems, holds the only viable cure to the cancer we have become to the biosphere. Finally, I will argue for a revision of the environmentalist project based on the fact that humanity is a cancer on the biosphere and Transhumanism is the only viable cure.
A basic principle of population dynamics is that any species left unchecked by any forces other than resource availability will multiply until it has consumed all available resources. This typically leads to significant ecological disturbance and a crash in the population of that species. Thanks to the industrial and scientific revolutions, humanity seems to be on such a trajectory. Before the scientific and industrial revolutions, the quantity of resources homo sapiens could consume was limited by a variety of practical barriers. Agricultural productivity was low compared to today and medicine was much more crude, both of which limited population growth and therefore resource demand. Further, the amount of raw physical force humanity could exert on any element of the world was generally limited to the force that could be generated with muscle, bone, and simple machines. In other words, like other species, nature had set a limit to the quantity of resources we could consume.
This is not to say, however, that the presence of humanity on the Earth was completely benign prior to the scientific and industrial revolutions. Fossil evidence shows that a wave of destruction and extinction followed humanity as it migrated out of Africa and across the globe. A variety of the characteristics of our species, such as our ability to work together as well as produce tools and weapons and use fire have always made it such that we could overcome some natural and physical limitations to resource consumption that no other species could. However, for most of the history of our species, our creativity and ingenuity remained relatively limited.
The scientific and industrial revolutions changed this situation dramatically. The crux of these two revolutions with respect to humanity’s relationship to the natural world is that we suddenly found ourselves with the tools necessary to think and engineer our way around many of the limits to our ability to consume resources that had been in place since the beginning of our species. Human history since the beginning of the industrial and scientific revolutions has seen a series of engineering and problem-solving feats that have continuously broken down previous natural and physical limitations to our ability to consume resources.
These considerations provide strong support for the idea that humanity is a cancer on the biosphere. If a basic feature of population dynamics is for species to multiply and exhaust all available resources if left unchecked by any natural or practical barriers and if the scientific and industrial revolutions have effectively removed all natural and practical barriers to our consumption of resources, then what else should we expect but being diagnosed as a malignant, rapidly metastasizing tumor? These considerations also raise the following questions: If such powerful and fundamental forces are driving the anthropogenic extinction of species and general destruction of the biosphere, can environmentalists realistically hope to be able to do anything to stop it? If something close to an evolutionary law coupled with all of our scientific and industrial prowess is dictating the destructive human relation to the biosphere, are environmentalists not trying to hold back tectonic plates with wooden braces? In what follows, I will argue that the appropriate reaction to these realities is not to give up, but to look to Transhumanist ideas for a different approach to environmental problems.
Rather than give up or make futile attempts to derail and piecemeal reengineer this unstoppable, destructive machine to no longer follow fundamental evolutionary laws, I argue the environmentalist’s best bet is to do everything in their power to accelerate the machine’s progress, specifically its techno-scientific component. I argue that the forces driving our ever-increasing destructiveness are too powerful to be stopped, but that one of these forces, the techno-scientific force, is rapidly leading to a future where our lives and projects will be completely decoupled from the biosphere, from biology, and even from Earth itself. The same scientific and industrial revolutions which have caused so much destruction by allowing us to overcome so many natural and practical barriers to resource consumption have, in recent decades, begun intimating a future where humanity’s utilization of resources will be limited by nothing but the laws of physics. It may seem at first that this scenario would only worsen our current predicament, but, as I will show, there are good reasons to believe that this outcome will actually be the cure for the cancer we have become. The ideology which contends we will transcend our biology and completely transform the nature of our resource utilization is commonly referred to as Transhumanism. I will now consider some of the expected details of this projected future and show why it offers a solution to, rather than an amplification of, our current environmental predicament.
Projections about the exact nature of a Transhumanist civilization vary, but what is widely agreed upon is that our knowledge of every aspect of reality will be enormously increased. Again, this may seem like it will only exacerbate our problems as our increased knowledge will give us increased abilities to utilize resources. However, the degree of increase in our understanding of reality required to build a truly Transhumanist civilization will make the resources available to us on Earth trivial compared to the vast and limitless resources in space which will be opened to us by this level of knowledge. The capabilities and possibilities that will be open to us in a Transhumanist civilization will completely transform the scale and scope of human activity. A Transhumanist civilization will not think on a planetary scale, but on a solar system and galactic scale. A Transhumanist civilization will possess the requisite knowledge to access and travel through space with ease, colonize other planets, mine resources from asteroids and other planets, harness the most powerful energy source in our solar system, the sun (and eventually other stars), reengineer and/or replace human biology with nanotechnology/synthetic biology, and eventually transmute elements and manipulate the fabric of spacetime itself.
The Transhumanist solution to our present environmental predicament I am proposing then is to completely offload humanity from Earth’s biosphere. Given current trends in economic and population growth as well as the previous discussion about population dynamics, I argue this is the only viable long-term solution to environmental destruction. While environmentalists have had some successes in protecting natural systems over the last century, they are ultimately fighting a losing battle. Environmentalists might succeed in defeating a proposal for more offshore drilling today, but population growth and economic demand will, sooner or later, turn this victory into a defeat.
But the work of environmentalists has not been in vain. Environmentalists’ single greatest victory has probably been to help to instill a level of general environmental awareness and appreciation into popular culture. I believe this will be crucial for the Transhumanist solution to our environmental problems. As scientific and technological progress extend our reach as a species and begin to unlock the vast resources of our solar system we will have a choice to make: Do we continue to strip mine the Earth for raw resources or do we instead look elsewhere in our solar system (and eventually our galaxy)? I believe that the general environmental consciousness that is now present across a wide spectrum of societies and cultures will make this decision relatively easy with a simple utilitarian calculation. Assuming we possess the technological know-how to easily utilize the vast resources in our solar system we will have to decide if we would rather utilize the resources present on Earth, thereby jeopardizing Earth’s biotic systems, or to utilize the resources elsewhere in our solar system, such as on Mars, where no biotic systems exist. Assuming the resources elsewhere in the solar system are as easily utilized as those on Earth (and I argue that the level of knowledge requisite to build a Transhuman civilization will make this the case) the choice to leave the resources on Earth alone in order to preserve its ecosystems will be an easy one. Resource acquisition on Earth will have a cost, the cost of environmental destruction. Resource acquisition elsewhere in the solar system will not have this cost. Therefore, on a simple cost/benefit analysis, we will be compelled to leave Earth’s resources and biosphere be.
Of course, to one who sees no reason to believe that these capabilities and this level of knowledge are anywhere close to being within our reach the above discussion will seem like nothing more than pie-in-the-sky science fiction nonsense. However, there are good reasons to believe these abilities are within humanity's reach, even within the relative near term (potentially as soon as 30-50 years). The two key reasons to suppose these capabilities are within reach in the relative near term are the exponential nature of technological progress (specifically information technology) and the seeming inevitability that this progress will lead to the creation of artificial superintelligence.
First, consider the accelerating exponential rate of progress of information technology and the counter-intuitive conclusions one arrives at when extrapolating a few decades into the future based on trends that have proven reliable since the beginning of computer science. The most famous of these trends is Moore’s Law. In 1965 Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, observed that the number of transistors that could be squeezed onto a microchip was doubling roughly every 24 months. This trend has not merely held steady until today, it has actually accelerated. This doubling, coupled with other synergistic improvements in chip architecture as well as an inverse exponential curve for cost-per-transistor, has resulted in the trend we see today where price-performance of computation doubles more than once per year. This exponential trend has consistently yielded surprising results. For example, the average middle-class adult can now purchase pocket-sized devices with a level of computing power that was only available to generously funded government organizations only a decade or two ago. If this trend continues at its current pace (and there are no signs of it slowing down) we should see computers within the next 25 years that are a billion times more powerful than current smartphones, but are the size of a red blood cell. This prediction might seem outlandish, but 25 years ago no one would have believed that in 2016 we would be carrying around computers in our pockets more powerful than the most powerful computer in the world at the time (which were also the size of large rooms).
Progress in information technology is of enormous significance to the future of human technological progress in general because it holds the key to the ultimate invention: artificial superintelligence. The universal nature of computation makes it possible to simulate any natural system inside of a computer with the requisite computational power. We know that intelligence in humans is the product of one such natural system, the human brain. Because intelligence is the product of a natural system we can conclude that this system can be simulated or reproduced in a computer and, therefore, that silicon-based artificial intelligence is possible. (A simulation of the brain requires enormous computational power, but we have already succeeded in building computers which exceed the amount of computational power estimated to be necessary to simulate a human brain.)
The creation of the first “strong AI” will result in what has been called an “intelligence explosion.” A strong artificial intelligence will possess every intellectual ability that humanity possesses and this includes the ability to design intelligent machines. Therefore, once we succeed in creating the first strong AI it will be able to design an improved AI, which will in turn be able to do the same. This will rapidly result in machines with intellectual capacities far beyond anything we can now imagine. In order for the intelligence explosion to happen, it is not necessary that we succeed in designing a computer from scratch that is more intelligent than we are. All that is necessary is for us to create a sufficiently high resolution simulation of a human brain inside a computer with sufficient computational resources (and this should be possible in the near future as the resolution of live brain scanning is also doubling every year or so). Such a mind would, in many respects, be structurally and qualitatively identical to a human mind, but would have the advantage of running on silicon instead of neurons. Running on silicon would give this artificial mind the ability to think at least 1,000,000 times faster than its human counterparts. This means that this artificial mind could do the equivalent of over 2,700 years of intellectual labor in a single day.
This intelligence explosion will, of course, also bring about a knowledge explosion. Superintelligent machines designed by superintelligent machines will be able to carry out millions of years of scientific research in a single month. With this level of knowledge and intelligence we have reason to believe that our only limits will be the laws of physics themselves. Therefore, in order to get to the Transhumanist civilization that has offloaded itself from the Earth and its systems, all we need do is build the first superintelligent machine. The day the first superintelligent machine comes online will the the last day of human history and the first day of a new era of history where we transcend the biology that both dramatically limits our possibilities as a species and condemns us to be a cancer on the biosphere.
In order to find the above scenario plausible one need only accept two uncontroversial premises. First, that progress in information technology will continue on the same path that it has since the conception of computer science. And, second, that human intelligence is the result of a physical system. No fudging or leaps of faith are necessary to get from these two premises to the belief that a Transhuman future is not far away (likely 30-50 years).
Despite the fact that the only the premises necessary to arrive at the conclusion that we are rapidly heading toward a Transhuman future are uncontroversial, many have a hard time accepting this conclusion due to the fact that it seems completely crazy. Ray Kurzweil explains this common inability to accept this warranted conclusion in terms of our inability to understand the exponential function,
Most long-range forecasts of what is technically feasible in future time periods dramatically underestimate the power of future developments because they are based on what I call the "intuitive linear" view of history rather than the "historical exponential" view. My models show that we are doubling the paradigm-shift rate every decade [...]. Thus the twentieth century was gradually speeding up to today's rate of progress; its achievements, therefore, were equivalent to about twenty years of progress at the rate in 2000. we'll make another twenty years of progress in just fourteen years (by 2014), and then do the same again in only seven years. To express this another way, we won't experience one hundred years of technological advance in the twenty-first century; we will witness on the order of twenty thousand years of progress (again, when measured by today's rate of progress), or about one thousand times greater than what was achieved in the twentieth century.
Elsewhere Kurzweil writes of how our evolutionary history and daily experience have conditioned us to think solely in linear terms. However, a simple mathematical example can demonstrate how woefully wrong both engineers and average people can be in their predictions if they expect something to obey a linear curve when it is in fact obeying an exponential one. If we start counting from 2 and count linearly 20 steps, we end up at 22. If we do the same with exponential steps we end up at over 1,000,000. The difference between the linear and exponential curve is the difference between a future in which we only advance enough in our scientific knowledge and technical prowess to amplify our current environmental problems and the future where we offload humanity from the Earth altogether and cure the cancer we have become to the biosphere.
Given the fact that we have good reason to conclude humanity is an incurable (by any standard methods) cancer on the biosphere and that we are rapidly heading toward a transhuman future, how should environmentalists change their approach to environmental issues? I suggest that a two-pronged approach is wisest. The first prong is basically to continue to do what environmentalists have done for the last century: pressure governments and corporations to consider the ecological impact of economic activities, expand nature reserves, lobby for stricter emissions regulations etc. The second prong I suggest is to lobby for, fundraise for, and generally do everything in their power to accelerate research in the areas most important for developing strong AI, such as computer science, neuroscience, quantum computation, and AI research. The general structure to this approach is to try to preserve as much as possible while simultaneously trying to accelerate the advent of a new era of history in which humanity will no longer plague the biosphere. These two prongs are complimentary and they both essentially aim at the same target: the preservation of as many species and as much of the biosphere as possible. Every new nature reserve means more species saved. Every month shaved off of the time it will take to get to strong AI will result in the preservation of more habitat and more species.
To most environmentalists, Artificial Intelligence and Transhumanism probably seem about as distant as it can get from their concerns and aims. However, I have showed here that not only are they intimately related, but AI and Transhumanism are the only way we will be able to save the biosphere from enormous anthropogenic destruction. Transhumanism is the only cure for the cancer currently afflicting the biosphere.
Bostrom, Nick. Superintelligence: Paths, dangers, strategies. OUP Oxford, 2014.
Cafaro, Philip. "Three ways to think about the sixth mass extinction." Biological Conservation 192 (2015): 387-393.
Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. Random House (2014): 68.
Kurzweil, Ray. The singularity is near: When humans transcend biology. Penguin, 2005.
“My Android phone is literally several billion times more powerful, per dollar, than the computer I used when I was a student. And it’s also 100,000 times smaller. We’ll do both of those things again in 25 years. It’ll be a billion times more powerful, and will be the size of a blood cell.” Ray Kurzweil. http://www.nextbigfuture.com/2013/10/kurzweil-prediction-of-blood-cell-sized.html