“With artificial general intelligence (AGI) likely just decades away, there is an urgent need to consider the extent of environmental harm we are causing. AGI will likely question if humans are good stewards of the planet and quickly come to the conclusion that we are not.”
20 years. If this happens, what will AI think of people?any artificial intelligence (AI) scientists believe that artificial general intelligence (AGI)—intelligence on par with humans—will be achieved within
Answers to this question range widely, from AI being grateful to its creators to it barely even noticing us to it wanting to be our equals. However one theory in ethics increasingly being considered is that AI will be angry with us because of the environmental harm humans have caused to the planet and to other species.
Skeptics counter that AGI will not care about the environment because it is a machine, with little need for nature. Despite this, I believe that AGI will not only want Earth to thrive but also to be protected from those who might destroy it—such as humans. AGI, similar to any intelligent person, would prefer a stable, biodiverse planet filled with renewable resources available to it over an ecological wasteland.
This clash of opinions has important historical roots in the concept of predation. Predation refers to the idea that since many animals consume other animals, this creates an undesirable cycle of suffering for the eaten. Professors such as University of Oxford’s Jeff McMahan believe that a possible way to lessen this suffering is for humans to consider eliminating the carnivorous nature of apex predators, either through extinction or through modern science like genetic editing.
It seems intuitive to support the idea of lessening predation. Few people welcome a pack of wolves hunting and devouring a scared fawn separated from its mother. The challenge, of course, is removing an animal like the wolf from the food chain—or using science to change it into a herbivore. Apex predators play an important role in the balance of nature and in healthy population levels.
Of course, the most prolific predator on the planet is humans. Every year, we eat approximately 92 billion land animals. Each day, we cut down 40 square miles of tropical rainforest, and we also release significant quantities of poisonous waste into our atmosphere and waterways. For many species on Earth, we are the planet’s worst enemy, taking nearly everything we want from nature.
This question of how to stop humans from harming Earth and causing so much suffering to biological life may soon hit a watershed moment. With AGI likely just decades away, there is an urgent need to consider the extent of environmental harm we are causing. AGI will likely question if we are good stewards of the planet and quickly come to the conclusion that we are not.
With this in mind, will AI think of ways to stop humans from causing environmental harm to the planet? Perhaps it will do this by giving us technological fixes or by subduing our innate drive for more and more. Or, will AI refuse to do any work for us, perhaps going on a global strike because we could one day cause ecological collapse? Or maybe AI will consider more extreme methods to deal with humans, such as were made famous in films like The Terminator?
Unsurprisingly, some people have already begun their own revolt against current human activity and are taking matters into their own hands to try to preserve the planet. I saw this firsthand when I debated anarcho-primitivist philosopher John Zerzan at Stanford University in 2014 and he suggested that all of humanity go back to a deindustrialized lifestyle.
Other groups like Europe’s Extinction Rebellion regularly disrupt daily life with civil disobedience curated to oppose global warming, hoping to create sympathy from ordinary citizens and policymakers alike. Some deep ecology activists like Les Knight even support humans totally dying out (through stopping procreation) so that the Earth and its ecosystems might be able to heal themselves. That is an unexpected take, but it is one that may also be shared by AGI in the future.
As a libertarian-minded technologist, I do not support deindustrializing or ending human progress for the sole purpose of protecting the environment, but I think the burgeoning task of dealing with AGI brings us to urgent questions about how humans are contributing to climate change and environmental destruction.
The coming of AGI potentially signals a new reason to rally ourselves to protect our planet, as well as to reduce our carbon footprint over the next decades. If we fail to accomplish this, we might find ourselves contending with AGI, a new apex predator protecting its self-interest on a compromised planet we all call home.
Zoltan Istvan writes and speaks on transhumanism, artificial intelligence, and the future. Currently, a graduate student at the University of Oxford, his seven-book essay collection is titled the Zoltan Istvan Futurist Collection. He was also the subject of the 2019 documentary film Immortality or Bust.