Technology Opinion

Environmental balance: It's possible with the gift of AI

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(Image by Google DeepMind | Pexels)

Judging by the extent of environmental destabilisation over the last century, Earth’s productivity needs to be 'rebalanced'. Keith Presnell believes AI is the gift that might get us there.

A BALANCED ENVIRONMENT is a productive environment. The debate about the impact that our species is having on environmental balance incorporates science, politics, guesswork and lies.

Mankind’s many technological advances are at risk of being lost for want of balance. Should we as a species intend to preserve opportunities for future generations, we will need to exhibit a functional appreciation of the mechanics involved. 

Balance buys the time needed for order to emerge from chaos. Order then, fathers synergies, either as natural evolution or as conscious behaviour. Wikipedia describes balance in biomechanics as 'an ability to maintain the line of gravity (vertical line from centre of mass) of a body within the base of support with minimal postural sway.'

Natural balance

Natural balance contains a degree of "postural sway" that enables the environment to absorb change without undue disturbance. The challenge for contemporary society is to recognise the limits imposed by postural sway and to adjust its behaviour accordingly.

The graph below depicts the social equivalent of the economist’s "supply and demand" graph. It incorporates the behavioural fluxes that underpin our civilisation.

Social balance

Graph image supplied

The circle at the centre represents the postural sway available for social balance to remain stable. Any distortion at the circumference of the circle introduces change, which risks destabilising social balance. 

Should the distortion be in the direction of the positive pole, risk will be accompanied by opportunity, with the possibility of restructuring social order in a positive way. Should the distortion extend towards the negative pole, then we can expect any changes to be socially regressive.

The extent of social unrest globally is a measure of the damage that our species is doing to environmental balance. To reverse that trend, humanity will need to match its focus on commerce with equivalent attention to spiritual comprehension.

It will need to resurrect the use of "common sense" as a filter for actions taken and that might well involve engaging artificial intelligence (AI) to audit human behaviour. We must learn to put cooperation before competition, treat education as distinct from manipulation and minimise deceitful communication.

When an individual's voice is discounted, when one is deprived of access to a functional education or left without a challenge, then the outcome for communities will be sub-optimal.

Such individuals become grist for antisocial activities. The holy grail for humanity is to coordinate the potential of every individual to be productive and creative. That will involve universal access to education and a population size regulated to match the demands of evolution.

From diversity comes resilience. Balance is a feature of small communities where everybody knows everybody and natural accountability sponsors equity. Members generally share social responsibilities.

However, since the Industrial Revolution, the bulk of the rural population has emigrated to large cities where the needs of the community are met by "the system". This homogenised service comes at a cost, which not all members of the community either want, or can afford. 

Modern mega-communities have become "commercial operations" at the expense of both cultural and species diversity. Their operation discounts equity and integrity, replacing them with a suite of marketing strategies that serve to channel the bulk of the benefits from environmental plunder and the efforts of the majority into the coffers of a minority.

Work balance

Urbanisation of the workforce is turning out to be an expensive anachronism. Not only is it a major contributor to environmental degradation, but as community size increases, so does the social cost and functionality of the infrastructure needed to maintain it.

Transport systems fail to meet demand efficiently. The quality of social services such as education, public health and welfare drops. Dissatisfaction with the system generates competitive, selfish and aggressive behaviour that is difficult to address. There are many negatives associated with an urban lifestyle. One could well ask why we persist.

Community balance

A community in balance would feature knowledge-sharing, teamwork and equity. Our nervous system is a classic model for social equity. It starts with nerve endings connected to the brain. Providing the signals sent to the brain come from a specific location, the brain can initiate a logical response. The system works well for most of us — there is no reason why it wouldn’t work well for a community.

If we adopted that model, individuals would become like nerve endings: transmitting data from 8 billion individuals to a central processing unit capable of collating, analysing and then applying the information expeditiously would require society to be re-modelled with the help of artificial intelligence.  

Take a community of 50 to a few thousand people occupying an area of land of sufficient size to support the community indefinitely. Each community enjoys local autonomy but is inspired by the ease of contributing its knowledge via an AI data management facility or node to assist future generations.

Fifty to a few thousand nodes connected to a regional data management facility, 50 regional intelligence nodes connected to a national node and so on, eventually creating a global data repository that is "directly responsive to grassroots stimuli".

Conversely, every village node would have direct access to a global perspective on health, telecommunication services, education and product interface standards, along with the full range of innovative possibilities.

Technology is changing the way we do things. Instead of mega-industries, new micro-industrial technologies that meet the needs of a small community should become the norm.

Distributed energy systems, small-scale recycling systems, textile manufacturing and basic pharmaceutical capabilities that access local medicinal resources, etcetera. Technologies that help the community to become self-sufficient.

Balance overall

In total, they could provide opportunities for all individuals to contribute to social advancement based on specific circumstances. Industrial monopolies would become less relevant, reducing the costs associated with resourcing and then distributing centralised production. The diversity engendered by such a model would enhance humanity’s prospects for adapting to environmental change.

It is conceivable that we could rebalance the Earth’s productivity in a meaningful time frame, but already the damage bill is high and time is running out.

Judging by the extent of environmental destabilisation that has emerged over the last 100 years, there is a sound case for assuming that many localities are already well past their natural carrying capacity.

The human predicament is that while restoring the environmental balances that best suit our species might be technically achievable, we lack a common will.

Keith Presnell, now retired, was director of renewable energy research at Charles Darwin University and Australia's representative on the International Energy Agency (IEA's) photovoltaic subcommittee.

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