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An artificially intelligent solution to restoring civilisation

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AI could hold the key to our species' survival (Image via GoodFon | Gottlib)

Humanity needs the help of artificial intelligence to restore the environmental balances that support the web of life on this planet, writes Keith Presnell.

THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT of this planet is experiencing traumatic change. The physical environment is affected by climate destabilisation, the biological by species extinction and humanity’s social environment by cultural homogenisation. 

The disruption is due to the uncivilised behaviour of a relatively few members of the human race. In this article, we will examine that situation and seek out ways to moderate their influence.

Civilisation

A community, as the term suggests, is a communication-enhanced environment intended to capitalise on the synergistic benefits that stem from sharing. Civility is a feature of any functional community. Civilising individuals involves teaching them to balance self-interest – a survival instinct – with a willingness to share. 

The evolution of the human race has seen “hunter-gatherer” groups coalesce to form larger communities, a process motivated by the promise of improved circumstances. In the beginning, communal effort was mainly directed at facilitating food gathering, improving living standards and enhancing personal security. 

As communities matured, their agenda increased in sophistication to incorporate formal education. A sound education helps to equip society with ordered and productive individuals who exercise self-control and are prepared to take responsibility for their actions. When that logic fails to resonate, individuals may well view access to communal assets as their birthright and selfishness will prevail to the detriment of social accord.

In a village environment, everybody knows everybody and natural accountability underpins social equity. Governance at a national scale lacks that attribute. While a private sector entity may well benefit from good leadership, governance of a nation has become a multi-disciplinary exercise encompassing complexities well beyond the ability of any individual to appreciate.

With any group, consensus becomes increasingly difficult as the numbers involved grow. Likewise, the difficulty of satisfying everyone’s personal agenda increases. Centralising control negates natural accountability necessitating the creation of various legal instruments to fill the hole.

As more and more artificial controls are introduced, their implementation increasingly burdens the community with the cost of enforcement. It also tends to homogenise the population and reduce the social cohesion that comes from community members needing to rely on one another. 

Centralising control has enabled private sector interests to achieve a multi-jurisdictional dimension making it impossible for any national government to hold them accountable for anti-social behaviour. They now bully governments, harvest natural resources unsustainably and generally exhibit uncivilised behaviour (a greedy lack of self-control) with impunity. 

Civilised behaviour is a balance between instinct and learned behaviour. Whether it be on the scale of an individual organism, a species, an ecosystem or the planet itself, the existence of each is a product of balance. 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’. Religion generally seeks a balance between good and evil. Natural balance is between inert and living matter.

For a community, there is a balance between the public sector, with social equity as its holy grail and the private sector, with its mantra of specialised services delivered via a market economy.

Natural balance contains a degree of postural sway that enables the environment to absorb a certain amount of change without undue disturbance. Understanding how robust that capacity is involves an appreciation of the dynamics involved. Our species is yet to graduate in that discipline.

The decline of civilisation

Science and technology underpin social commerce. Art is the organic counterbalance to science and technology. Art is responsible for sculpting our species’ presence in the broader ecosystem. It encompasses aesthetics, religion, culture, relationships and spirituality.

A functional civilisation requires both elements to be in balance — art reflecting the organic side of life and commerce dealing with life’s operational logistics. Another way of looking at it is that commerce is an investment in maintaining a presence and art is the reward.

About the time of the Industrial Revolution, humanity stepped off the path of evolution. Lured by the promise of material wealth, it went on to consume natural resources unsustainably, in the process widening social schisms.

Equity, normal amongst “hunter and gatherer” groups, has been diluted to a point where, according to Google, half of the world's net wealth (in dollar terms) now belongs to the top 1% of the population. The top 10% of the population holds 85%, while the bottom 90% holds only 15% of the world's total wealth.

That revolution generated the need for a convenient labour source, leading to the formation of urban communities. In time, those communities grew to form large urban networks, accompanied by logistical challenges that required massive investments in infrastructure.

Urbanisation of the workforce is now an expensive anachronism. Congested transport systems that consume potentially productive time, unnatural and sometimes unhealthy living conditions, widening class divisions and lack of accountability all complicate life and breed uncivilised behaviour. 

The social changes needed to respond effectively to the consequences of de-civilisation are obvious. De-civilisation is the product of the actions of a relatively few individuals. Who is in the vanguard of that group? We might start with those who profit most from the manufacture and sale of the weaponry used in modern warfare. 

The conduct of warfare has changed from being a social commitment to becoming a commercial opportunity. Profiteering from arms supply keeps several major economies afloat. Whether it is a communist army, a democratic army or a terrorist army, all have shown themselves to be capable of pursuing genocide while vandalising both natural and social environments.

That, despite the vast majority of people in the communities they claim to “protect” being of peaceful inclination and decrying the death and destruction being dismissed so lightly by the perpetrators.

It would seem that a significant percentage of the profits from arms sales is being channelled into stimulating that market.

The path home

Finding a solution to flawed and inconsistent leadership is a priority. Sound governance requires inspired facilitation directed at balancing materialism with quality-of-life outcomes, reducing class distinctions, and generally downsizing our species' environmental footprint. 

Commerce and trade need to become a socially beneficial exercise, not a competition to see who is the most powerful. Human frailty must be neutralised and that will involve embracing all technologies that might help to rebuild culturally diverse, human-scale communities where economies of scale are balanced by the satisfaction that accompanies self-reliance. 

With general cooperation, we might positively address these priorities, but cooperative effort requires both a common appreciation of the situation and trust that the decisions being made are sensible. For that to happen, humanity would need to do a complete about-face and that is unlikely given the time available.

So, how might we effectively restore balance? Simple adjustments to humanity’s current agenda are futile. A new approach to life is needed, one featuring a philosophy that values the mechanics of environmental balance, exercises common sense and acknowledges the importance of re-civilising communities where respect, wealth and education are equally accessible to everyone. 

The only way back may well be for artificial intelligence to audit human behaviour. The Industrial Revolution saw tools such as the shovel and the axe replaced by technologies able to achieve more in a day than an individual might in their lifetime.

Now, we are facing a technological revolution where devices such as computers can potentially be replaced by artificial intelligence that, theoretically, could appreciate how our species might fit within the limitations set by the planet’s postural sway.

Artificial intelligence is much more capable of assimilating and manipulating knowledge than is humanity. It has the potential to make decisions based on the sum of knowledge of the human race, to audit outcomes free of minority influences and to retain a focus on “sustaining life”.

AI has the capacity to define the extent of humanity's environmental mismanagement. It might also access all forms of communication media, including encrypted data, to reveal any individuals contemplating anti-social behaviour.

While the realised value of artificial intelligence may yet hinge on the integrity of its architects, there would seem to be the potential to incorporate programs able to detect fraudulent activity, whether introduced into its genetics historically, inadvertently or maliciously. 

Humanity needs the help of artificial intelligence to have any hope of restoring the environmental balances that support the web of life on this planet.

Hypothetically, with artificial intelligence privy to the sum knowledge asset of our species, we could ask it how best to sustain natural evolution on the planet. Then, should we be brave enough, we could ask it for a prescription for re-civilising humanity’s prodigal members.

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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