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Beyond Calculation: AI and Sustainability

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Trillions of dollars of climate finance need nature to be machine-like. But nature is not a machine. So how shall we proceed? In this 20′ talk, I explore two questions: Can AI serve all of life, not just human life? And if so, how?

In Shanghai, at the invitation of Prof. Dr. Yongqi Lou (Vice President at Tongji University) I’m developing the agenda for a Thematic Cluster around the agenda of Regenerative Design.

My job is to identify opportunities where Regenerative Design meets climate finance, artificial intelligence, ecological restoration, green infrastructure, and agro-ecology. The work builds on the bioregioning agenda, and the Urban-Rural expo we did at the end of 2019. The results will feed into new programmes during 2022.

Also in 2022, I will be part of the #designforplanet Fellowship launched this month by Design Council. Together with eight colleagues, we will turn the promise of #RegenerativeDesign into practice.

The talk transcript below (or click to see see the video) is a form of work-in-progress: it’s my keynote for International Forum on Innovation and Emerging Industries Development (IEID) in Shanghai 02 December 2021. I gave the talk at the invitation of Professor Filippo Fabrocini

Transcription of “Beyond Calculation”

Good data are important if we are to understand and reverse the destruction of nature that’s so distressing to us all. And it is good news that more and more data about biodiversity is becoming available thanks to the marvels of satellite imagery, DNA analysis, and other data analysed by AI.

But is artificial intelligence enough, on its own, to drive the ecological transition we so desperately need?

My key point today: AI can be a support for transformational change. But a truly just transition will only happen when, in the words of Raimon Pannikar, we “see nature differently, relate to nature differently, and understand our purpose here differently”.

Seventy five years ago, in 1944, the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov published his First Law of Robotics. It stated: “A robot may not injure a human being nor, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm”.

Around the world, numerous groups have puiblished ethical principles for AI. By one estimate, 172 statements have been published so far. China’s version is aligned with most of the other statements: AI should be re-oriented in the service of human good.

If we think of Artificial Intelligence as a kind of robot, then Asimov’s law could easily be updated: “AI may not injure a human being nor, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm’.

There’s been more disagreement about implementation of such a law. How can we ensure, experts ask, that AI systems will understand what we mean? Do what we want? This question, too, has a history. Back in 1960, the mathematician Norbert Wiener asked, “Are we quite sure that the purpose put into the machine is the purpose which we really desire?.”

That one word – ‘purpose’ – highlights the core dilemma that I will focus on today.

Because even if we could be sure that AI would understand and obey an updated Asimov law, such a law would only mention “what’s good for humans” . There’s no mention of all the other life forms we share the living planet with. This humans-first approach has had catastrophic consequences throughout the industrial age.

Even before AI came along, “what’s good for humans” helped shape an economy that extracts vitality, as well as resources, from the planet’s living systems.

This cultural disconnection – between the living world, and the economic one – explains why we either don’t think about rivers, soils, and biodiversity at all – or we treat them as natural ‘resources’ whose only purpose is to feed “the economy.”

The idea that “the economy” exists in a separate domain from life itself sounds crazy when you say it out loud.

By the same token, It makes little sense to discuss the purpose of AI in isolation from the bigger picture of life on earth, and our place within that.

President Xi alluded to the need for a larger purpose just a few days ago. In a speech about the Belt and Road Initiative, he called for a “new development paradigm”.

This idea – a new concept for development – is for me the best place to start in any discussion of where and how we use AI.

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