Human activity will almost certainly push global temperatures more than 2 degrees beyond pre-industrial levels. Even with aggressive action, some climate scientists are already suggesting it may be too late to reverse course. While there’s plenty of uncertainty in climate science, there’s no good reason to assume anything other than the worst possible outcome. And there’s a lot more certainty in human behavior. We’re short-sighted, fight-or-flight–driven animals. The threat of climate change is too slow, too distant, for the human brain to meaningfully react to it in the here and now.
Climate scientists will keep running studies and modeling solutions that could reduce carbon dioxide levels more aggressively. And we should do that. But even with the most optimistic science out there, we will likely end up with catastrophic consequences on the ground, including widespread war, famine and an onslaught of disease. We need a backup plan like never before.
It’s time for humanity to get serious about getting out of Dodge. Colonization was traditionally a journey of discovery. Today it’s a journey for survival. Of course, the path between our science fiction novels and a serious colonization mission is rife with challenges. One of the most important and pressing today is our need for massive advancements in artificial intelligence. Without AI, humanity’s colonization hopes do not pass “Go.”
Sadly, the essential role that AI plays in our long-term survival is obfuscated by a roaring debate about automation killing jobs in the next five years. The benefits of aggressive investment in AI so dramatically outweigh the costs that the only rational chess move is to triple-down on AI and all of its enabling technologies.
The Chinese government seems to understand this better than the rest of the world. Its AI plan is so bold, so ambitious and so well-funded that most experts acknowledge it has the potential to reshape the geopolitical landscape for generations. Perhaps they understand what many do not: AI won’t just save humanity in the future; it’s doing it now, and it has been doing it for a while.
HUMANITY’S UNSUNG HERO
NASA is clear that AI is the future of space exploration. The reasons are fairly obvious: Wherever our probes go, they either need to be controlled from Earth, or have some sort of intelligence to guide even the most rudimentary decisions.
Even small decisions that the average person wouldn’t think about, like choosing which areas of a planet are most interesting for taking pictures, are now made by artificial intelligence. The AEGIS system on the Mars rover Curiosity is just one current example, but AI has been playing a role since the early 2000s, when the Spirit and Opportunity rovers used the AutoNav system.
Last year, Google’s machine learning discovered a new planet using NASA’s archived Kepler data. Consider that we’ve been sitting on this data for years, but a neural network was able to discover a planet in mere minutes. Yet right after the announcement of this remarkable achievement, Google felt the need to reassure astronomers worldwide that their jobs were safe: “What we’ve developed here is a tool to help astronomers have more impact,” Chris Shallue said on a conference call about the news. “It’s a way to increase the productivity of astronomers. It certainly won’t replace them at all.”
Imagine that — AI had just massively reduced the time it takes to discover planets, to unravel the mysteries of the universe around us and light a path to a potential future home for our species, and somehow we’re worried about jobs. Even if you count only discoveries made without leaving our planet, we’re in the golden age of space exploration, a time when human knowledge is multiplying, all thanks to basic AI.
AN AI AT EVERY FRONTIER
Many climate scientists have already made the claim that climate change is now a big data problem. AI, of course, is the best technology we have for processing and analyzing massive amounts of data. If you’re holding out hope that we can turn things around on Earth, the answer is pretty simple: We need more, and better, AI.
In 2017, for the first time ever, federal scientists requested funds to accelerate research into climate engineering. They specifically cited two areas of research: removing carbon dioxide from our atmosphere and increasing Earth’s ability to reflect sunlight. This is the stuff of science-fiction novels, and the data analysis and modeling tasks alone are massive and prohibitive, but AI makes it possible to embark on these new paths to scientific discovery.
Environmental science is seeing a similar lift thanks to AI. A recent report from the World Economic Forum cited opportunities to use AI for everything from smart grids to weather modeling and prediction, to biodiversity, agriculture, conservation and ocean health.
If you’re less optimistic about Earth’s prospects, AI is already playing a role in microbiome research, which might hold answers to the most daunting block to long-term human space travel: human physiology. That our immune systems change in space isn’t just an interesting phenomenon — it could mean disaster for a 200- or 300-year colonization mission. NASA has active research projects in this area, and they learned a lot from astronaut Scott Kelly’s year on the International Space Station, such as the power required to safely send and land a heavy craft carrying three years’ worth of supplies for a mission to Mars. But it’s going to come down to AI to accelerate this research.
Consider long-distance space travel and the delays in communication with Houston as spacecraft get farther away from Earth. The farther we want to go, the more dependent our missions are on AI that can make accurate, autonomous decisions in the face of unexpected conditions.
It’s increasingly evident: Whether on Earth or in space, any solution to climate change, fight or flight, begins with AI.
JOBS ARE NOT TOO HIGH A PRICE
Humanity is indeed making a grand bargain with our own technological creations. We surrender to the machines some of our jobs. In exchange, we are given a second chance to make better decisions for future generations.
If you believe the future of the human race depends on our ability to colonize somewhere other than Earth, then you agree that AI will save humanity. If you believe that we can engineer our way out of the climate crisis here on Earth, then you agree that AI will save humanity.
And when you think about what’s at stake, do you really care who or what makes your hamburger?