www.growbyginkgo.com /2023/03/14/theres-nothing-unnatural-about-a-computer/

There's Nothing Unnatural About a Computer

Claire L. Evans, Sofia Crespo 23-29 minutes 3/14/2023

James Bridle is sitting in an old stone courtyard, radiantly tan, a silvery-green olive tree over their shoulder. In the distance, dry hills curve towards a sky blue with songbirds and distant bells. It’s precisely the scene I imagined I’d see, reaching the writer at home in Aegina. Bridle moved to this Greek island in early 2020, a big change in a year of even bigger changes, and it’s here, in this dappled courtyard, that they wrote Ways of Being, published by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux in June. 

“I’m just very, very lucky to have been able to work and to think here,” they tell me. Ways of Being is a meditation on artificial intelligence’s place in a more-than-human world, and Greece — alive, ancient, and all watched over by loving satellites — is omnipresent. In the book, Bridle drives a home-brewed autonomous vehicle up the slope of Mount Parnassus; they trace how AI is used to identify oil drilling sites in remote Epirus; they harvest metal-accumulating plants in the Pindus mountains. In one of the book’s loveliest passages, swallows swooping over Aegina’s abandoned beaches signal the coming of spring, even in the midst of a pandemic. Everything is connected. Speaking of computers and mythology alike, Bridle summons oracles.

In my own garden in Los Angeles the finch nesting in my mallow pips insistently whenever anyone comes near. The wildflowers are already going to seed. A big planet separates us, but for the moment, Bridle and I share a screen, and for that we are indebted to the vast computational reality that contains, counts, and corrupts the larger world of swallows and finches. It is this reality, Bridle writes, that needs re-wilding if we are to survive the coming decades. 

In their vision of a more-than-human future, slime molds take the place of silicon; and the “wood wide webs” interconnecting old-growth forests are a model for more resilient computer networks. From the embodied minds of octopi to the complex dances of bees, we are surrounded by radically different forms of intelligence. As we work towards developing AI, Bridle argues, we would do well to look to our more-than-human counterparts for inspiration, guidance, and solidarity. The mind of a computer is just one of many — a way of being on Earth, among others.

Evans: In the introduction to Ways of Being you ask, “what would it mean to build artificial intelligences that were more like octopuses, more like fungi, or more like forests?” You show a lot of different paths towards such an AI, but you stay away from any explicit speculations. Still, I know you write fiction, and you have an art practice that’s a bit more comfortable imagining. So, I will ask you: What does an AI modeled after an octopus, a fungus, or a forest look like?

Bridle: I don’t think there is such a thing as an artificial intelligence. There are multiple intelligences, many ways of doing intelligence. What I envisage to be more useful and interesting than artificial intelligence as we currently conceive of it—which is this incredibly reduced version of human intelligence— is something more distributed, more widely empowered, and more diverse than singular intelligence would allow for. It’s actually a conversation between multiple intelligences, focused on some narrow goals. I have a new, very long-term, very nascent project I’m calling Server Farm. And the vision of Server Farm is to create a setting in which multiple intelligences could work on a problem together. Those intelligences would be drawn from all different kinds of life. That could include computers, but it could also include fungi and plants and animals in some kind of information-sharing processing arrangement. The point is that it would involve more than one kind of thinking, happening in dialogue and relationship with each other.

Evans: How does one onboard more-than-human intelligence into such a project?

Bridle: Not entirely sure yet. But it definitely has to involve invitation, rather than command. I’m focused on creating the conditions for this to happen, rather than trying to design it all, top-down, from the outset. To bring things into relationship with one another, rather than set fixed outcomes from the beginning. And treating every participant as a colleague, as a comrade, rather than the subject to an experiment.

Evans: Which entails taking care of them.

Bridle: Yeah, absolutely. But you can’t get away from some level of use and power in this. There’s always going to be those kinds of dynamics. We farm, we use other beings in all kinds of ways, and we shape their lives. We’re not going to stop doing that, because it’s part of our own survival. But doing so with greater thoughtfulness and care, and with a certain expectation that the benefits of doing it will not only accrue to us, should be the cornerstone of it.

Evans: Something closer to a small organic garden rather than big agriculture.

Bridle: There’s a particularly wonderful place in France called Bec Hellouin, which is this amazing permaculture organic farm in Normandy that has shown that you can create really impressive agricultural yields, food crops, through a totally different technique of farming than the industrial agriculture that is mostly in use. Alternatives exist. One of the intentions of Server Farm is to try and bring a bunch of those things together to see what happens.

Evans: I really appreciate your call, throughout the book, for people to get their hands dirty. Not to critique technology in the abstract, but to actually build things. That resonated with me as a gardener, in the sense that gardening has allowed me to develop a more active awareness of the fact that we live in a more-than-human world. It’s a really powerful kind of awareness to have, and it’s precisely the kind of awareness that I would want to have about technology. Is making things the technological equivalent of gardening with code?

Bridle: The central metaphor of [my previous book] New Dark Age was plumbing. Which was about the necessity of having not just a vague understanding of where all the pipes go, but a really solid mental model of how the whole system operates. And the central metaphor of Ways of Being is, probably, gardening. If you’re not in communication, in relationship, with other beings, then no conversation is possible at all. We don’t know what’s possible with these tools unless we use them ourselves. And we don’t know what’s possible in relationships unless we have those relationships ourselves. We also don’t know it as individuals, because we have such limited individual perspectives and biases and privileges. So it requires as many people as possible to have those relationships, because that’s the only way we’ll find out what is really possible. The more people who are engaged in this, the better for everyone.

Evans: I think gardening is a way to practice sustained observation of natural life, but I’m sure there are other ways, like birdwatching. I wonder about birdwatching technology…

Bridle: There’s birdwatching technology in the book! There are vast, continent-scale radar systems which are used for birdwatching. Nocturnal flight was discovered using wartime radar. These were technological things that enabled really extraordinary new views onto the nonhuman world. But we don’t think of them. When we think about birdwatching, we don’t think about those things, particularly. But you could think about binoculars as being a pretty revolutionary technology for birdwatching. It’s a matter of what we choose to do with those tools.

Evans: That might be the biggest takeaway of your book for me — this idea that even technologies developed for nefarious purposes, to surveil humans, for example, can be turned around and used differently. That swords can be ploughshared. The thing is, we live in a more of a ploughshares-to-swords kind of world. 

Bridle: Absolutely. And I’m not making any claims that this is magically going to happen.

Evans: Do you believe that it can happen, though? That what we do with technology can be the first step — the cause, rather than the effect, of a social change?

Bridle: I don’t think it’s needlessly idealistic, because it’s also my experience. So it must be shared by some other people. I have this bias, through seeing my way to things through technology. And that’s how I came to write this book. It’s not necessarily the pathway for everyone, but a lot of us live in highly technological environments. Changing our attitudes to, and our use of, those technologies is a very powerful way of changing our relationship to the world.

Evans: Like trying to make more ecological choices in your daily life. It can be a small gesture, but collectively, these things have an impact.

Bridle: And they also don’t necessarily have concrete, immediate impacts in the ways that you expect. A lot of the stuff that I’m doing at the moment — particularly around building various kinds of little renewable energy things, or doing weird gardening stuff — is not because I expect this particular practice to change the world. But I think it builds capacity and agency. That means that the possibility of that happening increases. 

Evans: One thing that surprised me about the book is that you didn’t get into Artificial Life. I feel like Artificial Life is one of those concepts in computer science where the open-ended creativity of evolution and the tremendous capacities of life are actually taken seriously. 

Bridle: The things that were most compelling to me were things that were quite hybridized — that provided weird, interesting bridges between the world of computation and everything else. I’m sure that Artificial Life does that conceptually. But I guess I just really wasn’t looking for things that I felt existed inside machines. Or, you know, inside petri dishes. But there’s some discussion in the book of the role of simulation — things like climate simulators and other kinds of models that do develop our thinking, in such a way that when we bring it back into the world, it does really, really interesting things.

Evans: When I interviewed the ALife pioneer Tom Ray last year, he told me that the digital creatures that emerged within his system were not a model of life, but an instance of it. 

Bridle: That really chimes with what I said earlier about not really believing in such a thing as artificial intelligence. That AI — whatever it is, or might become — is not artificial. It’s an instance, as you say, of intelligence. That is something that cannot be artificial. Because it exists. By the end of the book, I extend that beyond artificial intelligence, to all technologies. All artifacts of life are also outcomes of evolution in various forms. There’s nothing unnatural about a computer. It’s just another different way of putting silicon and hydrocarbons and a bunch of other stuff together to do things, just as evolution has put together all kinds of other interesting forms. After a while, for me, those kinds of distinctions — between the natural or the unnatural, the artificial and the real — became completely meaningless. I see all these things as processes of relationship and becoming.

Evans: I suppose one distinction is the lack of embodied experience that an artificial intelligence might have. In your chapter on animal intelligence, you write about the ways in which the intelligence of animals has been historically underestimated by researchers who can’t think about those animals’ lives in context. Because intelligence is something that’s done by a whole body, in interface with the world. 

Bridle: The AIs we’re making do have those interfaces with the world — they’re just incredibly narrow. And they’re set and directed by humans to such a degree that artificial intelligence can only ever be a subset of human intelligence. It lacks any other kind of access to the world. And if intelligence is, as I tend to believe, an emergent property of engagement with the world, then you need to open that channel to the world in more ways, in order to get more interesting and more useful and fun intelligences to emerge. 

Evans: But is intelligence without a body an impoverished form of intelligence?

Bridle: Well, the way that I think about it is that intelligence is relational. It’s not something that exists within bodies, but between them. Or between beings, or between awarenesses, or between beings and things, between beings and places. I wouldn’t even necessarily restrict it to bodies. But intelligence without relationships — I don’t think I could really understand what that is.

Evans: How can AI help us to re-evaluate how we assess intelligence in the animal and plant kingdoms, and how we relate to the animal and plant kingdoms?

Bridle: I don’t know to what extent it can, directly. Maybe by modeling certain processes, or allowing us to see patterns in certain things. One of the examples I cite in the book are studies into animal behavior and earthquakes, and, basically, how animal sensing networks make really advanced predictions for earthquakes. Those patterns were only spotted when researchers used really smart machine learning algorithms to see the patterns of the animals. In that case, artificial intelligences interceded between the humans and the nonhumans, in order to allow that information, that awareness, to cross over, and therefore that relationship to be built. So there are points at which the use of these technologies allows us to see things, and realize things, about the nonhuman world that just weren’t accessible to us before. 

But I have this very strong sense that one of the broader roles of AI in the present is really just to broaden our idea of intelligence. The very existence, even the idea of artificial intelligence, is a doorway to acknowledging multiple forms of intelligence and infinite kinds of intelligence, and therefore a really quite radical decentering of the human, which has always accompanied our ideas about AI — but mostly incredibly fearfully. There’s always been this fear of another intelligence that will, in some way, overtake us, destroy us. It’s where all the horror of it comes from. And that power is completely valid, if you look at human history, the human use of technology, and the way in which it’s controlled by existing forms of power. But it doesn’t need to be read that way. 

Evans: Well, our model — largely formed through fiction — has always been that we’re creating “artificial man.” And of course that’s scary, because “man” is scary. Fear of AI is fear of ourselves. Fear of building a mirror that actually shows us who we are. What you’re proposing is that we can instead build something that allows us to look beyond the edge of the mirror and see something more interesting than ourselves.

Bridle: That’s why I’ve always had the fascination with all the glitches and weird edge cases and strangeness of AI. Because some of that is reflecting back whatever trash these things have been fed on. But it’s also genuinely presenting radically new ways of seeing the world that expands our view in ways that we don’t yet fully understand.

Evans: Yet we characterize those things as failures.

Bridle: Yeah, we characterize them as failures. And we often have quite some horrified reactions to them. But that’s just a failure of imagination.

Intelligence is relational. It’s not something that exists within bodies, but between them.

Evans: Can I share a fear with you? My fear is that the vital importance of wisdom that is rooted in place — and by that, I mean everything from Indigenous land management to the lessons we learn studying ecology in context — comes into view just as place itself disappears. You write about plants needing to migrate 115 centimeters a day to survive climate change. How can we nurture knowledge that is rooted in place as zones of habitability shift? Can we move knowledge 115 centimeters a day to keep pace? 

Bridle: I think it’s what we do all the time. The reason this is urgent and a fight is because we are literally losing knowledge. Through habitat destruction, through climate change, through loss of biodiversity — it is knowledge that is being lost. But that process is hardly new. It’s been going on for centuries, if not millennia. It’s the main action of colonialism and imperialism. It’s just a fight. And it’s going to keep being a fight. But of course we can move these knowledges. Of course we can translate them, and we can listen for them better, and we can construct new habitats and reserves, in possibly a slightly newer sense, for them. And we can continue to work with them. 

I remember going to the British Library many years ago. I got an amazing behind-the-scenes tour, it’s completely incredible: the building goes down, probably more stories than they say, underground, and it has these vast robotic systems for moving artifacts around. It’s this incredible grounded spaceship for preserving stuff. But that preservation isn’t just putting stuff in cold rooms. It’s also an incredibly active process. You’ve got all of these studios where they’re doing preservation work. In one room, you will have someone prizing open 10th century books or X-raying ancient papyri to try and pull the information back up off the page, out of this rotting medium. And in the next room, you’ve got someone who’s working on piecing together shellac discs, the very first audio recording tools. And in the next one, you’ve got someone who’s trying to get something off a Mac that’s 10 years old. I remember walking around this place and having this real vision of all culture, all human knowledge, all human experience, piled on a huge conveyor belt moving inexorably towards the fire. And the whole work is just constantly shoving that stuff away from the fire in any way that we can. And that’s not just the work of librarians, or even artists and cultural workers. It’s really what we all do all the time in trying to preserve and transmit knowledge. 

But what’s also crucial about that is that every time you do it, you’re enacting it. It’s not just about portaging dead media, or frozen ideas from the past. It’s about finding what their place is in the present. How they are useful in the current moment. That enacting becomes possible when you’re doing the work of understanding and listening and transmitting. Because that’s where it always happens. The knowledge is in the telling of it. It’s true of everything. I don’t like falling back on Indigenous knowledge as an example — the “magic native” trope — but it’s much clearer in non-Western cultures, I think. In Australian Aboriginal storytelling these things have a direct relationship to the lived landscape. They’re survival tools of the present. I think all knowledge is that. We can and do use these things — processing knowledge over time. That’s how we get on. And we’ll continue to get on.

Evans: I feel that the things that are the most important to know are things learned from sustained observation. That’s why Indigenous knowledge is so deep, because it represents centuries of observation of one environment. But environments are changing so quickly now. 

Bridle: Sustained observation is wonderful. But it’s also a survival tool, because it allows you to react specifically to new situations. And that’s really the key. We are facing situations that are novel to humanity. But all organisms, at some point, face situations that are novel, and the ones that survive are the ones that have the broadest range of experience to draw on to find new solutions, and the broadest diversity of experiences.

Evans: On the same tip, sometimes I feel that the best thing for survival is to have absolutely no memory. Think about an insect on the sidewalk, just crossing the road. It has no idea that the sidewalk isn’t natural. It was born in this world and for the insect, that’s nature. I sometimes wish that we had that kind of innocence.

Bridle: I think that’s a really important skill to develop to deal with everything we’re facing. While certain forms of environmental change are accelerating, in the present, there has always been change. One of the biggest problems I think we have — certainly at a high-level, scientific government and communication of climate change, but I think also, for most of us, mentally and internally — is this idea of some kind of Before and After. Or some kind of fixed line over which everything changes, rather than these just being processes of change that we can adapt to. That we can build systems that are resilient to. And that we can mitigate to some extent. But that we can also change with. It’s not just the plants that have to head north, or have to adapt to stay in place. It’s us as well. 

The changes necessary for that are huge changes, both in our societies and our thinking. I think you’re right in saying that involves a huge letting-go of our expectations of what is normal. And what is natural. Because those things don’t really apply. They’re not really useful models for thinking about the situation that we’re in. 

Evans: It can be difficult to look at the world around you, and just be like: this is it.

Bridle: I don’t think it is that hard, if you pay attention to the place that you’re actually in. I live in a place that’s going to get hotter, and you do too. It’s going to get hotter, it’s going to get drier, there’s going to be more wildfires. And that’s going to affect how we live, how we build, and how we structure our societies, all of these things. But we have the incredible luxury of being pretty aware of those processes. And being in a position where we can structure things, and we can anticipate them, to a huge extent, and create the conditions in which we and many others will survive and thrive within them. But it’s not a question of holding on to that place as it exists in the present. That time has passed, unfortunately, if it ever really existed.

Evans: Your book concludes with this beautiful vision of the “internet of animals,” a planet-spanning network of sensors that can help us see the world as it really is. But given that you spend a lot of time talking about the dangerous ways in which data is centralized and deployed, can you speak a little bit about the governance of such a thing?

Bridle: It was a huge surprise to me that the internet of animals became the final example in the book, and I really stress that I don’t think it’s some grand, singular solution to everything. But it is a mechanism for doing some of the things that I say in the book are necessary, which include having a much broader, technologically-augmented view of life on Earth. The internet of animals gives us an idea of nonhuman lives with sufficient grain to shift our patterns of life to make more space for them. I also describe that as a form of suffrage, essentially — that what you’re essentially creating is a political system in which nonhumans have a say, have a voice. And so really, why I’m interested in the internet of animals is simply that it’s a way of giving them a voice that we can hear and listen to in ways that we haven’t been terribly good at so far. The ultimate aim always being to act on that voice. 

I think there are a lot of precedents within human data use and human data management that are very rarely followed, as we know, but which exist. Things like the EU’s “right to be forgotten” as a precedent for a kind of human-centric, compassionate use of data. That could be extended to interactions with nonhumans in various ways. But one key part of what I say about that particular vision of the internet of animals, allowing us to work towards a shared planet, is also that we get the hell out of quite large areas. That includes data and monitoring — when we know what we need to know, we stop. We erase the data and we erase our presence and we move ourselves away from the center in every way that we can. I think it’s a bit too easy to get caught up in the very, very real problems with doing some of this stuff, when we’re already doing it at such a hideously large industrial scale that not trying to do it better seems to be a slightly foolish barrier to going forward. We have this power and we’re already misusing it. I’m no fan of massive geoengineering schemes, but we are already doing massive geoengineering schemes. That’s what 300 years of burning fossil fuels is. 

Evans: Fortunately some of the most damaging uses of human data come from people trying to sell things to us, or sell us to others. Animals can’t buy anything. You can’t sell leggings to a moose. Not yet anyway. 

Bridle: I’m sure someone will try.

Evans: I’m sure someone will try. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.