Climate Crisis and the Environment

If nature was built by machines

We have sculpted our planet since the beginnings of human existence, and in doing so have changed so many ecosystems that the earth’s stability is now reliant upon human intervention. More than ever before, conservation institutions have to work tirelessly, and often unsuccessfully in attempts to remediate the anthropogenic degradation of the natural world.

Now, if humans were to leave even the most protected areas, many of our iconic natural spaces would change again. Ecosystems may collapse, biodiversity lost, and the fundamental services provided by these ecosystems may fall to extinction. Whilst humankind struggles to meet the required care after the damage caused to our planet, a new solution is required to ensure the stability of earth over the next 100 years.

Today, conservationists face a dilemma: should we leave ecosystems without further human intervention, truly wild, accepting any changes that may occur thereafter; or pump money, energy and valuable time into maintaining the fragile biodiversity that remains?

If we continue to keep species in an area from extinction, then we can maintain the historical beauty that currently defines natural spaces. On the other hand, if we leave these spaces, we will save the time taken to protect them. Many feel it is our duty to retain ecosystems in their historic state, but using current methods, our ability to meet demands on human labour are becoming increasingly difficult.

These two options are often seen as mutually exclusive. One answer to this problem, however, provides a solution for maintaining ecosystem stability and restoring damaged sites, whilst reducing human intervention: automated conservation.

By saying automated conservation, many may initially think of pre-programmed robots, and so envisage a strange landscape, of clockwork pollinators used to fulfil the requirements of bees: where the well-worn phrase for integrating nature into the modern world has been twisted, turned upside-down, digested, and then regurgitated into some mechanical mad scientist’s dream.

Automation, in this case, does not necessarily mean an industrial world full of robotic machines to replace the previous functions of extinct species. Instead, this principle is applied to the analysis of information describing environmental health, which is then used to make decisions and implement further actions necessary to conserve and even restore a natural landscape. It falls close on the automated spectrum to artificial intelligence, where reinforced learning allows computers to digest complex real-world environmental problems, formulating solutions based on previous experiences.

So this all sounds rather convoluted and complicated, but in essence, the possibility for the future design of a self-guiding, and self-correcting conservation robot has been proposed. Be this in the case of periodic visits by a machine to survey an area of conservation interest, through to the practice of conserving that area upon guidance, the possibilities for automated conservation are almost endless. It may sound out of this world, but it really isn’t.

This principle of machine-driven-learning to develop predictions in conservation is not a new one. Whilst implementing automatically directed actions in conservation is still a step into the future not yet trodden, the reality of such a mechanism in our world may not be too far away.

Semi-automatic field robots are already used very successfully for agricultural and conservation management. Drones are able to fertilise fields, and even identify denuded areas of forest to then sew germinated seeds in these areas. In the sea, drones are seeking out and eliminating the crown-of-thorns starfish invaders along the Great Barrier Reef, minimizing the disruptive effects that could be caused by human divers.

Although the proposition of automated conservation may at first seem like a strange and unrealistic sci-fi fantasy, we are far closer to a machine-protected and human-independent wild world than you think.

So the fantasy has been portrayed: a beautifully kept landscape, wild and independent of unsustainable human intervention, yet stable, restored and possibly even remediated from the polluted, invaded and fragmented natural landscape that we previously created. Unfortunately, like most wonderful solutions to the biodiversity crisis of the Anthropocene lies a few contentious issues.

A major problem that has driven the destruction of the earth’s natural landscape is the increasing disparity between human interests and the requirements of a wild landscape. One driving factor of this disparity is a separation between modern day life and nature.

Humans used to depend upon the soil, the plants and the animals that were only found in a healthy ecosystem. Now, however, we have become fixated with money, technology, and infrastructure for a livelihood, often leaving the interests of nature by the wayside.

If we were to create a machine that meant we not only no longer required the land but were also no longer needed to care for it, then perhaps we would fall even farther from our connection with nature altogether. A breadth of research supports the necessity of nature in its most complete form for pollination, maintenance of water quality, as a food source itself, and, as a less obvious point, for our own piece of mind.

Lest we forget the importance of nature in our lives not only for functionality but as a fundamental symbiotic relationship. If we forget this, whilst creating such a machine, whether intentions come from conservation interests or not, then we may create something quite disastrous in the wake of wildlife conservation.

Georgina Bray

Featured image courtesy of Georgina Bray

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