Two minutes to midnight

When it comes to climate change, we tend to focus on the damage – which is now apparent to the naked eye – rather than on the solutions we need to adopt. What’s most worrying is political inaction: on a global scale, we’re doing very little to defend ourselves, very little to prevent this environmental catastrophe. But the risk of a sudden and devastating acceleration is real: the most recent statistics confirm that the predictions made in the ‘80s and ‘90s were very conservative. The most striking example is the North Pole melting: in the last 20 years, the surface of the Arctic has halved, its volume now being a quarter of what it was in 1990. This effect of climate change is much greater than expected.

Everyone knows that the melting of the glaciers is due to the rise in temperatures, but very few are aware this varies greatly from place to place. The global average temperature has increased by one degree in the last century, but at the North Pole it has risen by 4.5 degrees, while in the Antarctic it has risen by zero. The temperature increase triggers dramatic chain effects, such as the melting of tundra ice, which stores a huge amount of methane. When it’s released, the methane reaches the atmosphere and increases the amount of greenhouse gases. It’s a sort of wicked effect: the more the ice melts, the more greenhouse gases, the more the ice melts and so on.

Arctic melting has two other consequences: a decrease in the salinity of water and a change in the course of warm currents of water and air. The combination of these factors triggers severe climatic fluctuations, to such an extent that some areas of the planet might soon become inhabitable. We’ll also experience rising sea levels, which are expected to be 15 centimeters higher by 2050. If, as is slowly happening, not only the Antarctic ice melts, but also that of Greenland, sea levels will rise by one to five meters.

Some countries, threatened by the rising sea levels, have taken drastic decisions. Indonesia decided to rebuild its capital Jakarta 300 kilometers inland. The Netherlands has set up a transfer plan for all its coastal cities, which will be defended by hills and dams, so to protect trains, highways and infrastructure. New York has planned a system of mobile flood barriers on the Hudson: the project has been approved and is under construction.

Another factor to consider is climatic variability: we will have long periods of drought with high temperatures, equally long rainy periods, much more accentuated rainfall, floods, and hurricanes. All this will have a huge impact, especially in the most vulnerable climate regions, which are already in trouble. Extended drought periods in Sub-Saharan and Central Africa or South-East Asia will make those regions poorer than they already are. It will be impossible to produce enough food, millions of people will be forced to migrate, conflicts will develop on the exploitation of resources such as water and fertile lands. It won’t be just an environmental catastrophe; it will also be political and economic.

An interesting fact in this sense is that, in the last 30 years, the variation in the distribution of wealth within each country has been stronger than the polarization among countries. At one time in India the richest 10% owned 20% of the country’s total income. Now, it owns 40%. A similar situation is developing in France, Italy, Russia, China, and the United States. The issue of the equitable distribution of income must be solved by the farsightedness of governments’ long term planning: as long as they consider protectionism, autarchy and sovereignism the answers to the world’s problems, we won’t be able to control the climate emergency, nor the social, or economical ones. If, instead, they find a way to cooperate on a structural reorganization of the international economic systems, things could have a different outcome.

The United States, Europe and China alone make more than half of the world’s GDP and produce 50% of the greenhouse gases. Working in the same direction and collaboratively, they could do a great deal to control climate change. It’s a good sign that the former prime minister of the United Kingdom Theresa May and the leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn decided it was about time to declare a national climate emergency. Ireland followed, and many other countries will do the same, also thanks to the pressure exerted by movements led by activists such as Greta Thunberg.

Politicians know that we’re beyond the point of no return, that without a drastic course reversal and new technologies there is zero chance to stay below the critical two degree as too much CO2 has been released into the atmosphere. In the last 40 years, that is, since there has been a full awareness of the problem, we have emitted more CO2 than in the entire history of mankind. In 1992, the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit Conference sounded the alarm on greenhouse gas emissions, but since then they have increased by 70%, despite all countries having agreed to reduce them. There’s a huge gap between what has been said and what gets actually done. Greta Thunberg’s movement is one result of this contradiction.

But there’s more than civic activism. Technology can mitigate the effects of climate change with amazing outcomes. At a time where government action is no longer effective bilateral agreements, memoranda of understanding and conferences remain empty words, the private sector can make the difference. In 2018 $400 billion was invested globally to implement technologies and solutions linked to climate change. And the results are beginning to show. In Europe, electric energy produced with renewable sources is now cheaper than that produced with fossil fuels. Massive solar energy plants are being built in Asia. In China, India and Australia, the energy produced with renewable sources is auctioned off at lower prices than fossil fuel energy.

The European Commission has also done its part by allocating €10 billion to research technologies linked to climate change. One of the most promising sectors is CO2 removal from the atmosphere. Companies such as Global Thermostat and Climeworks are leading the way. But this is not the only option on the table: there are also microorganisms capable of “eating” CO2, and plants which absorb CO2 at a faster rate than others.

An equally important topic is that of energy storage: we produce it, but don’t know how to store it. Renewable sources can completely replace fossil fuels, but the solar power produced during the day, or wind power produced when it’s windy, somehow must be stored somewhere to be used at night, or when there’s no wind. This also happens in the residential environment, combining, for example, photovoltaic systems and batteries, but this mechanism must be replicated on a large scale. Think of a solar power plant: how can we store the enormous amount of power produced during the day, to use it at night?

We’re late on this, but there are a few pioneers working on it. In Australia, there’s a lab where Tesla is producing longer life batteries. The German government has financed the construction of three new hydroelectric reservoirs where if it’s windy, the water is pumped with wind power, and when it’s not, it is released to power a turbine which generates electricity. In Switzerland, gas is compressed with solar power into huge natural caves under the mountains, and at night it’s released so that its pressure powers a turbine.

A third, crucial sector is that of water desalination or other water production and storage systems. Last year, a University of Manchester team invented a graphene membrane which allows water desalination at low temperatures. This might help many countries to counter the agricultural crisis caused by climate change. Lastly, many innovative startups are working on widespread power distribution. Especially in Africa and South America, there are many off-grid plants allowing whole towns to be self-sufficient thanks to solar power. But without a real political agenda and a global effort, it all risks being nothing but a palliative solution.

We can hope that advancements in technology, if properly supported, especially in terms of potential business opportunities, might offer solutions to the climate change that the myopia of people, institutions and governments have brought to levels of serious danger to humankind.

AI way to hell

The best way to talk about Artificial Intelligence is by looking into its definition: too bad, though, that there is no unambiguous one. Theoretically speaking, AI imitates the paradigm of human intelligence, but it’s actually never the case not even in the most advanced experimental programs worldwide. This given, the only way is to take a step back, and look for a definition of intelligence tout court.

Human intelligence comes from the merging of two, separate elements, layered with the influence of external conditions: the union of the emotional sphere with the behavioral and cognitive one. Now, when humans began reasoning over machine intelligence, they focused exclusively on the cognitive side of it — which is why to date there is no machine with an emotive intelligence, experiencing, say, fear of death. Still, as confirmed by psychology, all these emotive components altogether affect the development and features of human intelligence. This places us at a crossroads: it implies we’re either somehow trying to build a super intelligence which has nothing to do with the human one, or generating a new form of alterity because we’re unable to deal with our own. Just, think of how popular robotic pets are in Japan. The reason behind this popularity is not technical, but social: in a society where people literally have no time to look after a real animal, an object you can turn on and off, with no instincts nor needs, becomes a sort of ‘surrogate alterity’. In such a scenario, technique is a form of social sublimation. 

Usually, when we talk about Artificial Intelligence we tend to make the opposite argument: what will this technology let me do that I couldn’t do before? However, to truly understand something about AI and about moral issues in general we need to reverse the factors, putting the ethical issue first, technique second, and the ethical issue generated by technique third. At the same time, we can reasonably think that big tech organizations are capable of instilling within society new needs that did not exist before. Meaning that technique and technology, if used a certain way, can end up shaping anthropology. Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari states that technology is generating a polarization among society: on one side, you have a narrow élite owning the technology, on the other those developing it, and in the middle a mass of “unemployable ones” (read: the vast majority) who have been cut out from progress. Bringing this theory to the boil and taking the mass out of this equation, we may suppose that at some point there’ll be two kinds of hominids, as a result of a technology-driven species transformation. 

At that point, another issue will arise, just as it happened in the past with the nuclear bomb: that of ruling said technique which, being more powerful than politics itself, can’t fit the politics agenda. However, the history of thought teaches us a different lesson: Plato considered philosophers to be above the watchmen. In other words, it should be up to transnational organisms, such as the European Union, to rule on technique and technology. As technology gets more and more pervasive, the structures we have built our society on will have to be reconsidered: what will remain, then, of state organization as we know it? If, as many argue, technical evolution can’t be stopped, all we’ll have left is to reimagine what comes after democracy, as this will already have been, inevitably and irreparably, affected. This idea of the democratic model ending is nothing new: it first emerged in the 80’s with Gianni Vattimo’s theory of “transparent society”, which states that if society becomes a truly transparent, crystal-clear and enlightened, then democracy, being based on opacity, would inevitably fail.

But where does this dreaming of androids, and therefore of Artificial Intelligence, come from? The idea can be traced back to Leibnitz’s theory on universal language, which at the end of the day is nothing but logics and programming language. In strictly philosophical terms, if the aim of Artificial Intelligence is that of replicating human intelligence, then artificial intelligence can’t exist: we are therefore pursuing something that cannot happen, as what makes us human can’t be translated into machine language. This because in programming language we can, say, include the reaction to “sadness” by inserting an input (death) and an output (grieve), but we can’t include the whole range of emotions a person feels between input and output, between action and reaction. Why, then, are we chasing the android myth? As a matter of fact, human beings have within them this ongoing longing for the otherness, the elsewhere, so not to have to deal with what’s “here” already, what’s “now”. The search for alien life and the utopia of Mars colonization are just two examples of this longing for alterity. Humans have no competence in managing their own alterity and therefore looks for a different alterity to manage, putting out there a serious, clearly psychological problem. 

We are urged to ask ourselves what are we really trying to get here, knowing that the moment technology and AI will be fully developed we won’t be free anymore, as de facto technique is the expression of colonizing the non-technique. We’re always acting in the frame of Hobbes’ “social agreement” theory, according to which we trade rights in exchange for the chance of achieving specific goals through technology. The development of Artificial Intelligence will do nothing but amplify this phenomenon. 

Artificial Intelligence is a big bet, and it could be crucial socially speaking: we delegate power to machines which, unlike us humans, always get equations right and, paradoxically, what we’d have in return is a sadder, but more equal, society. On a different level, if we want to preserve democracy as we know it we’d have to set technology some limits. This is a real exclusive disjunction: “transparent society” means power to machines, “democratic society” means setting limits to technology. The human-technology relation, though, can’t be limited; we can’t think of saying “let’s just stop exploring”, we can at most decide to re-direction the creative and creation process towards different goals.

Given that technological change runs faster than moral progress it’s time to think of how to make them go at the same pace, or at least of to accelerate moral progress. The latter happening, among others, through the writing of a sort of constitution, a chart of inviolable rights enclosing both environments and its protection, given the damage technological advances are provoking, and human rights, which technology in the hands of a few risks violating. I’m inclined to think that the destiny we are doomed to is self-destruction, with a long, and definitely not random, ladder. Until now, each and every technological disruption implied a little damage piling up on the planet — one after the other, this process lead to the Anthropocene, causing repercussions on the environment that are now huge. 

Climatologists claim we have at most 12 to 14 years before the biosphere corruption process can’t be reversed anymore, and the next evolution in technology will probably do nothing but shrink this time frame. We have only a few years left to live with dignity on this planet. The AI race might have come from this too, from the dream of saving ourselves from imminent catastrophe, if not as bodies, at least as mental entities, as what’s material will end.