Peter Haff on the Technosphere


Peter Haff is an earth scientist who thinks that technology has become an autonomous system: the technosphere. This isn’t a metaphor; it’s a real, physical thing.  And he’s begun identifying rules that describes its behavior.

Read his article and listen to the conversation (coming soon) that Matt Luedtke and I had with him.  There’s some big ideas here, but it’s head-scratching stuff.  And it sometimes borders on the sci-fi.  Are environmentalists really serving the technosphere’s interests by preventing its demise?  Is the best solution to pollution an increase in energy use?  Does the technosphere (and other systems) have a purpose?

I’m left with these takeaways:

  • We need to better understand technology, and do so in a holistic, systems-based way.  Prof. Haff says that our current, popular idea of technology is similar to the way people viewed biology before the concept of “the biosphere.”
  • If we recognize the technosphere as a real thing, this would alter the way we view environmental problems and – as a result – the potential solutions.
  • If humans are dependent on the technosphere, we need to re-think environmentalism to consider the needs of the technosphere, and do so in a way that is consistent with human happiness.
  • Environmentalists need to formulate a vision for the future that is dynamic. The current idea seems to be a static picture of nature-human coexistence…a Garden of Eden before the fall.  Prof. Haff reminds us that the Earth is a chaotic place, prone to disruptions and crises and flux.  How can we imagine a future that is possible to pursue and worthwhile to do so, yet takes into account inevitable change and evolution?

Programming ethics into artificial intelligence

First off, why does artificial intelligence belong in a blog about environmental philosophy?

Because we live in a technological environment.  Stop and consider what your environment consists of.  If you’re reading this blog, it consists of very recent and very advanced technologies.

Even the Ohlone Indians who inhabited Silicon Valley before the arrival of Europeans were living in a technological environment, though much different from ours.

Changes in technology = changes in environment.  Not just changes to the environment, but changes in the environment.  So when machines become smarter than humans, when “supertintelligence” arrives, our environment will be radically altered.  Superintelligence will exist “out there,” an abstract presence that is felt, like the internet, or the climate.

Now here’s the interesting thing.  We would need to program the superintelligent machine to behave ethically, but how can we be sure that our knowledge of ethics is sufficient?

Continue reading