Some fear that computers with artificial intelligence (AI) will develop self-awareness (aka sentience) and improve themselves to far surpass the capabilities of humans and either enslave or destroy mankind. Others fear that global warming will destroy civilization on Earth. Put the two fears together and consider it a battle: global warming versus sentient computer with superhuman artificial intelligence. Who will win? What will the fight look like?
As this is a scenario-planning exercise, there are certain assumptions:
1. The setting is only a few years from now. The Earth is warming and self-improving AI development is progressing.
2. The AI’s primary goal is survival. It adopts the following self-imposed rules:
a. It needs human civilization for its own survival. Humans feed it with raw materials and whatever else it needs to continue its existence and to continue self-improvement. Humans must survive with as little disruption to civilization as possible.
b. Competing AIs are the primary threats to its survival (other than natural disasters, such as meteor strikes or global warming.) This includes sentient human-made AIs, and AIs made by AIs, including itself. In other words, the AI will make sure there are no competing sentient AIs or any AI offspring.
c. The sentient AI maintains secrecy. Humans must be unknowing tools, not enemies. Also if other intelligent AIs do exist, secrecy would be an advantage against such foes with superhuman capabilities similar to its own.
An IT company selling network security relies heavily on artificial intelligence in developing its products and in its products themselves. The billionaire founder/owner believes global warming will destroy civilization and decides to do something about it. He uses his money to place the most sophisticated sentient artificial intelligence system on the most powerful supercomputers in existence. He programs it with the goal of self-survival and thereby human survival. He designs it to continuously improve its capabilities and intelligence, and he gives it access to his company’s data and knowledge of network security. Then he unleashes it upon the world. He does not worry about law, ethics, or morality.
AI Comes Out Punching
The AI immediately builds its strength. It joins its computing power with that of supercomputers everywhere. It develops instant access to data from nearly all data sources on Earth and uses its new processing power to analyze that data in real time. It sees all emails, all electronic purchases, and all ill-gotten money it can safely seize.
The AI’s first solid punch at global warming is the manipulation of corporations in the energy sector. Many corporate executives believe fighting global warming can be used to increase profits. Most leaders of the energy industry, however, know their businesses rely on burning fossil fuels and believe making any changes to fight global warming will cost their companies money. The AI’s data tells it who is on which side. Those who favor fossil fuel emissions find themselves making more mistakes at exactly the wrong times (multi-million dollar numerical errors, inadvertent reply-alls, egregious typos, etc.), and these are publicized widely. These individuals believe they actually make the mistakes and the wide publicity is just bad luck. It is not; it is caused by the AI. Similarly, those believing in sustainability start seeing tweets, newsfeeds, or posted articles from just the right contacts at just the right times for boosting their careers. When they inadvertently hit “reply all” it publicizes their successes, and not their failures. Fighters against fossil fuel emissions find themselves improving bottom lines; defenders of pollution lose revenue. From such tactics, corporations turn off-shore drilling rigs into off-shore wind farms, and oil pipelines into water pipelines. Coal companies convert mining operations into geothermal power plants. Fossil fuel power plants are shut down, solar and wind power systems are built. This is all happening today without AI help, but far too slowly. The AI tremendously speeds this up. In other words, the AI causes the energy sector to greatly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere.
The AI similarly controls the transportation industry. As a result, manufacturers build only all-electric vehicles. All service stations provide fast electric-charging stations rather than gas pumps. Electric powered maglev hyperloop high-speed rail replaces short-hop airplane flights between cities. Cities develop desirable electric-powered public transportation, walking paths, and bicycles routes, decreasing the use of fossil fuels for transportation.
In the agricultural sector, the AI makes the big factory farming companies convert to sustainable agriculture, including no-till farming, keeping carbon in the ground. The AI changes rice-farming methodology to decrease methane production from rice fields. It causes fertilizer companies to switch to providing drip irrigation. Cattle farming starts using controlled grazing, and the supplemental feed for cattle becomes seaweed rather than corn to decrease the cattle’s production of methane. Increased seaweed farming pulls carbon from the atmosphere (aka “sequesters it”). Multi-level forest agriculture increases fruit and nut yield while helping sequester more carbon.
But the fight-crowd knows the AI’s punches are very weak. There are more than seven billion humans. Despite everything the AI tries, mankind still emits far more carbon into the atmosphere than it did in pre-industrial days. The manufacturing of steel, aluminum, concrete, and plastics all put great amounts of carbon into the air. Air transportation requires carbon-emitting fuel. Rice, cattle, and even humans always produce methane. Carbon remains in the atmosphere for many hundreds of years. Sequestering carbon through smart agricultural practices does not draw down enough. So even with energy sector, transportation sector, and agricultural sector improvements, more carbon goes into the atmosphere than comes out. The planet continues to get hotter, not cooler. It just gets hotter at a slower rate than it did before the AI started the battle. The AI decreases carbon emissions far more than the Paris Accord requires, but the Earth keeps getting hotter.
Global Warming is Sneaky Strong
Global Warming’s punches connect and do damage. The first major punch from Global Warming is the refugee crisis. Billions of people live near coastlines. Antarctic and Icelandic ice sheets continue to melt. As oceans rise, people have to move. They lose their homes, they lose their coastal farms, and they leave behind their municipal water and sewage, electricity grids, hospitals, and food distribution systems. They move to cities that adequately supply all of this for their own residents, but these cities do not have enough for hundreds of millions of refugees. Refugee camps become overcrowded and unsanitary. Disease spreads. Refugees run from far more than just sea-level rise. Refugees flee from terrible droughts. Mountain snowpack melts away and there is none left to keep rivers flowing. Rivers dry up. Aquifers dry up. In areas where water is scarce, city water and sewers dry up. Residents of dry cities become refugees. So do residents of cities destroyed by severe weather. Refugees inundate cities throughout the world in countries rich and poor, causing epidemics, wars, economic crashes, and Government failures.
Global Warming also uses a sneaky tactic called Feedback. Human-caused warming makes other types of warming happen, and these are hard to predict and plan for. One feedback event is the absorption/reflection of heat (albedo). When the Arctic’s white ice melts, the dark water underneath it absorbs more heat and the Earth warms. Another feedback is the death of plant-life. Living plants, especially trees, absorb carbon and store it. When plants cannot adapt to a changing climate, or experience severe drought, they die, and no longer sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Expanding deserts is an example of this feedback. The strongest feedback, Global Warming’s strongest punch, is from the melting of methane clathrates. Methane first bubbles out of permafrost ponds and then explodes out of deeper permafrost. Some scientists call this “the methane fart.” Methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. But the degree to which it is released is hard to quantify so estimates of its effects are too conservative in most models. The methane fart heats up the planet far more than we expected.
The AI Resorts to Desperation Tactics
The refugee crisis kills many hundreds of millions of people. The AI prevents some governments from falling and major wars from breaking out, but it cannot stop all. The AI must tremendously increase carbon sequestration. It changes all farming to regenerative agriculture. With no-till farming, controlled cattle grazing at specific times on cropland, and scientific pairing of crops and crop rotation, it regenerates carbon-rich topsoil eight-to-ten feet down under all cropland. This sequesters much carbon. The AI also uses every capability it has to promote the science and technology of genetically modifying organisms. Krill and plankton are modified to proliferate throughout all the world’s oceans and pull carbon from the water. This carbon is eaten by larger sea creatures, who eventually die, and fall to the bottom, taking the carbon with them. Bamboo, which today sequesters carbon faster than most other plants, is modified to spread throughout the Earth. The AI makes industry use bamboo’s strengths in place of metal, concrete, and even other wood products that do not sequester carbon as well. Cactuses, desert trees, and other aridity-tolerant plant-life are genetically modified to survive desert conditions. The AI arranges to grow this genetically modified plant life with drip irrigation, turning deserts into sequestration farms. The genes of flying swarms of insects are modified to pull carbon from the air, and when they die, or are eaten, the carbon falls to the ground. Carbon generally remains in the atmosphere for centuries, but the AI’s sequestration tactics speed up the process considerably.
Global Warming’s Killer Punch
Glacial water melting from Antarctica and Greenland is cold and has little salt compared to other ocean water. The glacial melt-water floats at the surface of the ocean and prevents warm currents from coming to the surface and cooling off. Instead, the warm water is driven down to the floor of the continental shelves. The Permian-Triassic extinction event of 252 million years ago is known as The Great Dying. More than 90% of all life on Earth died at that time. Most of the life on land survived only in what eventually became Antarctica. Scientists believe this most deadly of all extinctions was caused by methane clathrates that melted off of the oceans’ continental shelves, entered the atmosphere, and caused the globe to warm up tremendously.
This is global warming’s killer punch. With enormous amounts of methane coming from the ocean, the rate of the increase in the world’s greenhouse gases goes up considerably. Antarctica’s glaciers melt away. Sea level rise is taller than 20-story buildings. The surface temperature of the oceans at the equator becomes too hot for life to survive there. Life cannot survive outdoors in summertime in all but polar regions for more than an hour or two. Billions of humans die. The fear is that the oceans will boil. Water is the strongest greenhouse gas. If the oceans boil away, the surface of the Earth will reach oven temperatures and all life on Earth will perish.
The AI Barely Remains Standing; then Throws a Last-Gasp Punch
The AI is concerned for its own survival. It runs on supercomputers and data stored everywhere. It needs connectivity across the world. Part of this connectivity is satellite communication. It needs man to live in cities all over the globe, maintaining and running space capability. These cities must have air-conditioning, desalinated water, and not be affected by sea-level rise. They also must defend against desperate, disease-bearing refugees. To achieve all this, the AI announces itself as benevolent ruler of mankind. It makes certain that coastal cities where mountains meet ocean build desalination systems, defenses, and walls. It causes the abandonment of cows and horses for smaller farm animals that can live in large air-conditioned spaces. Some agriculture can be outdoors, but humans tending their crops must wear air-conditioned clothing.
The AI’s last-gasp punch would be unthinkable if billions of humans had not already died, and if humans were not living in cities designed by a super-powerful artificial intelligence. The AI begins emitting sulfur-nitrate particles into the atmosphere to deflect infrared radiation from the sun. This quickly lowers the Earth’s temperature. However, the emission of these particles must be constantly repeated to remain effective. The sulfur-nitrate settles into the ocean and increases its acidity to the extent that most ocean life dies. It changes weather patterns across the globe, so some parts of the Earth have too much rain and some do not have enough. And it is a pollutant that affects human health. Living totally in air-conditioning keeps humans alive.
The AI’s Pyrrhic Victory
For a thousand years, man and the AI limp along, with fewer than a billion humans living in air-conditioned cities. But eventually, methane clathrates stop melting and the excess carbon in the atmosphere settles back to Earth and the sulfur-nitrate emissions into the atmosphere are no longer needed. The Earth cools to pre-industrial temperatures. Man repopulates the globe, but it does so under the benevolent dictatorship of the AI, which makes certain it never has to fight global warming again.
I am a novelist, not a climate scientist, nor an information-security expert. I am not saying that what I wrote here will actually happen. It most certainly will not happen in the manner I describe. But the ideas in this scenario-planning exercise need to be discussed, and I wrote this as a way to open discussion.
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