We tend to think of intelligence as something that describes only one individual. But all kinds of groups can be described as intelligent, too – whether we’re talking about social groups of humans, pockets of bugs, or even the mysterious behavior of slime mold and Viruses.
By extension, can intelligence be observed on a much larger scale – perhaps on an entire planet? In a newly published research paper, a team of space scientists explore this puzzling question, and come to some surprising conclusions about planet Earth.
“The open question is whether or not intelligence can operate at the planetary scale, and if so, how the transition to intelligence can occur at the planetary scale and whether or not it has already occurred or is on our near-term horizon,” The team writes.
They note that understanding this question can help us guide the future of our planet; However, by their own standards, it looks like we’re not there yet.
“We do not yet have the capacity to collectively respond in the best interests of the planet,” Says Astrophysicist Adam Frank of the University of Rochester.
“There is intelligence on Earth, but no planetary intelligence.”
According to researchers, the emergence of technological intelligence on a planet – a common reference point in astrobiology research – probably should not be seen as something that is happening. On planet but to planet.
In such an interpretation, the development of planetary intelligence would represent the acquisition and application of a collective body of knowledge operating across a complex system of different types simultaneously, and in a harmonious manner benefiting or supporting the entire biosphere.
Unfortunately – and obviously – humans and Earth are not there yet.
In fact, Frank and his colleagues say we’ve only reached stage three of the hypothetical timeline for developing planetary intelligence.
In the first stage, which is characteristic of very early Earth, a planet with an “immature biosphere” develops life, but there are not enough feedback loops between life and geophysical processes for the co-evolution of different types of life.
In the second stage, the “mature biosphere” arose.
After that, the planet could become the third stage: the “immature technical envelope”, in which the Earth is currently located. At this point, technological activity has developed on the planet, but it has not been sustainably integrated with other systems, such as the physical environment.
However, if these tensions can be resolved, the immature technological sphere has a chance to evolve into the final stage: the “mature technical sphere”, in which feedback loops between technological activity and other biogeochemical and biophysical states operate concurrently to ensure maximum stability and productivity complete system.
The researchers argue that this ideal state is where the Earth should attempt to reach.
“Planets evolve through immature and mature stages, and planetary intelligence indicates the time when you reach a mature planet,” Frank says.
“The million dollar question is what planetary intelligence looks like and what it means for us in practice because we don’t yet know how to transition to a mature technosphere.”
According to the researchers, we are currently sitting on the edge of a precipice, where it is clear that our collective actions have global consequences, but we do not yet control those consequences.
If, along with the other forces on the planet, we can develop a balance where those consequences are controlled, we may finally evolve – as a planet – to the next level.
“The transition to planetary intelligence, as we describe here, will have the hallmark of intelligence operating on a planetary scale,” The researchers write in their paper.
“Such planetary intelligence would be able to guide the future development of the Earth, act in concert with planetary systems and be guided by a deep understanding of these systems.”
The paper was published in International Journal of Astrobiology.