My Fitbit somehow fell into the bathing suit trunk and seemed lost forever. I wanted to finish the day off with a few more steps, but without the Fitbit I had no idea what my true number of steps was anymore. It was all hopelessly dispiriting. Joanie finally suggested we should visit Best Buy and look at the new generation of fitness bands by Samsung that she had been researching. I ended up buying Samsung Gear Fit 2 and Joanie got a Samsung S2 which has a few more features since she is the family’s techie.
These convenient attractive “wearables” are remarkable artifacts. The time, date, weather, heart rate, steps, stairs climbed, notifications for anything from the NY Times to Huffington Post to CNN, emails, texts, phone messages, tweets, Facebook, hours slept, quality of sleep, are all there, plus most anything else you might want to add. These latest mobile wrist-worn digital gadgets carry over 8000 times more computing power than the original space ship we sent to the moon and back (including the lunar module).
Such an explosion of human cleverness would never have happened if a new employee at Texas Instruments hadn’t created the first integrated circuit in 1958, when everybody else was out of the office on vacation. His idea, a small metal chip embedded with a few electronic components, soon evolved into a tiny silicon chip the size of a fingernail (now even smaller), on which we cram hundreds, thousands, or even billions of electronic components. There are now many types of integrated circuits, from memory chips to computer processors. Every two years twice as many transistors (latest name for those electronic components) can be densely packed onto an integrated circuit, doubling its speed and computing power. This acceleration of computing (known as Moore’s Law) has resulted in computers that are one hundred million times more powerful than they were fifty years ago
Today, we carry supercomputers in our cell phones and tablets and on our wrist in a startling revolution that has become the core of what we call the semiconductor industry, which some people think will take over evolution as we know it. It turns out that the computing capacity of the carbon-based mammalian brain is slow compared to the speed of electronic circuits. Neurons must connect and communicate to billions of other neurons, get information to all the brain cells, all the muscles, all the glands. For this reason, some scientists project that “DNA-based evolution” will eventually have to be abandoned. An expert in this field sums it up: “DNA-based evolution is good at tinkering with and extending its designs, but it is unable to scrap an entire design and start over. Organisms created through DNA-based evolution are stuck with an extremely labored type of circuitry.”
The greater simplicity of electronic circuits combined with their speed, accuracy and memory, and the eventual perfection of their computation and information analysis, will inevitably push computers beyond human intelligence which has been slowed down, burdened even, by coping with the endless complexity of our biological systems in all their individual forms of health, sickness and decline.
Ray Kurzweil is an international authority on the potential of computers, artificial intelligence and robotics. He was recently persuaded by Larry Page to become Director of Engineering at Google. He has famously suggested that evolution has an intelligent quotient only slightly greater than zero. Mr. Kurzweil surmises it is not higher because evolution operates so slowly and becoming smarter thus far has been a function of time.
One of his five best sellers, The Age of Spiritual Machines, describes evolution as a billion year drama that has led inexorably to human intelligence. Its basic idea: the emergence in the early twenty-first century of robotics as a new form of intelligence on Earth will be a development more important than any of the events that have so far shaped human history. This prediction, (Mr. Kurzweil is perhaps the world’s most followed futurist), has won him much wealth, many accolades and cemented him firmly into mainstream thought.
He has won the very discriminating National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the $500,000 MIT Prize, has been inducted into the esteemed National Inventors Hall of Fame, recognized with twenty honorary doctorates, and interviewed by three U.S. Presidents. He is generally considered “a restless genius”, “the ultimate thinking machine”, and “Edison’s rightful heir”. Bill Gates himself considers Kurzweil the best person he knows at predicting the future of artificial intelligence.
The basis of the unique vision informing Kurzweil and his colleagues at Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, the Department of Defense, and of course, the techno-capitalist entrepreneur Elon Musk (founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX), is an unapologetic confidence in the rightness of human domination over every life form on earth. Our human technical culture is now being defined as the future face of the planet when “human sensitivity” will be embedded into artificial machines.
That this obsessive anticipation, which is decidedly secular and non-mystical, has no connection at all to the other life forms on the planet, that the biological realities and sensitivities of the non-human world, so exquisitely regulated and refined by millions of years of evolution, have been entirely bypassed, seems by all concerned, to be the most negligible of side issues.
There is perhaps no public figure alive today more optimistic or eager to race into the future than Mr. Kurzweil. His hasty dismissal of the “dumb matter” of vegetation, with its deliberate leisurely manner so disinclined to hurry things along, its inability to compute anything close to the speed of Google’s quantum computer, has convinced him that plants and trees, shrubs and flowers, blossoms and berries, trailing vines and bushes, the green earth itself, belongs to the plodding lumbering past.
As for himself, he relies upon 250 supplements a day (perhaps not realizing how many are filled with plants) so that he might live long enough to see humans and computers meld together into a sort of disease-free hybrid bio-mechanical life form. In fifteen years, he predicts nano-robots will connect our neocortex to the cloud. Mainly, all his ideas converge upon one irresistible promise: that future advances in technology will alter human nature and make it possible for individuals to live an endlessly brilliant life in perfect health for at least a few centuries.
It is somewhat of a shock to turn from the extravagantly admired hyper-prose of Mr. Kurzweil to the lesser known mellifluous tone of Stephen Buhner who for years has attempted to bring to our attention the power and intelligence of plants and trees. In his books, The Lost Language of Plants, The Secret Teachings of Plants, and Sacred Plant Medicine, Buhner describes plants as earth’s natural healers and chemists, fully sentient beings, adjusting and fine-tuning the environment today just as they have done for 500 million years, “the senior caring members of our earth family”.
This is a man who has conversations with plants just as he would with his human counterparts. In fact, all the herbalists and plant teachers he has ever encountered in his long life came by their knowledge from direct communication with these humble organisms of the vegetable kingdom, from dreams and visions as well as a subtle auditory language from the plants themselves. The Lost Language of Plants, he has said, is actually full of what the plants have asked him to write.
Buhner respects the fact that plants have been here much longer than our own species, 170 million years for the flowering plants alone. Because they cannot move away from predators like bacterial infections, they have adapted to become great chemists. They have, for example, extraordinarily complex responses to even a single harmful bacteria. When they release antibacterial compounds to kill such a bacteria, they also release a compound to reduce any side effects of the antibacterial compound. And to deactivate the resistance of the harmful bacteria to the antibacterial response, they put out another compound. Finally, they release more compounds to increase their own immune response!
Contrast this intelligence, if you will, with our ordinary pharmaceutical response to a harmful bacteria which focuses on a single chemical substance making it very easy for bacteria to identify that chemical and to then rearrange its genetic structure to avoid it. Needless to say, bacteria do not often have the capacity to deal with a plant’s hundreds of compounds, all working synergistically.
After years of watching infinite numbers of permutations and interactions and alliances between wild plants and animals living in a mutual environment, and recognizing the undeniable intelligence between both, Buhner and his colleagues have come to possess an innate emotional affinity that perceive plants as particularly sacred, even empathetic beings.
For this reason, Buhner is convinced that unquestioning faith in science and technology, with its refusal to see what he calls the metaphysical intelligence and intention behind the physical world, threatens the primary life support systems of our planet. And he laments the fact that few people today seem to be developing a deep bonding with the living earth which he believes is an evolutionary necessity. Human thinking, he cautions, however promising, exciting, and “evolutionary” will never restore human caring which is what the earth biosphere so desperately needs at this unique moment in time.
Buhner (who rather self-consciously calls himself an Earth Poet) and his lay colleagues are not as crucial a part of mainstream thinking as their technological counterparts. Not many people have ever heard of Carol McGrath, John Seed, Starhawk, or Rosemary Gladstar, although Buhner assures us that they have all had tremendous impact restoring and protecting plants and ecosystems the world over. Along with many other plant shamans living in and around the Amazon, British Columbia, Australia and North America, they carry on a long tradition of training communities to use plant medicines, listen to the plants, and, in their words, “understand the voice of the earth.
Far from seeing human beings as gods whose brilliance our harried planet will eventually bow down to, the real question for Buhner is who is the dominant species-us or the plants, or is it possibly bacteria?
Perhaps, we are just an organism that functions to spread plant species around the world. Despite the exponential growth of human technology bringing about vast changes to the earth in the near future, despite the density of computation in human culture, plants and bacteria are integral to the functioning of the planet, and we simply are not.
Buhner sees bacteria, for example, as a swarm intelligence and plants, animals, and insects as essentially communities of bacteria. His research finds that bacteria are not stupid, they are highly sentient. They communicate by means of a sophisticated language, as sophisticated as ours. They recognize their kin. They protect their offspring. They create chemicals designed to produce specific outcomes in living systems.
September is almost over. A new family of blue jays flits about in the Brazilian pepper tree, a plant native Floridians (most of whom do not talk to plants) despise for its invasive smothering tendencies toward all other vegetation unlucky enough to be in its neighborhood. The flooding puddles and small lakes across the roads that Tropical Storm Hermine left behind have finally sunk into the porous ground. Another storm system called Matthew heads our way across the tropical Atlantic. But the blue jays and young cardinal families living in the hedge are calm. The ibis tribe with their three new chicks is calm. Surrounded by our familiar trees, the massive heroic oak, the Foxtail Palm, the incoherent ferns, the bothersome weed with a white blossom butterflies swoon over, the yellow alamanda strewn over the yard like an unmade bed, all of whom, like ourselves, having survived one storm after another. We are also calm and happy in our little retreat from the wider world.
But I recall Mr. Buhner, refuting the confident hopes of Ray Kurzweil, suggesting that there is no such thing as immortal life or freedom from suffering. “We are, after all, biodegradable and biodegrade we will. Some part of ourselves knows that and knows how to deal with it. It is a situation of long evolutionary duration that all organisms face.” This means that hidden in the DNA of the blue jays and cardinals, in the DNA of an orchid deep in the Everglades, in the stands of virgin slash pines on Honeymoon Island, even in the stubborn root blocking the entrance to a gopher turtle’s den, a genetic program has been provided by our planet’s evolutionary wisdom to deal with and endure the existential risk of being alive.
This is an extraordinary counterpoint to the determination of so many of our recent technology leaders who want to override such evolutionary intelligence and leap impetuously into the future, into what they call “the post biological age”. One of Mr. Kurzweil’s actual book titles is: When Humans Transcend Biology.
Meanwhile, the dawdling dilatory dreamy plants keep their opinions to themselves about these matters, though I often try to speak a few words of encouragement, especially to the enervated passion flowers growing on our fence whose roots were compromised by power-washing around the pool. I really don’t know if these beautiful purple flowers are optimistic that things for any of us will turn out all right, or if my awkward mutterings ultimately comfort or make sense to them. No less an authority than David Attenborough has reminded us that plants must grapple with the same problems as animals. They too must travel, feed and grow, endure social struggles, live together, and survive.
Sometimes, Joanie and I take a break from our wearables. I get tired of knowing what my heart rate is all the time. And the rubbery band often feels too tight and I miss wearing my collection of watches which I like to mix and match with my collection of Birkenstocks. Also, the constant vibration from endless notifications is annoying. Well, these are all minor things. Joanie isn’t so keen about wearing her S2 all the time, especially while sleeping.
But, I am grateful to my “space band”, as I call it, for it led me into the world of Ray Kurzweil and I discovered that his dreams about downloading his brain into the cloud and living 500 more years are not really mine, although Joanie seems quite curious about such a possibility. Re-reading Mr. Buhner, who told me that plants are the friends of human beings and enjoy helping us, and that most common diseases can be treated with the knowledge of only ten plants, made me feel closer to a future reality that I prefer.
“Once you sit with a plant and come to love it and work to hear it speak, it will talk to you of many things. And if it speaks to you about the pain of the Earth, it is important to remain balanced and to hear it and receive it. Once the plants know you will carry the burden of your times, they will share many things with you, tales of their world and ways they may be used for healing. In this process of sharing, the plants may ask you to do things for them: to carry one of them with you for a long time, to meditate or sing to them each morning. The most important thing is to treat them as equals.”
Joanie says I must not include this last sentence as it sounds ridiculous (in spite of her delight in communicating with Live Oaks and Giant Sequoias). But I have been lingering in the meandering lane of trees, shrubs, buds, green leaves and delicate flowers for quite a while now. I love that there is no insolence here, no casual insincerity, no clownish silliness: only grave empathy with the suffering of our living planet. My respect for the plant kingdom’s great good will has grown. I will try and override my techie editor.