“Empowering” Non-human Species?

Earlier this week I commented on two different projects that, for different reasons, made logically absurd claims about “empowering” non-human species.

With impressive digital technology, sensors, and actuators available to nearly everyone, we are seeing a burst of creativity. This is our “new age of makers”, and it is wonderful!

Inevitably, though, we are struggling with power, identity, autonomy, consent, and other perennial human concerns. As computing becomes both ubiquitous and intimate, questions of who controls it become more personal and urgent.

But these technologies are also being imposed on fellow species, who cannot give consent, informed or otherwise. I have written about the important question of “who benefits”: when we impose a digital system on an animal, plant, or whatever, we should ask how they understand the situation, and what benefit they receive [1]. I don’t like to see digital technology be a more efficient way to exploit humans or non-humans.

But the projects I noted this week had an even more troubling feature. Both of them made claims that the digital systems somehow “empower” the non-humans.

The transHumUs project equipped trees with mobile robots that responded in part to the physiology of the passenger plant. This setup was said to “reveal some autonomy” by the plants. “Autonomy” must mean “not specifically directed by any person”, because the plants certainly had no intention to move or understanding of the situation.

Another project discussed the creation of a Distributed Autonomous Organization (DAO) using blockchain technology which would somehow enable a pod of Orcas to defend their “rights”. This magical software is, itself, imagined to be “autonomous”, and somehow the “smart contracts” it implements are supposed to represent the interests of the whales. Whatever those interests may be.

These projects, along with misguided concepts for digital “games for cats”, and so on, put forward some very troubling anthropocentric thinking. Not only are the interests of non-humans not considered, the human designer feels free to design the system “for their benefit”, and imagines that this act “empowers” them.

In fact, these systems represent the interests and fantasies of the human creators. The trees move around in patterns that the human artist feel represent “tree-like” behavior: slow, stately, silent. The whale DAO apparently manages the raising and disbursal of funds to support human scientists and caretakers, who are acting to “save the whales”.

These projects aren’t terrible ideas. They are kind of clever, technically, and they reflect artistic and humane concern and love for other species. They might benefit the non-human individuals or species as a group.

But they are all about human desires. The rhetoric about “autonomy” and “empowering” the non-humans is rubbish. At best, this is romantic silliness. At worst, it is cynical word play, puffing up what are essentially selfish motives.

The non-humans have no understanding or knowledge of these systems that allegedly empower them. There is no reasonable reason to imagine that plants have any way to think about moving around on carts, or that whales give one whit about digital funds transfers or “smart contracts”.

Most important of all, I have trouble getting past the extremely paternalistic, colonialist, god-complex nature of these ideas. The all-powerful humans will endow the lesser creatures with capabilities that transcend their nature ability. For their own good, of course. To set them “free” and “give” them “autonomy”.

This kind of thinking has led to many bad results in the past. (See: colonialism. See: ecocide. See: slavery.)

It’s also really bad to think this way: you are misunderstanding your own capabilities (overestimating your ability to “fix” other people’s problems), and wrecking the chances of really helping whales and trees (by frittering away resources on things that don’t meet their actual needs).

Worst of all, you are emperilling your own karma, tempted by digital technology to act as a paternalistic god rather than a humble cohabitant of our planet.

It’s cool to think about how sensors, robots, and mobile computers might be adapted for the use of non-human species. But it is important to understand that this isn’t their idea, it is your idea.

  1. Robert E. McGrath, Species-appropriate computer mediated interaction, in Proceedings of the 27th international conference extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems. 2009, ACM: Boston, MA, USA.

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