The Mayans were an incredible civilization. Masterful engineers, accomplished astronomers, clever mathematicians, talented artisans. They constructed vast city complexes, had rule of law and a highly developed writing system. While the Spanish empire eventually wiped them out, they were already a weakened society because of severe drought. Millions died.
So what does this have to do with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the future of humanity.
The summary is that their society collapsed because they reached the limits of their cognitive capacity to develop technologies sophisticated enough to deal with such catastrophic, prolonged drought.
The Mayans had engineered massive irrigation systems to collect what little water did fall and to bring in water from increasingly far away sources such as lakes and rivers. As smart as they and any humans are, even working collectively, which is when we innovate the best, we only have so much cognitive capacity at any given time in history.
Today, we have far better (in some ways) technologies to build more complex, engineered irrigation systems. We can largely solve the issues of drought, sort of. In many parts of America, water tables are depleted or will soon run out. This is happening in other parts of the world too.
But it’s not just water crises we face. It’s rising sea levels from melting ice, increased kinetic hurricanes, monsoons and typhoons. Heat domes and polar vortexes. Where the Mayans faced a prolonged, sever drought, we are facing the entire complexity of global climate change. Accelerated by human activity.
When it all became too complex for the Mayans to deal with, when their collective cognitive capacity failed, they resorted to religious ideologies. They weren’t the first. Humans have often turned to religion, superstition and fantastical stories to help us cope.
This is known as Messianism. The idea that some sort of saviour will come and rescue us. We see this expressed today in those who believe an alien race will suddenly walk in the front door some day and our planet will be saved. In Hollywood yes. In reality? Unlikely. Yet we believe.
So what about technology?
Artificial Intelligence and Climate Change
Humans as a species could not survive without technology. Stone axes, fire and language as technologies were, perhaps, the start. Technology is intertwined with who we are as humans and what it even means to be human.
The best technologies are the ones that work in the background, quietly augmenting us. That we don’t really think about. When we need to build a tree fort for our kids, we know we will need a hammer and nails, a screwdriver, a saw. We just get them together and use them.
Eventually, perhaps sooner than we think, AI tools like Machine Learning, Neural Networks and Generative AI will become tools we can use not just to elevate us from drudgery office work, but for more complex challenges like battling Climate Change. Couple AI with qyantum computing and we may well have the technologies that can help get us out of this mess.
AI could help us innovate faster by bringing together our collective knowledge and combining it in new ways. This will enable us to run experiments faster to test these ideas.
We of course must have ethical guidelines in place and we must be able to experiment in ways that don’t harm our societies and world. But AI can help us there too. We can create digital twins within which to run experiments, reducing risk and cost.
Humans have a powerful capacity to innovate that AI does not. AI does one thing well, but we humans are very good at seeing how to bring seemingly disparate concepts together to create a solution. So it may well be with AI.
Where the Mayans collapsed due to cognitive capacity, AI may be the tool that saves us.