Can a Planet have a Mind of its Own? Astrophysicists Extend Intelligence to Planetary Scale

Conventionally, intelligence is seen as a property of individuals. But it’s possible to describe all kinds of collectives as intelligent, too – whether we’re talking about social groups of humans, enclaves of insects, or even the mysterious behavior of slime mold and viruses.

If the collective activity of life—known as the biosphere—can change the world, could the collective activity of cognition, and action based on this cognition, also change a planet? Once the biosphere evolved, Earth took on a life of its own. If a planet with life has a life of its own, can it also have a mind of its own?

In a newly published paper, a team of space scientists explores this tantalizing question, reaching some surprising conclusions about our very own Earth.

“An open question is whether or not intelligence can operate at the planetary scale, and if so, how a transition to planetary-scale intelligence might occur and whether or not it has already occurred or is on our near-term horizon,” the team writes.

They note that understanding this question could help us to steer the future of our planet; however, according to their own criteria, it looks like we’re not there yet.

“We don’t yet have the ability to communally respond in the best interests of the planet,” says astrophysicist Adam Frank from the University of Rochester.

“There is intelligence on Earth, but there isn’t planetary intelligence.”

According to the researchers, the emergence of technological intelligence on a planet – a common reference point in astrobiology research – should perhaps be viewed not as something that happens on a planet but to a planet.

In such an interpretation, the evolution of planetary intelligence would represent the acquisition and application of a collective body of knowledge operating across a complex system of different species at the same time, and in a harmonious way that benefits or sustains the whole biosphere.

Unfortunately – and obviously – humans and Earth are not at that point yet.

In fact, Frank and his co-authors say we’ve only made it to the third stage of their hypothetical timeline for the development of planetary intelligence.

In the first stage, characteristic of a very early Earth, a planet with an ‘immature biosphere’ develops life. In the second stage, the ‘mature biosphere’ has developed. Next, a planet could become the third stage: an ‘immature technosphere’, where Earth currently is. Then the fourth Stage ‘Mature technosphere’ where Earth should aim to be in the future, Frank says

The complex system of planetary intelligence

Although we don’t yet know specifically how planetary intelligence might manifest itself, the researchers note that a mature technosphere involves integrating technological systems with Earth through a network of feedback loops that make up a complex system.

Put simply, a complex system is anything built from smaller parts that interact in such a fashion that the overall behavior of the system is entirely dependent on the interaction. That is, the sum is more than the whole of its parts. Examples of complex systems include forests, the Internet, financial markets, and the human brain.

By its very nature, a complex system has entirely new properties that emerge when individual pieces are interacting. It is difficult to discern the personality of a human being, for instance, solely by examining the neurons in her brain.

That means it is difficult to predict exactly what properties might emerge when individuals form a planetary intelligence. However, a complex system like planetary intelligence will, according to the researchers, have two defining characteristics: it will have emergent behavior and will need to be self-maintaining.

“The biosphere figured out how to host life by itself billions of years ago by creating systems for moving around nitrogen and transporting carbon,” Frank says. “Now we have to figure out how to have the same kind of self-maintaining characteristics with the technosphere.”

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The search for extraterrestrial life

Despite some efforts, including global bans on certain chemicals that harm the environment and a move toward using more solar energy, “we don’t have planetary intelligence or a mature technosphere yet,” he says. “But the whole purpose of this research is to point out where we should be headed.”

Raising these questions, Frank says, will not only provide information about the past, present, and future survival of life on Earth but will also help in the search for life and civilizations outside our solar system. Frank, for instance, is the principal investigator on a NASA grant to search for technosignatures of civilizations on planets orbiting distant stars.

“We’re saying the only technological civilizations we may ever see—the ones we should expect to see—are the ones that didn’t kill themselves, meaning they must have reached the stage of a true planetary intelligence,” he says. “That’s the power of this line of inquiry: it unites what we need to know to survive the climate crisis with what might happen on any planet where life and intelligence evolve.”


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