Global Optimization: Gaia Revisited

Analytics are the steering wheel that humanity uses to drive the world — or at least that portion of the planet over which we have some influence. Without the sensors, the correlators, the aggregators, the visualizers, the solvers, and the rest of what analytic applications depend on, we would be only a passenger, not a copilot, on this, our only home.

If you’ve spent any time around advanced mathematics and analytics, you’re bound to run into the phrase “global optimization.” All in all, this has little to do with optimizing the globe we live on; instead, it refers to techniques for solving a set of equations under various constraints. Nevertheless, I love the phrase’s evocative ring, in that it suggests the Gaia Hypothesis, a controversial conjecture that the Earth is a sort of super-organism. Specifically, it models the Earth as a closed, self-regulating, virtuous feedback loop of organic and inorganic processes that, considered holistically, maintains life-sustaining homeostasis. This hypothesis suggests that the planet as a whole is continuously optimizing the conditions for our ongoing existence — and that the biosphere may perish, just like any organism, if it falls into a vicious feedback loop of its own undoing.

This has been a controversial proposal in scientific circles, but it has an interesting suggestion if we use it to understand the potential role of advanced analytics in promoting the human agenda on Earth. If we accept that humanity plays, either through divine appointment or natural selection, the role of master steward of Earth’s resources, then it’s clear that analytics may be a prime resource in helping us build a sustainable, scalable, and livable future for one and all. Or, conversely, our collective misapplication of analytics and other technologies may doom us through self-destructive measures that contribute to irreversible resource depletion at the expense of future generations. One species of organism — humans — may be the biosphere’s salvation or ruination. We, who evolved on Earth, may be the agents of our world’s undoing. Let’s call this the “AndroGaia Hypothesis.”

I’d like to suggest that big data, in all its manifestations, is critical to our survival on this massively interdependent planet. Modern existence depends on harnessing ever more powerful analytics and ever more massive data sets, which is why big data is now such a preoccupation of organizations everywhere. Analytics has long been integral to the work of science, engineering, commerce, and government. Traditional analytics, better known as business intelligence, provide the decision support infrastructure for optimizing management strategies and daily operations. By the same token, advanced analytics — leveraging statistics, mathematics, linguistics, and artificial intelligence — help scientists and engineers find the nonobvious patterns that deepen the pool of collective human know-how. To the extent that we instrument the world with real-time sensor grids, automated feedback remediation loops, embedded decision automation, self-healing network-computing platforms, and other analytics- and rule-driven systems, we’re building an intelligent grid that helps us ensure continuous optimization of the human presence on this orb. All of this depends on big data, which is the dynamic core of this new world order. If we can embed network intelligence in every artifact of our existence, continuous optimization will permeate all nodes and networks, from nano to macro. And to the extent that we use open-source collaborative big data development approaches to pool and advance our collective intelligence, we might be able to adapt as a species to face challenges unforeseen. Let’s call this the “CyberAndroGaia Hypothesis.”

But if humanity just uses our global grid primarily to optimize our own species’ narrow interests at the expense of the rest of the biosphere, we’ll be setting ourselves up for eventual extinction. We must somehow ensure that we scale our increasingly overcrowded human presence without ravaging the habitats, polluting the environment, or depleting the biodiversity upon which we and all other species depend.

The key question is this: How can we retool the human-centric cybersphere to ensure that the interests of nonhuman species, which hugely outweigh us in the biosphere, are forevermore optimized in our global grid?

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