Column: Are we living Aesop’s fable of the hare and the tortoise?
New developments in technology speed up, while nature moves at its natural pace.
The title of the Oscar-winning film, Everything Everywhere All at Once, sums up what I feel is happening with artificial intelligence right now. In 2021, Open AI launched DALL-E, followed in September 2022 by DALL-E 2, which generates images from text descriptions. Two months later, in November, it released ChatGPT, based on GPT-3.5 – it was surpassed on March 14, 2023 by GPT-4, Open AI’s latest AI language model. A week later, on March 21, Google launched its artificial intelligence chatbot Bard.
As reported by ABC News, Sam Altman, Open AI’s CEO, believes that “GPT-4 is just one step toward Open AI’s goal of eventually building artificial general intelligence, which is when AI crosses a powerful threshold that can be described as AI systems that are generally smarter than humans. Although he celebrates the success of his product, Altman acknowledged the potentially dangerous implementation of AI that keeps him up at night.”
Fortunately, while Altman has sleepless nights because of what may seem ‘Faustian bargains’, nature continues to move at its natural pace and conquer more and more people who are waking up to its wonders. The increase in books, articles and media programs on the importance of the conservation and, where necessary, restoration of the natural environment testifies to the energetic interest in the subject.
Many countries have committed themselves to large-scale environmental conservation and preservation projects. Furthermore, efforts to give nature special legal status, referred to as ‘rights of nature’, are spreading around the world.
But there is also another level of interest that is growing – the interest of the private individual to manage their own property and garden in a way that is ecologically healthier. In our plots and gardens we are immersed in a small-scale, wild world. We no longer need to be scientists or specialists to understand this. Ordinary, conscientious people like you and me are given countless opportunities to learn how it works. All it takes is the curiosity of an explorer. In 2022, Ed Yong sparked much of the best kind of curiosity with his book, An Immense World. How animal senses reveal the hidden realms around us.
Yong is not the only one who opens our eyes. In the past few years, Doug Tallamy, a biologist at the University of Delaware, has revealed a world that many of us have never seen, or (unwisely) chose to ignore. His writings focus on the US, but his arguments are universally applicable.
Insects became Tallamy’s favorite subject. He follows biologist EO Wilson in asserting that without insects (“the little things that run the world,” Wilson said), humans would be doomed. The way to ensure our survival is to ensure the survival – rather than the extinction – of bugs. Instead of maintaining a lawn (ecologically speaking, a lawn is no better than a parking lot) and decorating our garden with non-native plants, which do not fit in the food supply chain for our insects, we should reduce lawn area. essentially, avoid monocultures, and strive for biodiversity with native plants. The bugs that feed on native plants will in turn support other wildlife.
Tallamy strongly believes in the benefits of caterpillars. He noticed that these insects were missing from non-native plants, exotics that eventually became invasive. Caterpillars are one of the most important foods for birds when they are raising their young. Tallamy uses the example of the chickadee. Before their nestlings fledge, chicks will have fed them anywhere from 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars. One caterpillar can be as nutritious as 200 aphids. They are soft insects, easy to stuff down a nest’s throat, easy to digest, and they contain carotenoids, which provide the pigments for their feathers.
I know from my own experience that seeing caterpillars scratching the leaves of a tree can evoke a strong negative emotion. But from now on I’m going to deal with it by following Tallamy’s Ten Step program: “Take ten steps back from the trunk and all your insect problems will go away.”
You might be wondering what AI and bugs have to do with Aesop’s fable of the hare and the tortoise. Well, the hare was very fast and was sure he could outrun the tortoise. It was so confident that it took a nap during the race. The turtle plodded on, without stopping, and won the race. The rabbit was brought down by hubris. The unassuming turtle moved forward slowly and steadily.
Sabine Eiche is a local writer and art historian with a PhD from Princeton University. She is passionately involved in the preservation of the environment and the protection of nature. Her columns cover a wide range of topics and often include the history (etymology) of words to shed extra light on the subject.