In Australia, autonomous killer robots are set to invade the Great Barrier Reef. Their target is the crown-of-thorns starfish—a malevolent pincushion with a voracious appetite for corals. To protect ailing reefs, divers often cull the starfish by injecting them with bile or vinegar. But a team of Australian scientists has developed intelligent underwater robots called COTSBots that can do the same thing. The yellow bots have learned to identify the starfish among the coral, and can execute them by lethal injection.
These robots probably aren’t going to be the saviors of the reef, but that’s not the point. It’s the approach that matters. The work of conservationists typically involves reducing human influence: breeding the species we’ve killed, killing the species we’ve introduced, removing the pollutants we’ve added, and so on. But all of these measures involve human action—some, intensively so. The COTSBots are different: They’re of us, but designed to ultimately operate without us. They represent a burgeoning movement to remove human influence from conservation—to save wild ecosystems by taking us out of the picture entirely.
In an intriguing thought experiment, landscape architect Bradley Cantrell, historian Laura Martin, and ecologist Erle Ellis have taken this ethos to its logical extreme, and ended up with what they call a “wildness creator”—a hypothetical artificial intelligence that would autonomously protect wild spaces. We’d create it, obviously, but then let it go, so it would develop its own strategies for protecting nature. Maybe it blocks out human-made light or noise. Maybe it redirects the flow of water or destroys litter. Maybe it deploys drones to cull invasive species. Think Skynet crossed with Captain Planet, or the Matrix meets Ranger Rick, or IBM’s Watson meets Greenpeace.