“Designing Autonomy: Opportunities for New Wildness in the Anthropocene”

Cantrell, B., Martin, L.J., and Ellis, E.C. 2017. Trends in Ecology and Evolution Vol. 32, No. 3, pp. 156–66.
Maintaining wild places increasingly involves intensive human interventions. Several recent projects use semi-automated mediating technologies to enact conservation and restoration actions, including re-seeding and invasive species eradication. Could a deep-learning system sustain the autonomy of nonhuman ecological processes at designated sites without direct human interventions? We explore here the prospects for automated curation of wild places, as well as the technical and ethical questions that such co-creation poses for ecologists, conservationists, and designers. Our goal is to foster innovative approaches to creating and maintaining the autonomy of evolving ecological systems.

Cantrell, Martin and Ellis present a compelling consideration of the prospects for automated curation of wild places, i.e. the development of deep-learning systems that can conserve and maintain wild places with minimal human intervention. The most intriguing part of this paper is the “wildness creator,” which is:

… a conceptual design for an autonomous landscape infrastructure system that creates and sustains wildness by enhancing nonhuman influences while countering all forms of human influence. It is a deep learning computing system that controls a physical infrastructure that can sense and manipulate the environment and interact with organisms. (p. 163)

To achieve these goals, “the system would learn the most effective strategies.” (ibid.) In other words, the wildness creator has an interface that enables it to control and manipulate the physical world, while its behavior is governed by a machine learning algorithm. This conceptual design is far beyond any existing autonomous systems, but even the prospect of such a system raises difficult questions about how we define conservation goals, whether there ought to be any constraints on the behavior of this system, and even the prospect of the co-evolution of the wildness creator and the organisms it manages.

Consider a different autonomous system that we all have some familiarity with: the driverless car. The goal of this autonomous system is well defined (get from one place to another), and so are the constraints on its behavior (stay on the road, follow the rules of the road, don’t run into other cars, etc.).

In the case of the wildness creator, neither the goal nor the constraints on its behavior are well specified. What would the constraints on the behavior of the wildness creator be? As an example, imagine that the wildness creator is managing a community where a single species is becoming disproportionately abundant. Would it be permissible for it to cull individuals of that species in pursuit of a more stable community? Could it manipulate the fecundity or mortality of certain individuals or species? These are obvious and likely scenarios, and the prospect of an ecosystem governed by an autonomous system raises complicated ethical questions about what actions the wildness creator ought to be allowed to take.

More fundamentally, what goal or end-state would the wildness creator pursue? Conservation biology offers compelling arguments for many different conservation goals: conservation of rare species, maintenance of the abundance of common species, maximization of the delivery of ecosystem services, maintenance of a particular assemblage of species, etc. As Galaz et al. (see Further Reading below) point out in a response to Cantrell et al., choosing among these goals is a fundamentally value-laden process. Thus, is it even possible for humans or the wildness creator itself to formulate goals that are value-neutral? Would even be possible to allow the wildness creator to define its own goals?

Finally, the prospect of an autonomous system manipulating an ecosystem raises the possibility of co-evolution of the wildness creator and the species it manages. In ecology, co-evolution refers to the case where closely associated (i.e., interacting) species reciprocally affect each other’s evolution. Could the wildness creator and the organisms it manages co-evolve? The wildness creator is by design a system that evolves, and there are also many examples of rapid evolution of species in response to human actions (e.g., change in length and age of maturity for fish in response to fishing pressure). Presumably, then, species could evolve rapidly in response to actions of the wilderness creator. Given that we have two highly interactive sets of agents (organisms and the wildness creator), both with the capacity to adapt and evolve in response to the actions of the other, co-evolution would almost certainly occur.

Co-evolution of the wildness creator and the organisms it manages would offer a unique avenue for niche construction: species could evolve the ability to manipulate the wildness creator to modify their environment for them (a sort of indirect niche construction). Presumably, fostering this type of rapid evolution of species contradicts the ethos of minimum interference that inspired the wildness creator in the first place. Would the wildness creator be designed in a way to prohibit co-evolution? Would that be possible?

Given the rapid development of autonomous systems in many different fields, this paper by Cantrell et al. is timely and raises intriguing questions about the future role of autonomous systems in conservation.


Galaz, V. and Mouazen, A.M. 2017. “‘New Wilderness’ Requires Algorithmic Transparency: A Response to Cantrell et al. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, in press (DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2017.06.013). A letter in TREE on the Cantrell paper.

Ellis, E.C., Cantrell, B., and Martin, L.J. 2017 “Transparency and Control of Autonomous Wildness: A Reply to Galaz and Mouazenc.” Trends in Ecology and Evolution, in press (DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2017.06.012) The authors’ response.

Et in Arcadia ars: Thoughts on Volcanism and Urbanism in Southern Italy, Part Two

[This is the continuation of the post from last week.]

The Plain of Catania, atop which the city of Catania sits, is land reclaimed from the Ionian Sea by Etna’s lava and other subterranean volcanic uplift. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who traveled across it while writing the letters and notes that became his Italian Journey, refers quite accurately on May 1, 1787 to Continue reading

“Svalbard Global Seed Vault: A ‘Noah’s Ark’ for the World’s Seeds”

Marte Qvenild. 2008. Development in Practice Vol. 18, No. 1, pp. 110–16.
News about Norway’s plans to establish a ‘doomsday vault’ for seeds in the permafrost of the Artic archipelago of Svalbard as a back-up for conventional gene banks reached the world press in 2006. The idea of a Global Seed Vault, which today is considered Continue reading

Prospection and the Anthropocene

I’d like to share two recent items from the news that make a sobering pairing.

The first is an opinion piece in the New York Times by psychologist Martin Seligman and Times science writer John Tierny summarizing a new theory about human beings that emphasizes our orientation toward the future. Continue reading

Weedy Resistance: Multispecies Tactics for Contesting “The Age of Man”

We welcome Ellie Irons, an artist and educator based in Brooklyn, NY, as a guest on the blog . . . click for her own website, or see her bio under the “Who we are” tab.

resistance (Biology): Ability (of an organism, tissue, or cell) to withstand a destructive agent or condition such as a chemical compound, a disease agent, or an environmental stressor. (American Heritage® Medical Dictionary) Continue reading

“Ethics in the Anthropocene: A research agenda”

Jeremy J. Schmidt, Peter G. Brown and Christopher J. Orr. 2016. The Anthropocene Review, Vol. 3(3) pp. 188–200.
The quantitative evidence of human impacts on the Earth System has produced new calls for planetary stewardship. At the same time, numerous scholars reject modern social sciences by claiming that Continue reading

An Age of Trump in the Anthropocene Epoch?

Stratigraphy is the science of rock strata; in geological terms, this translates to the science of time. But what IS time? Difficult to define, for certain, but most of us can agree that it marks the passage of events. We experience the passage of Continue reading

“Impacts of Emerging Contaminants on Surrounding Aquatic Environment from a Youth Festival”

JJ Jiang et al. 2015. Environmental Science and Technology, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 792–799.
The youth festival as we refer to Spring Scream, a large-scale pop music festival, is notorious for the problems of Continue reading

Loving the Anthr*pocene

My previous post was a provocation on refusal.  How, I asked, might the Anthr*pocene concept naturalize and even magnify the violent, dispossessionary forces it purports to describe?  And how might refusing this concept relate to Continue reading

“Relative impacts of mitigation, temperature, and precipitation on 21st-century megadrought risk in the American Southwest”

Ault, T.R. et al. 2016. Science Advances, vol. 2, e1600873
Megadroughts are comparable in severity to the worst droughts of the 20th century but are of much longer duration. A megadrought in the American Southwest would impose unprecedented stress on Continue reading

The Iconoclastic Anthropocene: On How We Choose to Destroy Art

Ivo Bazzechi Cimabue FloodOn November 4, 1966, the Arno overflowed its banks into the streets of Florence. A number of prominent foreign art historians, including Frederick Hartt and John Shearman, arrived soon thereafter to assist their Italian colleagues, working generally under the oversight of the Uffizi’s conservation director Umberto Baldini, in developing a response to a cultural emergency: the Italian Renaissance was underwater. Their collective expertise facilitated the arduous work of restoring what could be salvaged from the flood, which had Continue reading

The Roles for Indigenous Peoples in Anthropocene Dialogues: Some Critical Notes and a Question

We welcome Kyle Powys Whyte, of Michigan State University, as a guest on the blog . . . click for his bio, or go to the “Who we are” tab.

I bet there have probably been more than a hundred events organized for the purpose of fostering dialogue of all kinds on what meanings and futures are presupposed by the “anthropocene.” I have been to some of them. I even just Continue reading

“Valuation in the Anthropocene: Exploring options for alternative operations of the Glen Canyon Dam”

Jones, B.A. et al. 2016. Water Resources and Economics vol. 14, pp. 3-13
Amidst debates about what conservation and preservation mean for large coupled human and natural systems, survey-based non-market valuation approaches for eliciting non-use values also may confront the need for Continue reading

New Year’s Greetings for 2017




In this season of the solstice, the natural world reminds us that at the darkest moment light can return. But our own nature is such that brighter days in the human sense are not inevitable–they must be strived for and accomplished.  Here’s to the joy of imagining, and working toward, a truly habitable future.