Forming new relationships with non-human intelligence

Q&A with author James Bridle on knowledge in the natural world

Anyone who has experimented with LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca or any mind-altering psychedelic will recognise the world’s interconnected nature. Fractalizing into white diamonds the air shatters, trees breathe and animals speak your language. Some suggest these drugs dismantle an evolved human filter, revealing nature for what it truly is: a connected intelligence.

While James Bridle’s Ways of Being – Beyond Human Intelligence is a book about AI and intelligences beyond it, the narrative is more, as the author says, about the idea of forming new relationships with non-human intelligence.

Our future, he writes, demands less industrial hubris and more co-operation with existing and deeply knowledgeable biological systems. He aims to create an awareness of this connection, advocating for a better future, enabling human, animal and plant reconnectivity, while achieving a planetary balance.

You seem to have been compelled to write this book because of the media’s obsession with AI – essentially a corporate entity – while we utterly forget other forms of intelligence around us?


I studied artificial intelligence almost 20 years ago when it was kind of fading from the curriculum because it wasn’t going anywhere – and since then there hasn’t been any kind of big discoveries.

But what’s happened is that vast amounts of data have become available, which have been harvested largely by social media giants and governments, and at the same time processing power has massively increased. And what’s interesting now is that we’ve seen how AI is revealing itself to be something not quite human – in fact something like a different way of thinking and approaching the world. At the same time we’re also starting to realise, thanks to decades of research, that intelligence is something much more interesting and much greater than our very narrow human idea of it.

Recently I had been trying to reframe my practice around environment and ecology, thinking about technology to bear on these questions in a way beyond our human relationships – how we can better accommodate ourselves with everything else that we share the planet with, which for me is central to some kind of ecological environmental justice and progress. And I now see an opportunity with AI for reimagining, firstly, what intelligence is, and secondly, how we impact on other forms of intelligence beyond the human.

How do you think people have become so disconnected from these other intelligences, those of animals and plants in nature?

In medieval times there were cases when animals, which were accused of committing a crime, were in the same courtroom as the lawyers and they were presented to juries. This wasn’t pantomime – it was a deeply serious undertaking – because non-humans were considered to be part of the community. That meant they had rights and responsibilities.

But over time, and especially with industrialisation and urbanisation, attitudes towards non-human life in all its forms changed to them essentially being viewed as machines – unfeeling automatons who didn’t have the kind of inner or higher importance that we ascribe to humans.

That became the dominant mode of thought within particular, certainly western, post-enlightenment societies. That’s when the abattoirs began. And now the environmental mess that we find ourselves in is all related to how we’re out of balance with the deeply entangled, interdependent, nature of our relationships with all other species.

What do we now know about the intelligent behaviour of plants?

Regarding plant intelligence, recent research has shown several extraordinary behavioural qualities. I write in the book about researchers who subjected certain plants to repeated shocks and found that quite quickly they learned essentially to ignore the shock, and move away from its source. What’s more is that they remembered patterns and continued to avoid the shock source in the future.

This is a really extraordinary finding in multiple ways, not least because people don’t understand the mechanism by which they do this, but it changes utterly our understanding of plant behaviour. Even the idea that plants have a thing that we might call behaviour is already something fascinating because that’s not the traditional kind of botanical approach, which mostly involves cutting them up into small pieces, and treating them like machines.

What’s interesting too is that these researchers write about working with plant spirits, and their work is informed by both the knowledge that has come from the plants themselves and by treating the plant as already having its own personhood.

This is real science published in legitimate scientific journals. It’s peer reviewed. It’s reproducible. It conforms to all the structures of the scientific method. What that says to me is that there are multiple ways of approaching these intelligences and to do that via a kind of synthesis of these different ways of knowing is incredibly powerful. Ultimately it all depends on admitting the possibility in the first place that these kinds of intelligences and personhood are real.

In a chapter called non-binary machines you talk about the original field of cybernetics. How could this be an alternative to what you call corporate artificial intelligence and dumb intelligence?

A lot of the history of psychoanalysis and neuroscience was focused on the conception of intelligence as a process, rather than as a machine that thinks like a kind of brain in a box. Particularly in Britain researchers envisioned a kind of an intelligence that is active in the world, which is connected to the world around it, which is learning and is defined by what it does, rather than what it is.

Some earlier conceptual systems had this capacity planning for finding new things based on different inputs, and so could evolve in ways that computer systems didn’t. This field of research continues in various ways. There is very interesting new research around soft robotics, which essentially tries to make robotic systems more adaptive to the world around them.

Programmes like the Unconventional Computing Laboratory at the University of the West of England, is a good example where they look at the kind of computational abilities of various plants and animals. They are doing very interesting things like redesigning a kind of computer logic based on the movement of crabs, for example. This points to the fact that what we understand as computation is not something that can only be performed within machines, but in fact is conducted by biological organisms too.

How can we reconnect with nature?

A lot of what I write about at the end of the book is about the need to provide more shared territory for human and non-human lives. Not just in the form of animal reserves and conservation areas, but also wildlife corridors and shared spaces that allow animals to move in ways that they currently cannot. But I also think that thoughts about the intelligence of animals compels us to think politically.

We can also aim to take into account the multiple different kinds of intelligence among people. In the book I discuss the Irish experience with the introduction of the so-called citizen assemblies, made up out of 33 representatives chosen by political parties, and 66 randomly chosen citizens, so to make recommendations on society’s biggest challenges.

One of the things we learned from the citizens assemblies, not just in Ireland but in other places, is that this is an extraordinary mechanism for mobilising what are essentially multiple forms of intelligence. So instead of selecting a narrow definition of domain experts for any particular problem, it’s acknowledging that what you need for complex thorny problems, particularly novel ones, is a wider diversity of life experiences and ways of thinking.

Ultimately, though, if we understand that different forms of intelligence exist beyond the human, then we need to bring in diverse ways of thinking and forms of life experience, which can deal with our environmental issues around animals, plants and the whole ecosystem. Only then can we address the kind of extraordinary global and pan-species problems that we now face.

Dr Conor Purcell writes about science, society and culture @ConorPPurcell