We Need to Control Our Algorithms Before They Destroy the Environment

The 'Biosphere Code' calls for software engineers to craft eco-friendly algorithms.

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Oct 5 2015, 6:00pm

Coal mining equipment. Photo: Helen Simonsson/Flickr

A group of researchers are arguing that humanity needs a 'Biosphere Code' that makes sure we control our algorithms before they destroy the environment.

Algorithms—computer-generated sequences made to perform a set of tasks—are having a massive impact on our world, often without us even realizing it. While the NSA might have exploited them to spy on citizens, algorithms also influence everything from commerce, music to the financial system.

"We have algorithms for essentially everything from monitoring our environment, financial risk modelling, to algorithms that determine where we decide to fish, then which assess the stock," Victor Galaz, one of the authors of the Biosphere Manifesto and researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, told me. "It's important to get the whole picture of how they're shaping the world."

The Biosphere Code argues that algorithms must be scrutinized more, given that they underpin the world's technological infrastructure, and help "extract and develop natural resources such as minerals, food, fossil fuels." The manifesto has been in the works for six months and was created by a group of academics, artists, hackers, entrepreneurs, game developers, activists, philosophers, and ecologists. The group were initially inspired by the 2009 Oxford Principles for considering risks in geoengineering. According to Galaz, the Oxford Principles show how a set of written values could provoke debate in a wider community.

In a nutshell, the Biosphere Code group lay out seven main principles that suggest the need for more software developers to scrutinize the possible impacts of the algorithms they create, or how algorithms that impact the biosphere should be open source, among others.

"If you use algorithms in the right way, you can optimize things to be resilient," Anders Sandberg, a researcher at Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute, told me. "You can optimize things to use less resources, or to figure out when something is going wrong so that people can be aware of the problem more quickly."

Image: Fernanda Torre

Galaz gave the financial sector as an example where a misuse of algorithms could adversely affect the environment. Few people, he said, have insight into who is accountable for all the financial algorithms dealing with the global flow of trade and commodities, and if the data generated by the algorithms is incorrect, it could potentially cause prices to crash. This could have knock-on effects for producers in developing economies as they are forced to put pressure on their land to produce more crops, explained Galaz.

Ultimately, the researchers want more people to understand the way that algorithms are shaping both our lives and our surroundings.

"I'm hoping that this manifesto gets wider distribution so that people can scrutinise the need for algorithms to be adapted in accordance with our changing society," said Galaz.

Though the United Nation's Climate Change Talks are scheduled for the end of 2015, Galaz said that the function of algorithms and their role in shaping the environment weren't topics up for discussion.

"The main issue is to put them on the agenda. Algorithms are doing much more than just Amazon search—they're shaping the future of the climate," he said.

VICE is covering the launch of the Global Goals for sustainable development. In the next fifteen years, the UN wants to achieve three massive tasks: end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice and fix climate change. For more information on the Global Goals go to collectively.org.