Zeus: Jane Goodall on AI and talking to the animals, and life after death
Plus, how we squandered Covid's sudden rebound in nature.
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(David Callaway is founder and Editor-in-Chief of Callaway Climate Insights. He is the former president of the World Editors Forum, Editor-in-Chief of USA Today and MarketWatch, and CEO of TheStreet Inc. His climate columns have appeared in USA Today, The Independent, Bloomberg Law, and New Thinking magazine).
NEW YORK (Callaway Climate Insights) — In the first book Dr. Jane Goodall remembers reading as a child, Dr. Doolittle learned how to talk to the animals from his pet parrot. Goodall went on to establish pretty good communication skills herself in seven decades as an ethologist working with chimps and other animals. Last week, she thrilled a crowd by saying her name in chimpanzee at a fundraiser in Florida.
But when I asked her whether advances in AI, such as ChatGPT, could ultimately help us talk to animals in a broader way, she wasn’t impressed.
“There are people who use AI to decode how animals communicate,” Goodall said, in an interview with Callaway Climate Insights in Tampa. “I don’t think it would be sensible to try to learn to turn their communication into human words. All our non-verbal language is similar anyway. Hugging, kissing.”
Goodall, who turned 89 this week, is no stranger to AI, even if she can’t tell you exactly how it works. But she spends a lot of time pondering the big questions its advent asks, such as the nature of humanity, the afterlife, and of course how to protect the earth’s environment.
Goodall spoke to me before an event honoring her at the Florida Aquarium last week, hosted in part by my old college friend and environmental entrepreneur Joe Tatelbaum.
“We use AI in our study of animals,” she said. “We can identify individual chimps with the camera traps.”
David Callaway explains why this column is called Zeus in The coming battle with the climate gods: How mortal innovators and investors will save the planet.
She said a relative recently showed her ChatGPT and suggested she use it to write her lectures, arguing she could write just one and then use AI to give it everywhere, in dozens of languages. An idea which made her bristle.
“If we go further down this road, aren’t we going to lose our curiosity and creativity?” she said. “I don’t want to do that with my lectures. Each is designed for a particular group in a particular place and a particular age.”
Goodall admitted at the event that evening that at her age, she spends a good deal of time pondering what happens after she’s gone. It’s part of what she explores in her latest book, “The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times,” with Douglas Abrams. She said she believes we retain our consciousness after we die.
“I can’t think of a greater adventure than what is beyond our mortal life,” she said.
But judging from Goodall’s energy and enthusiasm for working — especially with young people — to preserve nature, she probably has many birthdays to come. No matter what, one of her life’s projects, The Jane Goodall Institute, stands to operate long after she is gone. It currently has projects going in more than 70 countries.
Turning back to animals, I asked Goodall if humanity had squandered the dramatic drop in carbon emissions we experienced during the Covid lockdowns three years ago. in which nature began to reassert itself across urban landscapes at startling speed, including, in some cases, wild animals roaming around in city centers.
“Some cities have always had animals,” she reminded me. “Coyotes, for instance. In Berlin, they have wild boar running around everywhere.” She said unless cities follow through on pledges to protect nature in and around them, we will indeed have squandered our chance. She cited Qatar for having banned driving in the deserts around the country to protect the delicate ecosystem.
"Of course, once Covid ended, we went back to our ways and the animals retreated,” she said. “In some places, such as deserts, it would be much harder (to bounce back) because the system is so fragile. If legislation (to protect the environment) is enforced, then we’d be doing a lot better."
And what role can investors play? In Goodall’s view, investment needs to be made in engaging the younger generations to understand and work to help recover so much of the nature the older generation has destroyed. As Goodall sees it, the return would be far greater than anything that could be bought on Wall Street.
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