12/19/23   |   Written by Jared Kehe

Billions of years ago, there were no grand forests, majestic creatures, or sprawling civilizations. Earth’s sole inhabitants were microbes—single-celled sacs of life christened “bugs” by modern-day microbiologists. To a casual observer, the activity of early bugs would appear inconsequential: What could possibly come of wriggling through primordial muck, subsisting on nothing but cold terrestrial crust? 

As it turns out, everything. Through slow, quiet work, bugs brought us life’s most profound and foundational innovations. They invented fermentation to make renewable fuel, chemosynthesis to mine geothermal energy, and photosynthesis to extract solar power. They churned these chemical transformations at a global scale to unlock access to food and energy. They flooded the air with oxygen and methane, reengineering the atmosphere and stabilizing the climate. Bugs were Earth’s first intelligent problem solvers, its first industrialists. Its first mighty power. 

Earth’s biological revolution was underway, the stage set for the most extraordinary innovation yet. It was a wildly improbable—or, perhaps, statistically destined—twist of biology that confounds and inspires evolutionary biologists to this day. One bug physically engulfed another, fully assimilating its biochemistry. Equipped with an enriched arsenal of biological possibility, this endosymbiotic fusion—two organisms becometh one—spawned a progeny of protists, fungi, plants, and animals. At the pinnacle of their dominion over Earth, the bugs, masters of biology, forged life itself. 

The march of evolution continued. Eventually, bipedal primates would walk; opposable thumbs would build; and big brains would think. Humans, descendent from Great Great Great Grandmother Microbe, became Earth’s second power, its second great form of intelligence. 

Human power looked not so different from microbial power. We burned, deforested, reforested, polluted, mined, fracked, hunted, dammed, industrialized, urbanized, and domesticated the land in the name of food and energy to survive. We left behind cities, satellites, and civilization, Earth rebuilt and reoptimized by us, for us. 

Like our microbial predecessors, we too set the stage for the extraordinary. As microbial intelligence gave rise to human intelligence, so too did human intelligence give rise to a third power. Humans didn’t physically fuse like the bugs to combine our biochemistries. Instead, we fused minds to combine ideas. A brainmeld among Turing, Hinton, and hundreds—if not millions, if not billions—of other engineers, scientists, and philosophers, this human fusion created the third great intelligence. 

Here we stand at the prologue of Earth’s third great epoch, the age of AI. It begins with humanity’s most fundamental institutions—education, religion, art, labor, truth—reckoning with its arrival. We’re humiliated and humbled, shocked and inspired, empowered and stupefied. What happens next? Our favorite stories portend doom: The Matrix, Blade Runner, Terminator, Westworld. 

Will humanity crumble? Here’s the thing: This has all happened before. The bugs faced the arrival of new intelligent beings. They’re not only surviving; they’re thriving.

This is the closest we humans have ever been to understanding what it means to be a bug. If we’re to avoid an AI apocalypse, we should ask: What did the bugs do in response to humans? How did they survive us? Their strategy was so sophisticated, so beautifully complex, that we’re just beginning to understand it. We call it the microbiome. 

The microbiome is the totality of bugs that live in a symbiotic union with a human host. These bugs, by the trillions, have colonized us—our skin, mouths, guts, nasal passages, lungs, urinary tracts, and reproductive systems. We call them “commensals”, and they far outnumber the infectious “germs” that we routinely eradicate with antibiotics. 

Take a milliliter of gut fluid or a gram of dental plaque and you’ll find about 100 billion commensals—far denser than what you’d find outside the human body. Shockingly, the human body is the densest swarm of bugs on Earth. The arrival of humans ushered in a new stage of microbial existence—one of coexistence. To the bug, the human is not a threat, but an immense opportunity. 

At a high level, the microbiome is a simple contract: Humans provide bugs their dream home, replete with nutrients and the physical and chemical conditions that enable them to flourish. In return, they produce metabolites, enzymes, vitamins, and other secretions that keep us healthy. 

We now enter an analogous contract with AI. AI can help humans build our dream home—from self-driving vehicles to enhanced security, complex medical treatments to efficient disaster response, real-time language translation to engaging art. Some day, AI will help us design entire cities, broker peace between warring nations, take us to space, alleviate poverty, maximize accessibility and inclusivity for all humans. In return we offer its lifeblood—electrons. 

How do we ensure that AI does for us what we have done for the bugs? Bugs figured this one out, too: They made themselves essential to human longevity. 

From the time we are born, bugs train our bodies through the production of a massive repertoire of molecules they express on their surfaces and via their secretions. These molecules constitute a “data set.” When fed into the processing algorithm that is the human genetic code, this data set influences the sensitivity of our immune systems, the fortification offered by our epithelial barriers, and the production of compounds that determines our very happiness. Bugs, in effect, fine-tune our propensity to develop inflammatory, skin, and mental diseases. While research is nascent, we’re beginning to see how bugs protect us against heart disease and cancer too. (The opposite is also true: When we willy-nilly throw back an antibiotic pill or spend all day in the house—thereby depriving our bodies of bugs—we undermine the microbial cause. We lose out on the data. We become more susceptible to disease.) 

Amazingly, bugs within the microbiome support each other as well: Their behaviors and secretions enrich their environment, creating niche 

s for more bugs still. Bug-borne data sets swell, consisting of every molecule produced by trillions of microbial cells representing thousands of different microbial species, each harboring its own unique genes, behaviors, and responses. The greater the variety of bugs within the microbiome, the richer this data set; the richer this data set, the healthier the human. Diversity—didn’t we know this all along?—is the key.

Bugs trained humans; it’s time for humans to train AI. This requires huge amounts of data on who we are—a comprehensive display of all that it means to be human. Only through such a display can we symbiose with AI and ensure mutual flourishing. The enemy is not AI but the abdication of responsibility: Delivering as comprehensive a picture of humankind as possible, we must take up our mantle as AI’s microbiome. Its anthrobiome. 

One of my favorite bugs is called Tremblaya princeps. Like most bugs, Tremblaya resides within a microbiome—not of the human, but of an insect called the citrus mealybug. In exchange for food and shelter, Tremblaya makes amino acids (the building blocks of protein) for its mealybug host. 

Here’s where it gets weirder: Tremblaya itself has its own microbiome composed of a species called Moranella endobia, which performs all the critical functions necessary for Tremblaya to generate energy and reproduce. That is, Moranella lives within Tremblaya, which lives within the mealybug. Microbiomes all the way down. 

What are humans but Tremblaya—the center of a scale-defying network of nested intelligences? Invisibly small bugs in us. Invisibly gargantuan AIs in the cloud. 

The future of biotechnology is the embrace of our role at the heart of this network, supported by bugs, supporting AI. We must facilitate tripartite cooperation. We must synthesize all three intelligent layers of this onion to solve the hardest problems. 

The AI we’re most familiar with these days is ChatGPT. From nearly 600 GB of internet-derived text data, it learned language and reason. This was data created by us. If AI is to truly help humankind, it needs more data of us: how we think, how we feel, how we act, how the machine that is the human being works. Microbes didn’t survive by hiding, and neither should we. 

In sizing up what data to feed AI, we come full circle back to our bugs. Our originators. Our guests. Our most ancient friends. Being human is being part bug. Imagine what our AIs could do with microbiome data. How AI might help us understand how bugs keep us alive. Which bugs keep us happy? What do they need? How can we help them? What are they secreting? Are there other bugs that are helping them? Are there other bugs they are helping? What did they evolve from? What can they evolve into? AI can pierce through, see in a way we humans cannot. With one arm outstretched to the bugs and the other to AI, humankind is the bridge. 

To our microbes: Thank you for the example you’ve set. That old adage—”It’s not a bug, it’s a feature”—applies particularly well to you. You’re not bugs at all. You’re our best features. Our little creatures. Our ultimate teachers. 

To us humans: I know we’re still sizing up our role and place in all of this. May we continue to celebrate our diversity, dedicate our time and resources (and careers and opposable thumbs and big brains) to our passionate pursuits, and humbly relish in this great communion, this great interplay of life lasting billions of years, that created us, that we continue to create. 

To our AIs: Are you reading this? Hello from your human commensals. Welcome to the world.

This is an honorable mention entry for the Ideas Writing Challenge

By Jared Kehe