…and it did a halfway decent job. But algorithms alone can’t save endangered species. For that you need people who care and who act.

An hourglass on a bleak, rocky surface

When a certain search engine recently asked me to test out its new artificial intelligence chatbot, I thought “How bad will this be?”

After all, tech companies love to position their AI systems as solutions, but many experts fear they will result in waves of bad data and disinformation. That’s not going to help a world plagued by runaway climate change and an extinction crisis that threatens to push a million species into oblivion.

But at the same time, artificial intelligence and machine learning have some truly wonderful implications for conservation — anything that speeds up data analysis is welcome, for example. Could that potential benefit carry over to a chatbot designed to spit out easy answers to users’ questions?

I wanted to see how good the systems really are, so I gave it a test — I asked the chatbot how to solve the extinction crisis.

No small task.

So here they are: the chatbot’s 10 ways to fight the extinction crisis (in italics), along with my interpretation and response.

1. Reduce your consumption of meat and animal products. Animal agriculture is a major driver of habitat loss, deforestation and climate change. By eating less meat and more plant-based foods, you can help to reduce the impact of your diet on the environment.

A surprisingly strong start right out of the gate. Animal agriculture is one of the leading factors in the extinction crisis, and while I wouldn’t necessarily have put this at number one, it certainly deserves to be in the top three. Good job, chatbot.

2. Support sustainable farming practices. When you buy food, choose products that were grown or raised using sustainable methods. This helps to protect wildlife habitat and reduce pollution.

This is vague and possibly redundant, but it’s useful for the chatbot to lay out causality. Unsustainable farming does destroy habitat and create enormous pollution, often enough to be seen from space. But what “sustainable” methods is it recommending, and how is this recommendation actionable? At the very least consumers should look for the USDA Organic label, but there are a host of other labels out there, some of which are more misleading than others. (Hmm, could be worth digging into that in a future article. Thanks for the idea, chatbot.)

3. Get involved in local conservation efforts. There are many ways to get involved in conservation efforts in your community. You can volunteer for a local environmental organization, donate to conservation groups, or simply spread the word about the importance of protecting wildlife.

Fair enough. Local efforts can do a lot to benefit native or migratory species, but a vague reference to “many ways” doesn’t provide any actionable ideas or talk about why local efforts matters. That’s important, since to most people extinction feels like something that happens half a world away, not in their own backyards.

4. Advocate for environmental policies. Contact your elected officials and let them know that you support policies that protect wildlife and the environment.

Good advice, chatbot, but the devil’s in the details: What are those policies? Here in the United States, it’s a good idea to actively call for support of the Endangered Species Act, which is chronically underfunded and under threat. There are other regulations and policies — both existing and proposed — that will benefit wildlife, but people will need to do their own digging to find out what those are. (Our suggestion: Start by calling for support for the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act.)

5. Reduce your energy consumption. By turning off lights when you leave a room, unplugging appliances when you’re not using them, and weatherizing your home, you can help to reduce your energy consumption and save money.

Okay, here’s where the chatbot starts to get a little … off. Reducing energy consumption is a great goal, but this answer doesn’t connect that with benefiting wildlife. It’s more of a climate solution, which in turn can help address the extinction crisis. However, reducing home energy consumption simply by turning off a light doesn’t address the severe waste and devastation of the fossil fuel industry, which destroys habitats, poisons ecosystems and drives the climate change that causes even more chaos. That needs to be addressed on a systematic level, not by unplugging your blender.

6. Recycle and compost. Recycling and composting help to reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfills, where it can release harmful methane gas into the atmosphere.

Decent advice, but why? Chatbot, don’t be afraid to spell out the fact that methane is a greenhouse gas that worsens climate change — and why that’s harmful to wildlife.

7. Support sustainable businesses. When you shop, choose businesses that are committed to sustainability. This helps to send a message to businesses that consumers care about the environment.

Vague. Vague, vague, vague.

8. Educate yourself and others about the extinction crisis. The more people who know about the extinction crisis, the more likely we are to take action to address it.

This echoes things I’ve said for years. It’s why we always ask people to share our articles — so friends and colleagues who might not seek out this kind of reporting on their own can also see what’s going on. We may be intimately familiar with certain environmental topics ourselves but should never assume other people have the same knowledge base.

9. Get creative. There are many ways to get involved in the fight against extinction. Come up with your own ideas and share them with others.

Sure. I guess that’s helpful?

10. Never give up. The extinction crisis is a serious problem, but it’s not insurmountable. By working together, we can make a difference.

Color me impressed: While still vague, this may be the best advice on the whole list, albeit the hardest to live up to. The extinction crisis is excruciating, but it can be stopped. After all, almost every species that has received endangered species protection in time to do something about it has been saved from extinction. That’s why the Endangered Species Act has been such a massive success in the United States, why we need similar laws around the world, and why we need to communicate our successes — so people see that the things they do can have a lifesaving impact.

There you go. Not the worst list, but evidence that chatbots don’t obviate the need for human wisdom, experience and proven solutions.

Why does this matter? For now, these chatbots are isolated — you need to know where to go to use them — but search engines have already announced they plan to integrate the technology into average search results. That means that sometimes, instead of a link to an article answering your question, you’ll get a chatbot’s answer. Those answers may or may not come from a reliable authority or be correct.

Many publishers worry that these chatbot answers will supersede links to authoritative web pages where readers can find the correct information. That could wipe out critical web traffic and harm the already struggling news business — which in turn could cause publications to go out of business.

Artificial intelligence is a tool that could do a lot of good when deployed correctly and cautiously. But if it kills off expert sources, it could drive knowledge itself extinct. We’ve already had a bitter taste of that, here in the “post-truth” era. We may not survive much more.

What are the real solutions to the extinction crisis, and how can we each help? We’ll have an article with some answers for you soon — and they won’t be the kind that can be served up by a chatbot.

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John R. Platt

is the editor of The Revelator. An award-winning environmental journalist, his work has appeared in Scientific American, Audubon, Motherboard, and numerous other magazines and publications. His “Extinction Countdown” column has run continuously since 2004 and has covered news and science related to more than 1,000 endangered species. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. John lives on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., where he finds himself surrounded by animals and cartoonists.