James Lovelock: Cyborgs, turning 100 and the coming age of the Novacene
On the eve of his 100th birthday, creator of Gaia theory James Lovelock has come up with his most visionary idea yet - the coming age of hyper-intelligent beings.
What is the Novacene?
It’s the name I’ve given to the new age of intelligent beings. Hollywood has filled our minds with robots and mechanical devices that follow on from humans and take over the planet. This seems to me absolute nonsense.
These new beings will arise, like us, from Darwinian evolution, and they will need us to regulate the climate. This could be one of the most crucial periods in the history of the planet and perhaps even of the cosmos.
Tell me more about these beings.
They will be biological entities – I use the term ‘cyborg’. But they will no longer use neurons [the nerve cells that carry signals in the brain], because these are incredibly slow and inefficient – signals along neurons travel about 10,000 times slower than they do along copper wire.
We’ll be able to use our cleverness to assist the whole process – that’s how there will be a switch from using neurons. There is no natural source on Earth of the special components [that will be needed for the cyborgs], like ultrafine wires made of pure unbroken metal.
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So there are things that will be changed deliberately, but it’s still evolution. Like it or not, the emergence of cyborgs cannot be envisaged without us humans playing a god-like – or parent-like – role.
So we will start to produce a more efficient communication system for our brains. The Novacene will be inhabited by cyborgs who think and act roughly 10,000 times faster than we or other animals do. That’s about the same speed difference as we are from plants.
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Will they look at us like plants?
Yes, and this is an important concept, because plants are desirable things. We like them. We have all kinds of relationships with plants, and I see no reason why the Novacene organisms should not have a similar range of relationships with the organisms that are around today. It’s a new kingdom of nature, if you like.
Somebody said to me, ‘How could you possibly be interested in a life form that’s a 10,000th of the speed you are?’ I mean, it’s so snail-like.’ And I thought, ‘Why do you go to Kew Gardens, then?’
When will the Novacene begin?
It already has begun. What’s been happening recently with AlphaGo is an evolutionary step in this direction [in 2015, Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo became the first computer program to beat a professional human player at Go – a Chinese board game that’s more complex and difficult to master than chess]. AlphaGo combined human input with the machine’s ability to teach itself.
This was an enormous step forward, but an even bigger one followed. In 2017, DeepMind announced two successors: AlphaGo Zero and AlphaZero, neither of which used human input.
I’ve kind of thought of them – if I do think of them at all – as almost ephemeral. Sort of floating entities
The new life of the Novacene will go far beyond AlphaZero’s autonomy. It will be able to improve and replicate itself. The simplest way of looking at Darwinian evolution is that the organism that leaves the most progeny is the one that succeeds, and that rule applies to all realms. I think it will apply in this case, too.
When will we see these hyper-intelligent beings living among us?
That’s very difficult to predict. The speed of evolution is slow and comprehensible right now, but once it starts moving and becomes hyper-intelligent in its own context, it might be exceedingly fast. We’re talking an increase of millions, in terms of acceleration.
And what will they look like?
I’ve kind of thought of them – if I do think of them at all – as almost ephemeral. Sort of floating entities. Very lightweight. Perhaps even transparent.
So, that’s my particular vision. Others will see them differently. We don’t look terribly like some of our ancestors, so why should they?
You mentioned earlier that these cyborgs will need us. Why is that?
If I’m right about Gaia theory, then the sustenance of the planet will require continuous cooperation of the various kingdoms. I mean, the plant kingdom cannot be suddenly removed – it’s got to be there because something’s got to fix the solar photons coming in and turn them into energy and food.
The kind of function that we’re fulfilling [as humans] is more on the intelligence level than the metabolic level, but it will have to go on. In their own interests, the cyborgs will be obliged to join us in the project to keep the planet cool.
I’m not against Hollywood. It’s a wonderful source of entertainment, but it does tend to be over-aggressive and fighting battles all the time.
I don’t see that there’s any need for that with our relationship with the cyborgs.
To listen to this episode of the Science Focus Podcast for more of the interview, including James Lovelock’s reflections on his life and career.
You just mentioned Gaia theory, which you are known for creating. How would you explain it to someone who’s not come across it before?
It sees the Earth as a system made up of all the rocks, all the atmosphere, all the ocean, and all the living things, and these interact together to sustain a state that keeps the living part of it surviving.
It has to. If the living part dies, then so does the whole darned system, and it goes back to becoming a [dead] rocky planet like the ones that we have [in the Solar System] already.
And so the Novacene beings will need us to help regulate the system, because we’re such an integral part of it?
Exactly, yes. One would imagine that they would want to keep the status quo here for a fair time. They might eventually find means of moving to somewhere more comfortable, but there isn’t anywhere in the Solar System where one could conceive that would be better than the Earth.
Mars certainly wouldn’t be.
And we will need these cyborgs, too. We’ll need them very badly.
The greatest threat to life on Earth is overheating. We’re obviously playing a huge part now with climate change. But the long-term threat to life is the exponentially increasing output of heat from the Sun [‘main sequence’ stars such as the Sun gradually become hotter and brighter as they age]. In a relatively short time – several hundred million years – its heat output will be more than we can take.
Unless, of course, the Novacene characters put up reflective mirrors or something like that [to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth]. Geoengineering projects will be well within their capability. It’s conceivable that we could do it ourselves, but in the Novacene there will be cooperation right across the system of life on Earth, as there is now.
You say in your book that you don’t think intelligent life exists elsewhere in the cosmos. Why is this?
Well, if the conclusions drawn about the age of the cosmos [13.8 billion years] are more or less correct, then there hasn’t been time for anything else. It took the process of evolution 3.7 billion years – almost a third of the age of the cosmos – to evolve an understanding organism from the first primitive life forms.
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It’s quite remarkable that we’ve appeared. It involved a lot of luck – the Earth’s location near the Sun, the impact of a Mars-like object which changed our planet’s properties [this is currently the leading explanation for the formation of the Moon]. All sorts of things like that. Our cosmos is simply not old enough for the staggeringly improbable chain of events required to produce intelligent life to have occurred more than once.
If we are alone, would it make us special?
Well, one idea is that the truly fundamental property of the cosmos is the bit [the basic unit of information]. And that the cosmos is slowly moving towards an assembly of bits.
So this would be a movement of information and intelligence out from the Earth into the cosmos?
Yes. The Novacene will be a movement in that direction.
Would this give humans a sense of meaning then – if we’re the source of this intelligence?
I think it’s sheer hubris to think about your sense of meaning. Life is something to be enjoyed, and if you don’t enjoy it, you’re doing it wrong.
How do you feel about the future of our planet?
I’m a bit worried. I’ve got a lot of grandchildren, and great-grandchildren come to that. Yes, I think it could be very dodgy in the intervening periods.
You mentioned earlier that you don’t think Mars would make a good alternative home…
It’s absolutely crazy. I mean, we’ve got a beautiful planet here. Absolutely beautiful. And with far less effort, we could treat it better and make it desirable to live in. Whereas it would involve a monumental effort to shift stuff to Mars and make it fit for life. If you ever could.
We now know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the bottom of the ocean. And if we’re concerned about the climate of the Earth and its future, it’s much more important to know about our ocean.
You’re set to turn 100. Looking back at your career, what do you hope your legacy will be?
Legacy? There’s more work to do. I’ve got another book to write!
James is staff writer at BBC Science Focus magazine. He especially enjoys writing about wellbeing and psychology.
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