Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence – James Lovelock

Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence (Mit Press): Lovelock, James:  9780262539517: Books

James Lovelock is fast approaching his one hundredth birthday. However, neither the fragilities of age nor the passage of time seems to have succeeded in diminishing the scientific fervor and curiosity of one of the greatest and grandest thinkers of our era – or for that matter, any era. Lovelock’s very DNA seems to be informed with a preternatural propensity to inquire, introspect and infer. It is with this intrepid sense of inquisitiveness, that Lovelock forays into a controversial subject that has almost created a schism between two divergent schools of thought, in his latest book. Extremely thought provoking and for the lack of a better word, arguable, Lovelock brings his infectious exuberance to bear as he contemplates the prospect of hyperintelligent robots (Cyborgs) taking over humanity. If not with a downright sense of glee, Lovelock seems to welcome what might otherwise be viewed as a frightening turn of events, with a degree of astounding optimism.

James Lovelock shot to fame with his famous “Gaia Hypothesis”. The Gaia Hypothesis has at its core, the principle that the Earth can be comprehended as one sole, complex, self-regulating system. In this integrated system, every organism and its inorganic surroundings on Earth are closely integrated to form a single and self-regulating complex system, maintaining the conditions for life on the planet. The name “Gaia”, was originally suggested to him by the Nobel Prize winning novelist William Golding. In “Novacene”, Lovelock extends this principle to venture into the convoluted realm of Artificial Intelligence, and Deep Learning. Aiding and abetting Lovelock in his venture is his extraordinarily able amanuensis, the Sunday Times author and writer, Bryan Appleyard.  

According to Lovelock, humanity will soon witness the end of the “Anthropocene” – the era in which humans were successfully able to channel the forces of nature – especially sunlight – with a motive to harnessing the same to embellish commercial purposes. Beginning with the invention of the practical fuel-burning engine by Thomas Newcomen in 1712, mankind has made exponential progress in terms of accelerating scientific, technological and economic developments, thereby ushering in prosperous times. Now, according to Lovelock, the world is careening towards yet another new age, the “Novacene”. The Novacene will be characterized by the presence and actions of cyborgs that can think 10,000 times faster than any of us, and will program themselves and their successors in a manner beyond the remit of human comprehension.

What if the cyborgs with their exponential and unsurpassed degree of intellect conspire and collude to first transform human beings as lab rats before proceeding to decimate the homo sapiens completely? Lovelock provides an absorbing defense against such a gloomy probability. He argues that both the cyborgs and their ‘organic’ founders would exist in a carefully calibrated state of equilibrium because of one common integral objective – survival.

The greatest threat to Planet Earth is death by overheating because of an unavoidable dependence on a single star, the Sun. The only rational manner of countering this threat is to keep the planet cool. This objective can only be achieved, when earth is teeming with life. Hence, Lovelock proposes, these cyborgs will join hands with humans in implementing new and novel ways of re-engineering the planet so that it always remains in a “livable” state.

Novacene is sprinkled with exquisitely delightful anecdotes. My personal favourite happens to be the one involving Professor Frank Hawking of the National Institute of Medical Research and his child. Intrigued by Lovelock and his buddy Owen Lidwell’s refusal to inflict burns on anesthetized rabbits – and experimenting on themselves instead – during the course of researching burn wounds, Hawking invited Lovelock over to his house for discussing the outcomes of the experiment. Sometime in the evening, Mrs. Hawking requested Lovelock to hold her newborn so that she could tend to the food. Due to this contrivance of chance and coincidence, James Lovelock ended up carrying Stephen Hawking in his arms, for a while.

It is not as if Lovelock welcomes the prospect of a symbiotic relationship between Cyborgs and human beings with Panglossian impudence or imprudence. He recognises the potential perils and pitfalls that might upset the delicate balance between man and machine. For example, there is no knowing whether cybernetic intelligence would accord uncompromising respect and recognition to the three indispensable commands for robots first postulated by Issac Asimov. The Cyborgs would be released from human commands because they will have evolved from code written by themselves. “It seems we are still in thrall to a play written in 1920: R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek, a sardonic Czech writer who was nominated for the Nobel Prize seven times but never won it. I imagine this confirmed his bleakly realistic view of life. ‘If dogs could talk,’ he said, ‘perhaps we would find it as hard to get along with them as we do with people.”

Yet another distressing possibility would be a decision made by Cyborgs to abandon Planet Earth for more “conducive” climes. “The needs of cyborgs are quite different from ours. Oxygen is a nuisance, not a vital necessity. There is far too much water for comfort. Maybe they will decide to move to Mars, a planet hopelessly unsuited for wet carbonaceous lives like ours, but which might be quite comfortable for dry-silicon- or carbon-based life of an IT kind. Would they go further than Mars? In practice, while thought could be rapid for our descendants, the normal limitations of the universe, such as the speed of light, remain as restricting as ever. Will they have the capacity to move out into our galaxy and even the universe?” What Lovelock leaves unsaid is the ghastly probability of the cyborgs decimating life on Earth before proceeding to their future abode.

On a superficial level, Lovelock mulls about the form which a potential cyborg would take. Robots have been popularized in a plethora of sci-fi movies and novels as possessing enormous heads and slanting eyes. According to the author there are three primary reasons for such a conception, or rather misconception: a quasi-religious impulse that perceives humans as the summit of creation and, therefore, attributes the same physiology to any successors; a self-perpetuating belief that if the exterior mirrors a human visage, the insides also must reflect human thoughts, beliefs and conscience hence allowing man to trust the machine; and finally an intrigue on the idea of the uncanny, as defined by Sigmund Freud. “Freud wrote of the strangeness of dolls or waxworks and argued that this strangeness arose from ordinary things that were, in some way, not quite right. This explains the extraordinary dramatic power of the humanoid robot in science fiction – it looks like one of us, but we are baffled by its motives and feelings…”

It is not just about the Novacene that Lovelock harbours positive aspirations. His take on the Anthropocene is also permeated with optimism. “My last word on the Anthropocene,” is a shout of joy, joy at the colossal expansion of our knowledge of the world and the cosmos that this age has produced.” This egregious, ebullient, and effervescent outlook is a monumental testimony to the manner in which the man has chosen to live and lead a greater part of his illustrious life.