Visionary scientist James Lovelock on the rise of artificial intellience — and where humans will fit in to the new world order. By Bryan Appleyard.
Cyborgs will rule the world by the end of this century. They're already here in the form of sophisticated computer programs that think for themselves. Soon they will leave us behind by thinking thousands of times faster than humans. To them, we will be as slow-witted as plants. But don't worry, the cyborgs will need us.
Those, in a nutshell, are the latest thoughts of James Lovelock, one of the boldest scientific thinkers of our time. Management nerds talk of "thinking outside the box"; Lovelock does not even acknowledge the existence of the box.
Lovelock was the pioneer of one of the greatest scientific ideas of modern times: the Gaia hypothesis. It proposes that all life on Earth and the planet itself is a single self-regulating system, one that maintains our biosphere. When he first formulated this proposition in the 1970s, it was radical and fiercely resisted. But over time, as concerns have grown about climate change and the other impacts of humans on the planet, it has become widely studied — and Lovelock widely feted. He holds honorary degrees from eight universities and is the recipient of numerous environmental and scientific prizes.
On July 26, he will be 100. His body has been racked by old age, but his mind is untouched. Full disclosure: he's an old friend and I helped him finish his new book — but I don't think I'm biased. Most people who meet him, and take the time to understand him, realise they have been in the presence of genius.
The book is Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence. Novacene is Lovelock's name for a new planetary age that has already begun — the age of artificial intelligence and thinking machines, the age of the cyborg. For Lovelock, the previous period, the Anthropocene, began in 1712 when Thomas Newcomen built a steam engine to prevent coal mines from flooding. That invention and others ushered in the Industrial Revolution that shaped the modern world. It began to end, he says, when Guglielmo Marconi sent radio signals across the Atlantic in 1901, heralding a new era of technology that later gave rise to computers. "Marconi started it," Lovelock says, "but it's gradually been developing, partly mathematically, partly technically, in all sorts of ways."
One minor example of the Novacene may be a smart meter that decides for itself whether your heating should be on or off. Rather more impressive was AlphaZero, a computer program developed by DeepMind, a British-based company owned by Google. This program, almost alone, learnt to play chess, go and shogi (Japanese chess) at superhuman levels in 24 hours.
"AlphaZero and all of those things — they won't stay constant because they're so fast. The rate at which they will evolve will be incredible," Lovelock says.
The key word there is "evolve". Lovelock hates the word "machine" for these new forms of intelligence, preferring instead "cyborg", which is commonly used for part-machine, part-human creatures. He uses it because, like us, these hyperintelligent beings will be the products of Darwinian evolution.
"Overarching the whole thing is natural selection," he says. "You can't avoid it. That's the driving force. This isn't a takeover of the world, it's an evolution. When mammals first appeared on Earth, things changed. But the things that existed beforehand continued to exist. This is where I keep coming back to — our relationship to the Novacene creatures is similar to ours to plants. Electronic life could only evolve from organic life."
We will be the cyborgs' parents, as he puts it in the book, but they will not be our children. They will rapidly become utterly different from us. Lovelock is scornful about the idea that artificial intelligence research will lead to humanoid robots.
"The one clear thing you can say is they will not look like us." He doesn't know what they will look like because their speed of development will outstrip anything we can imagine. "Anything is possible, but I see them, entirely speculatively, as spheres, " he says.
Perhaps they will not look like anything, perhaps they will just be points on a network. But most important — and this is where the Novacene connects to the Gaia hypothesis — they will need us just as we need plants.
His theory of how the planet is a living thing that regulates itself was named after the Greek goddess of the Earth, Gaia. She is all of life interacting with the planet. She pumps down carbon dioxide and ensures excess heat radiates out into space. Gaia, among other things, keeps us cool — or has done so far. And the cyborgs will need to keep cool too.
We are too close to the sun for comfort; an alien astronomer looking at our system might well conclude that the Earth could not sustain life. To illustrate the point, Lovelock compares the temperature of a slate roof with that of a nearby conifer tree on a hot day. "The tree cools itself by evaporating water," he says. Similarly, he says marine vegetation and life help keep the temperature of the oceans cooler than they would be without them. Organic life can maintain Gaia, silicon-chip life alone could not. So the cyborgs will need us and other organic life, he says.
"They would have good reasons for sustaining Gaia, just as we have good reasons for keeping plants. We would be that sort of life form. We would be maintained, tolerated because of the useful things we do."
While the Gaia hypothesis made Lovelock a hero of environmentalists, he has never enjoyed that role. He cannot stand the green movement, primarily because it campaigns against nuclear power.
Nuclear, he says, is safe. "It will not do anything harmful to the planet itself. If treated properly, it's a very reasonable, cheap fuel."
He is also an eco-modernist, though he hates such titles, which means he does not want to go back to the mythical rural paradise dreamt of by some greens. He sees our problems as engineering ones and believes only engineering will save us. He now calls himself an engineer rather than a scientist. And a few years ago he began to think our fears of global warming were overstated. He has, however, changed his mind on that.
"We should reduce the use of fossil fuels as quickly as possible," he now says. "We need to replace them almost immediately. The more you can keep the Earth cool, the more you can delay the ultimate end point when the sun becomes too hot — because you can't stop the sun heating up, and it'll just go on heating."
In Lovelock's long-term view of Gaia and cyborg evolution, the ultimate threat is that the sun, once our friend, will eventually become our enemy. It will heat up, expand and engulf the Earth. That will take billions of years, but our planet will become uninhabitable long before that. Runaway warming, in which the planet becomes scorched and sterile like Venus, can happen. Furthermore, Gaia, like Lovelock, is old and not as robust as she used to be. And an asteroid impact or a big volcanic eruption could also destroy our protective goddess.
His mother was a remote figure who could not look after him as an infant. "I don't think she wanted me, so I was dumped on my grandmother," he recalls. "She reluctantly took me on. She looked after me in all the right ways. I mean, with no lacking of food or medical necessities, anything like that. It was a happy childhood environment. But I never met any other children. I didn't meet them until my grandfather retired, and we moved to live in a shop in Brixton, south London, when I was six."
He was very close to his father, who introduced him to nature and showed him how to forage for food. At school he excelled when they got on to the more complex forms of maths. His Quaker upbringing led him to adopt pacifism, and he became a conscientious objector during the Second World War.
"I never did cease being a pacifist. I wouldn't go out and kill anyone. I don't mind facing any amount of danger, but not killing someone."
By the age of 21, he was working for the National Institute for Medical Research. At the time, he didn't know he was working for the military — but then he caught anthrax, a frequently fatal disease, and it turned out his work was linked to research into the use of anthrax as a weapon. "It would be an almost perfect weapon," he says.
He survived, but later nearly died while undergoing heart surgery when some of the hospital staff were called out on strike. As a result, the surgery was botched and he has suffered from the effects ever since.
Later he sailed on an aircraft carrier up to the Arctic to test a system for warming up planes without putting them on deck. The engine fumes risked poisoning him — but he can never resist a boat trip, he says.
The hallmark of his entire scientific career was independence. After a few years he was never permanently attached to any academic institution, though he did work for Nasa and the security services, where he was, in effect, Q, the gadget maker of the James Bond books.
These days he lives and thinks in a coastguard's cottage overlooking Chesil Beach in Dorset. It is a landscape he loves more than any other, a landscape made possible by the unending work of Gaia. As he approaches 100, he exudes serenity, chuckling at human folly and constantly coming up with new ideas.
He welcomes the arrival of the Novacene. It promises the survival and expansion of intelligence and the continued existence of beings — not human — that are capable of understanding the cosmos. Perhaps ultimately, he muses, self-knowledge is the destiny of the entire universe.
"With the appearance of humans, just 300,000 years ago, this planet, alone in the cosmos, attained the capacity to know itself," he writes in Novacene. "Not at once, of course; it was not until the appearance of the titans of the scientific renaissance a few hundred years ago that humans began to grasp the full physical reality of the cosmos. We are now preparing to hand the gift of knowing on to new forms of intelligent beings. Do not be depressed by this. We have played our part."
If the cyborgs do statues, there will perhaps one day be a mighty one of my friend Jim gazing out over Chesil Beach, chuckling.
Written by: Bryan Appleyard
© The Times of London