These weeks, another chapter of the endless Terminator film saga rolls over the cinema screen. And once again, we're dealing with a notion of cyborgs that reminds us of humans – but who are simply superior to us in terms of strength, speed, and survivability.
But what if we dropped these cyborg clichés and instead imagined a creature that is not at all anthropomorphic. A creature that may have the form of a droplet, a sphere, or a microorganism. This being will observe us and think about us in the same way that we observe and think about a flower.
The big step has already been taken
These are the kind of thoughts James Lovelock makes in the book Novac The book is something as rare as a deeply visionary work. The title refers to the age that Lovelock believes we are on the threshold of. Well, maybe the one we just entered. Prior to the Novacean era, we had the Anthropocene age, a time characterised by the human ability to influence the planet's ecosystem. The Novacean era is a time when technology grows out of our control and where artificial intelligence gains the ability to refine and further develop itself and, thus, become an independent being.
In the 1970s, Lovelock put forward the Gaii theory.
We've already seen examples of that, Lovelock points out, and mentions Google's computer program AlphaGo as a telling example. Back in 2015, the program won over a human in the game of Go, which is far more complicated than, for example, chess. And unlike IBM's Deep Blu computer that defeated Kasparov in chess back in the 1990s, AlphaGo was not created by the machine being fed with a lot of data from which it then navigated. Instead, AlphaGo combined two systems: partly human input in the form of data and partly by developing the ability to learn the game on its own along the way. The latter is revolutionary, Lovelock argues, because it means that artificial intelligence has now reached a stage where intuition, autonomy, and learning ability become properties that artificial intelligence possesses. And, when coupled with information handling thousands of times faster than the human brain, we have the prospect of artificial intelligence that is far superior to us. Then we have artificial intelligence that will see us as we consider the flower.
Lovelock does not think we should fear these beings – but on the contrary, we rejoice in their existence. Because they will help us keep the planet habitable longer than usual. But at some point they probably won't have to use us anymore. Our extinction is inevitable, but whether it happens by natural consequences or whether we are wiped out by these artificial intelligences, Lovelock does not respond unequivocally. But we die.
Fantastic or visionary?
Who is this fantastic and futurist, Lovelock? He is a 100-year-old Englishman who has just published another book. He is also a scientist and almost to be considered Renaissance man with expertise in chemistry, physics, medicine, philosophy, and geology. In the 1970s, Lovelock put forward the Gaia theory, which involves the notion of earth as a self-regulating system that constantly seeks to create ideal living conditions.
I Novac it seems that Lovelock steps away from the theory of self-regulation, at least understood as a certainty that it will all go well, all the while the planet is regulating itself anyway.
Intuition, autonomy, and learning ability become traits that artificial intelligence possesses.
Lovelock spends part of the work advocating that we should put all our energy into counteracting the rise in temperature on the planet. That we drop the many resources to look for life in space, as he believes, all indicates that we are alone in the universe. Lovelock, on the other hand, is a proponent of nuclear power and believes that our resistance to it is the clearest example of the limits of our intelligence.
However, the fight against temperature rise cannot be won by nuclear power alone. This is where artificial intelligence must come into play. The main essence of Lovelock's new work, therefore, is that the natural evolution that created man also led to a man who engages in predation and, thus, destroys Gaia's self-regulatory ability. They should now be replaced by a mechanical evolution that will allow the artificial intelligences to develop on their own and take over where we can no longer be involved.
A rare work
Although the book suffers a bit from too many repetitions and a little messy editing, it is a pleasure to read a work that makes such great thoughts. And it is striking how rare its kind of books actually see the light of day. Maybe because big thoughts are often easy targets for shit and ridicule. Occasionally, you can also not hesitate to hesitate, maybe pull on the smile band, hesitate. You have doubts about what is realistic and what seems like a fantasy without roots and pure speculation. But just that is one of the attractions of the book. It makes the seeker, essayist and different.
Something I boxed with along the way was whether it is also a natural evolution when it is no longer organic? And with the natural part out, so is the good? Lovelock does not provide clear answers to this. He speculates and ponders further.