When British futurist James Lovelock looks to the future, his vision for humanity is grim. He doesn’t foresee humans ruling the Earth. Instead, he believes cyborgs will rise up and end humanity’s supremacy as “prime understanders of the cosmos.”
“The understanders of the future will not be humans but what I choose to call ‘cyborgs’ that will have designed and built themselves.”
Lovelock believes we are already living in the early stages of what he calls the Novacene, an era in which self-sufficient cyborgs, vastly more intelligent than today’s humans, will dominate the Earth.
“The crucial step that started the Novacene was, I think, the need to use computers to design and make themselves,” he wrote in the book.
“It now seems probable that a new form of intelligent life will emerge from an artificially intelligent precursor made by one of us, perhaps from something like AlphaZero.”
Lovelock told NBC News that the cyborgs could eventually modify the Earth to suit themselves, making humans extinct. However, Lovelock doesn’t think the cyborgs will actively attempt to destroy the human race. In fact, he believes we’ll be so inferior to Earth’s new dominant species that they’ll view us the same way we currently view plants.
“I think of cyborgs as another kingdom of life,” he says.
“They will stand to us in much the same way as we ourselves, as a kingdom of animals, stand to plants.”
It is an interestingly dystopian view of the future.
In the Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence, new beings will emerge from existing artificial intelligence systems. They will think 10,000 times faster than we do and they will regard us as we now regard plants. But this will not be the cruel, violent machine takeover of the planet imagined by science fiction.
These hyperintelligent beings will be as dependent on the health of the planet as we are. They will need the planetary cooling system of Gaia to defend them from the increasing heat of the sun as much as we do. And Gaia depends on organic life. We will be partners in this project.
Initially, many researchers took a dim view of the Gaia hypothesis. But in recent years it’s become respectable.
“The concept of Gaia is quite key to our growing understanding about life in the universe,” says David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona. Paul Davies, a physicist at Arizona State University in Tempe, calls Gaia “a useful concept in stressing how biological and geological cycles are coupled.”
The skeptics are back regarding Lovelock’s latest prognostications.
“Nobody knows how this will unfold, because we don’t know how brains work or what consciousness is,” Grinspoon says.
“And specific predictions about artificial intelligence and its future impact seem to depend on specific, untested, unverified answers to these big questions.”
If this strikes you as a grim scenario, you’re not thinking like Lovelock. “I'm now past a hundred and to have an optimistic view is the only one worth having,” he says. Humans have had a great run on Earth, he writes, and before we bow out, we’re engaged in one of the noblest things we could do: “We are now preparing to hand the gift of knowing on to new forms of intelligent beings.”