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Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence by James Lovelock, review: ‘rambling optimism’

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Lovelock imagines AI systems that resemble Daleks
Lovelock imagines AI systems that resemble Daleks Credit: BBC

What we require from scientists are hard facts, like: “The thin air of Mars is 99 per cent carbon dioxide and utterly unbreathable.” When they start getting mystical, it’s high time to put them out to crop grass – and James Lovelock, 100 years old this month, is very mystical. In his new book, he swoons over the uniqueness of the oceans, daisies, conifers. He looks back at the history of human achievement and wants to let out “a shout of joy”.

Nevertheless, all this hippyish stuff about Gaia – Lovelock’s theory that the Earth, its objects and inhabitants, its biochemical properties and swirling gases, is a single organism with interlocking parts in fundamental harmony – seems mumbo-jumbo to me, like that scene in Hair where everyone is invited up on stage to do a dance. Lovelock’s rambling, maundering book indeed reads like the jottings of a trendy vicar who, in his youth, wore sandals, plucked the guitar, went to India in a camper van, and talked with a dazed expression about flower-power and how, when a butterfly flaps its wings in Patagonia, the result is rain in Abergavenny. Everything connects, see.

This, of course, wasn’t the earlier Lovelock at all. He was a serious-minded Fellow of the Royal Society whose work involved (says Bryan Appleyard in the Preface) “the transmission of respiratory infections, air sterilisation, blood-clotting, the freezing of living cells, artificial insemination, gas chromatography, and so on”. I’ve given him a Google. Lovelock did unpleasant things with hamsters.

Perhaps he got bored with devilish details, and as he approached his centenary wanted to exchange physics for metaphysics – not that he can frame the Gaia theory with any degree of accuracy, which is no doubt the point. Its processes, Lovelock says, are “so complex we are nowhere near fully understanding it… because we are an intrinsic part of it”. Hardly a helpful, or convincing, line to take with a sceptic like me. As with the numinous side of religion, what’s no doubt required is a leap of faith.

Nor am I certain about Lovelock’s ideas concerning the race of cyborgs lurking around the corner, these “intelligent electronic beings” who shall have designed and built themselves, and who will proceed to intervene directly in the processes and structure of the planet, ushering in the Novacene Age. This is the next evolutionary step, whereby our artificial intelligence systems – silicon chips and that – leave us far behind, as we ourselves left insects and plants behind, intellectually speaking. Lovelock’s cyborgs, who rather resemble the Daleks, will be able to think 10,000 times faster than humans, though our author doesn’t say to what end. I predict cyborg nervous breakdowns, cyborg tranquillising drugs, cyborg rest cures, especially if they find that they can’t readily go up and down stairs.

Lovelock is also a bit naive, or overly optimistic, about humanity’s continuing role in this sci-fi scenario. He maintains that we’ll still play a “godlike or parent-like role”. Surely mankind must be redundant, once these shiny new creatures are “free of human commands”, communicating with each other in ways we’ll never fathom, using ultrasound, possibly, like bats. To use the unpleasant image Lovelock parades (except he dismisses it), we’ll be looked upon by cyborgs “like an SS officer encountering Jewish babies”.

On the other hand, I can see how it could happen – a kind of mad miscegenation. Flann O’Brien gazed at cyclists and wondered if the bike and saddle molecules were capable of mixing with the rider’s posterior molecules. By the same token, people are already merging with their mobile phones, never looking up and attending to the real, actual world, preferring a virtual world. So, I don’t think it’s that the cyborgs will coexist with flesh-and-blood people – it’s that people themselves shall become a race of robots, or zombies.

And we may need to do so very soon to cope with rising temperatures. Electronic life, says Lovelock, “can stand much higher temperatures, perhaps as high as 200C (392F)”. Humans flake out at about 47C (116F) – and as I write, Europe and India have recently caught fire, the mercury rising to nearly 50C (122F).

Lovelock’s comments about global warming are pertinent, and the best sections of his book. While we must stop burning carbon fuel since it is wrecking our protective atmospheric canopy, it is none the less the case that climate disasters and crazy weather, ice ages and tropical storms, have been a common occurrence down the millennia. An asteroid polished off the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago; more recently, volcanic eruptions (Iceland, 1783; Indonesia, 1815) darkened the skies and lowered temperatures, as huge quantities of ash and sulphur gas reacted with the air.

But what’s not helping today are population numbers – 38 million people in Tokyo, 34 million in Shanghai, 31 million in Jakarta, 27 million in New Delhi – a global population of 7.7 billion, rising to 10 billion by 2050. It would make sense for the cyborgs to want to thin us out drastically – the garbage we generate, the food and medicine we require, and the energy we need.

The conclusion I took away from Lovelock’s diatribe is that we are our own worst enemies, absolute masters of the unintended consequence. Lovelock praises Thomas Newcomen, who in 1712 invented the steam pump, enabling the draining of mine shafts and the creation of railway engines and ships. Hence the Industrial Revolution – the wealth, but also the slums; the swift movement of armies and navies – thus imperial conquests and wars. Pollution, urban neuroses, you name it – all because of the burning of coal, which is defined here as “concentrated ancient stores of solar energy, millions of years of sunlight captured in black stone”.

Human inventions have affected the entire planet, ultimately in adverse ways. “Our supremacy as the prime understanders of the cosmos is rapidly coming to an end,” says Lovelock, in a rare moment of pessimism. If global warming doesn’t fry us, there’s always the prospect of a Third World War, and here Lovelock will have to shoulder part of the blame. One of his jobs was to work alongside rocket scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, researching navigation systems for space vehicles. Yet much of what he did “was also crucial” for the guidance of nuclear bombs.

Novacene by James Lovelock
160pp, Allen Lane, 
£14.99, ebook £9.99. Call 0844 871 1514 to order 
from the Telegraph for £12.99