For tens of thousands of years, man has been the only intelligent, self-confident species on our planet. But the rise of intelligent machines could change soon, perhaps during our lifetime. Not long after, Homo sapiens disappeared completely from the earth.
This is the shattering message of a new book by James Lovelock, the famous British environmentalist and futurist. "Our supremacy as the main understanding of the cosmos comes to an end quickly," he says in the book "Novacene". "The minds of the future will not be human, but what I call" cyborgs "who have designed and built themselves."
Lovelock describes cyborgs as self-sufficient, confident descendants of today's robots and artificial intelligence. He calls the coming age of their dominance the novacene – literally the "new new" age.
Today, there is no shortage of modern Luddites who warn that technology will overwhelm us soon. But Lovelock's bold predictions are different. Unlike techno-skeptics, who include the computer scientist Roman Yampolskiy of the University of Louisville, Lovelock considers it unlikely that our machines will turn against us – in the terminator style. And unlike utopians such as the futurist Ray Kurzweil, he does not imagine how humans and machines blissfully fuse into a union that some call singularity.
Lovelock sees the advancement of technology in line with decades of research rather through an evolutionary lens and thinking about ecological and biological systems. He also brings with him the unique perspective of a scientist who has just celebrated his 100th birthday, with a deep awareness of changing scientific fashions and nothing to prove. It is an outlook that drives him to simultaneously optimistic and profoundly disturbing conclusions.
The End Begins
Lovelock argues that the first stages of novacen are already underway. He cites the example of AlphaZero, a computer program that taught itself to play Go – and quickly became the world's best Go player. Today's computers can already process data much faster than we do; With totally independent artificial intelligence, the cyborgs of tomorrow will easily be a million times smarter than us.
Lovelock imagines cyborgs filling every evolutionary niche on the planet. "I think of cyborgs as another kingdom of life," he says. "They will stand for us just as we ourselves as an animal kingdom for plants."
What would cyborgs look like? Lovelock is purposely vague because he expects them to rethink the basic rules of design in a way we can not imagine as measly people. "Cyborgs would start again. Like Alpha Zero, they would be based on an empty board, "he writes in his book. He speculates that they might look like bullets, but when pressed, he says, "It's quite possible they have no shape at all," which mostly exists as virtual shapes in computers.
Regardless of their form, the cyborgs will be so far beyond us in the mind that they can dismiss us as part of the background landscape of the planet. Alternatively, they may appreciate us as much as we value plants. Lovelock, who enjoys spending days in the garden around his holiday home in Dorset, England, addresses this possibility. "Think about how to get to a large arboretum," he says.
Once established, the cyborgs on our planet will continue to prevail. "The Novacenum," says Lovelock, "will probably be the last era of life on Earth."
The Road to Novacenum
It is not the first time that Lovelock shakes the scientific world with a big, controversial argument. His new idea for an upcoming cyborg takeover is based on a comprehensive idea that made him famous in the first place, the so-called Gaia Hypothesis, which he and biologist Lynn Margulis developed in 1974.
Gaia believes that our planet behaves like a single self-regulating organism. In the four billion years since the beginning of life, biological processes have constantly changed the atmosphere, the land and the oceans to keep the land habitable. The sun has brightened, volcanoes have erupted, asteroids have hit, and yet our planet has met the right conditions for liquid water and carbon chemistry over and over again: the essence of life.
Initially many researchers saw the Gaia hypothesis as poor. But in recent years it has become respectable.
"The concept of Gaia is critical to our growing understanding of life in the universe," says David Grinspoon, astrobiologist at the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona. Paul Davies, physicist at Arizona State University in Tempe, calls Gaia "a useful concept to emphasize the coupling of biological and geological cycles".
The skeptics are back regarding Lovelock's latest predictions. "Nobody knows how that will develop because we do not know how the brain works or what consciousness is," says Grinspoon. "And specific predictions about artificial intelligence and their future impact seem to depend on specific, untested, unverified answers to these big questions." See how the story will evolve. "The crucial step that Novacene started was, I think, the need to use computers to design and make itself," he writes. "It's now likely that a new kind of intelligent life will come from an artificially intelligent predecessor, perhaps from AlphaZero." The beginnings of novazenus may not be that bad. Firstly, Lovelock says, cyborgs and humans will have a common interest in protecting the Earth from climate change because neither we nor them can tolerate temperatures over 50 degrees Celsius.
If people can not find a way to mitigate the effects of global warming, then the cyborgs must do it. "Of course they will bring something new to the party, probably in the field of geotechnics – major projects to protect or change the environment. Such projects will be in the field of electronic life, "writes Lovelock. For example, the cyborgs could cover large areas of the earth's surface with mirrors to reduce the amount of absorbed solar heat.
What will humans think of their robot chiefs? "I can not imagine," says Lovelock. "It has to be a bit like a dog trying to understand a genius."
You will not have to wonder long. As novacen progresses, cyborgs may decide to redesign Earth's ecosystem. Without oxygen or water, they could create a new world that is better for them, but deadly to us. For example, they could replace carbon-based life with silicon equivalents: photovoltaic systems that generate electricity, or trees that carry batteries instead of fruit.
When green plants are largely or completely eliminated, the oxygen level decreases and the sky turns from a rich blue to a tan brown. "At some point, Bio-Gaia is likely to die," writes Lovelock. "But just as we do not mourn the death of our ancestors, the cyborgs will not be affected by the deaths of humans."
Given their complete dominion over the earth, the cyborgs would become our planet's final inhabitants. Lovelock believes that the novacen could last about a billion years until the rising heat of the sun makes the earth unbearable for synthetic life. At that point, the cyborgs could move to another world.
Maybe someday they will also get in contact with cyborgs from other planets. Seth Shostak, astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, believes that the same scenario could have happened throughout the universe. "I think it's likely that the most advanced intelligence in the universe is synthetic," he says.
If this seems like a grim scenario to you, do not think like Lovelock. "I'm over a hundred now and have an optimistic view is the only one worth seeing," he says. People are going through a great run on earth, he writes, and before we say goodbye we are dealing with one of the noblest things we can do: "We are now preparing to apply the gift of knowledge to new forms to pass on intelligent beings.
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