Non-Fiction Reviews


Novacene
The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence

(2019) James Lovelock (with Bryan Appleyard), Allen Lane, 14.99 / Can$31.99, pbk, iix + 139pp, ISBN 978-0-241-39936-1

 

James Lovelock is known as the conceiver, back in 1979, of the Gaia hypothesis: that the Earth is one single interactive cybernetic system of positive and negative feedback loops that serve to make the biosphere (the geological, atmospheric and biological system) self-regulating.  Though this idea has been challenged (and a good few still do not accept it) it has gained some considerable traction and, indeed, is a respectable part of modern Earth systems science.  For myself, I have had the privilege with the odd occasion just three or four times over the decades to briefly interact with him.  In short, I am familiar with his work.

This year, 2019, James turned 100 and it is surprising that anyone his age can make such a significant addition to scientific thought as he has done with Novacene.  James (he actually is known to many as Jim but I can't claim such intimacy) fortunately had help from the writer Bryan Appleyard to bring us this book, but be assured James' voice comes through loud and clear.  Having said that, unlike his other books, this one is not academically referenced though there are mentions of just a few works and in sufficient detail (even without a full reference) to be able to track them down online with a search engine.  The book is also quite short, the publication format despite being a hardback is also small (Britain's b-format) with a reasonably-sized font, and so it can be read in just a few hours.

I have to say I do not agree with everything he says: I am more inclined to the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence elsewhere in our galaxy than Lovelock (who eschews it): I take a more Copernican view that there is nothing unduly special about the Earth coming to ultimately harbour a technology wielding sentience.  And, while I find Barrow & Tipler's The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986) interesting I reviewed it in SF² Concatenation's first, print edition I consider it more of philosophical significance that stimulates ideas rather than something of sufficient solidity with which we can meaningfully work.  Yet, of relevance to Novacene, former extraterrestrial sentience disagreement with Lovelock is likely coloured by my interest in science fiction and I am sufficiently self-critical to be aware of this.  Now, I mention all of this as Lovelock, in Novacene, does refer to the clergy of science and science as practiced by some, that can be considered somewhat like a religion, complete with preconceptions, faith and rote tinking.  And here I tend to agree.  In Novacene, it is pointed out for example that quantum theory and mechanics is simply a (model) description of the way the Universe seems to work but which does not itself offer any explanation as to why it works even if it is mathematically self-consistent.  Too true.  So, while I may not entirely agree with Lovelock on everything he says, I am acutely aware that time and again over his career only the foolish dismiss what he has to say without very careful consideration.

And so we come to Novacene's central conceit. (This time it is one with which I agree and have been working on albeit from a biological perspective.)  James Lovelock considers that while humans have been tinkering with the Gaian cybernetic feedback systems that regulate our biosphere (and that this has notably resulted in global warming) we also have the ability to recognise this and do something about it.  At the same time our ability to number crunch has increased and our lives increasingly interact with the datasphere.  James Lovelock believes that as artificial intelligence (AI) technology continues to develop that we will end up with a true artificial sentience which he calls a cyborg.  (At times his discussion almost becomes Banksian, Culture and AI.)  This idea is far from new for example, see the discussion by Vernor Vinge and others on the Singularity but Lovelock presents his own musings and case.  With AI, unlike popular culture, he does not consider there to be some sort of SFnal Terminator style threat, or a Matrix type takeover. Rather, he sees humanity and these new AIs will form a symbiotic relationship in that AIs will rely on humanity's technological manufacturing society to sustain them, while humans will rely on the AI not only for new technology, but to make key decisions.  However, as in evolution simple prokaryotic cells got incorporated into another to result in the good, nucleated (eukaryotic) cells that form plants and animals (endosymbiosis), and these taken-over prokaryotes took a back seat, so humans may well become relegated from the driving seat that will now be occupied by these AI cyborgs.

This is an intriguing thought and while I come to it very much through biology, we can see in Novacene that Lovelock does it through engineering.  Indeed his use of the term 'cyborg' is only a step away from his describing the planet Earth as a single 'cybernetic' system using cybernetic in the engineering sense, though he does like it to the prospective AI-human relationship with Lynn Margulis' prokaryote-prokaryote (simple cell) merger to form eukaryotes (true) cells: indeed Lovelock and Lynn did professionally discuss matters.

Be advised, the true AIs are coming.

Novacene may well be a last shout from a great scientific thinker of the 20th century.  We'd be wise not to ignore it.

Jonathan Cowie

 


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