NOVACENE: THE COMING OF AGE OF HYPERINTELLIGENCE
BY JAMES LOVELOCK (with Bryan Appleyard)
Penguin, London, 2019
Let me begin by noting that I have a vested interest in the contents of this book, whose historical narrative and explications of scientific phenomena touch on four or five of my current stories finished or in progress.
I believe that writers dealing with the near- or far-future in fantasy, sci-fi, or speculative genre fiction will find useful guidance in this pages, even if Mr. Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis is not wholly commensurate with their world view. (Evolutionary science is, however, pretty much a basic tenet.)
Mr. Lovelock’s overarching idea is that life and the Earth are an interacting whole, that the planet can be seen as a single organism. He considers that the geological epoch of what he names the Novacene is now in progress after a 300-plus-year period he calls the Anthropocene wherein humans attained the ability to alter the geology and ecosystems of the entire planet He also proposes that intelligence is unique to humans across the entire cosmos but whose creation of cyborgs–which he imagines as totally electronic beings–will far surpass any human capacity to protect the Earth.
Part One: The Knowing Cosmos
In these chapters, Mr. Lovelock considers our extinction by cosmic accident or our own carelessness with Gaia, which, as a living organism and under the appropriate circumstances will continue to maintain a temperature equilibrium. The ideal temperature is 15 degrees C, currently stable but likely to rise steadily. At 50 degrees C, the sun will sterilize the Earth. As a unique planet among those rotatating about our sun, Mr. Lovelock suggests that Gaia is the only one to produce intelligent life, our life, the culmination of 3 billion years of biology which has granted us the capacity to harvest sunlight and use its energy to capture and store information, which is a fundamental property of the universe. And which primes us for the creation of self-sufficient cyborgs.
Part Two: The Age of Fire
The planet’s development is threefold:
1st stage: unicellular organisms at the sea’s surface used photosynthesis to grab light and transform it to chemical energy.
2nd stage: the Anthropocene, when humans began to convert stores of solar energy into useful work, as in the example of the steam engine of Thomas Newcomen–the first machine to become profitable as a cheaper source of work than human labor. In a period of plus 300 years, the world has been transformed positively by acceleration (trains, planes, population growth, and the electronic flow of superconductors); the growth of cities that light up the night landscape; and developments in medicine and life expectancy. Negatively, the effects include the creation of the atom bomb with nuclear power technology and our ongoing environmental crisis.
3rd stage: the Novacene, when solar energy is converted to information and cyborgs come into their own.
The planet’s vulnerability at the second and third stages is heat. As an ocean planet, the surface life of seas has always been important. When water is too warm, life vanishes. And while physics and engineering may avoid a supercritical state (wherein oxygen vanishes due to planetary sterility), if Gaia should overheat, the effect would be a planet like Venus, hot and uninhabitable in part because limestone and other rocks that serve as reserves of biogenic carbon dioxide would dissolve in water to release the poisonous gas. The Gaia system operates to pump down carbon dioxide—which is currently on the rise, half of it from fossil fuel use—and keeps the Earth cool.
The good news of this second era was the colossal expansion of knowledge and our mastery of information.
Part Three: Introduction to the Novacene (the now)
Characterized at its inception by computers able to learn by themselves–from Alpha Go to Alpha Go Zero and Alpha Zero, where human input becomes unnecessary, supplanted as it is by an AI form of intuition. Robotic and human engineering will speed up machines that use only electronic signals (compared the slow biochemical process of our neurons) and create the precursor of other intelligent life from an artificial intelligence by a process called “Deep Learning.” Evolution guides the process, but it’s about engineering (as opposed to science), a crucial step when computers can design and make themselves to bring about an age of self-sufficient and self-replicating cyborgs. Novacene life will be able to modify the environment to suit itself chemically and physically but a significant part of the environment will be life as it is now.
Mr Lovelock posits information as the fundamental property of the cosmos and stresses the importance of information theory (IT). The basic unit of the bit is zero or one, yes or no, on or off, true or false. It is the tiniest thing from which all else is constructed, and when it is perfected, the code of life no longer solely written as RNA or DNA but also in digital electronics. The rise of the robot (the word derived from forced labor) brings with it our cultural expectation that robots will have a fundamental shortcoming as to soul, or empathy, etc. A view promoted by Isaac Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics.
1) A Robot may not injure human or allow human to come to hard through inaction; 2) A Robot must obey orders given except where they conflict with 1st law; 3) A Robot must protect its own existence as long as that’s not in conflict with laws 1 and 2.
But Mr. Lovelock suggests that self-made cyborgs will be entirely free of human commands—evolved from code written by themselves. Part of his fondness for the Gaia theory and the evolution of cyborgs must be his deep-seated belief that our physiological adjustments to and reliance on language have impaired our thinking and precluded the flashes of brilliance we call intuition. He speculates on the nature of cyborgs and their quantaum world skills, but stresses that human and cyborgs would initially work together to ensure Gaia’s survival.
Without a planetary-scale catastrophe (including dirty warfare), habitable conditions for organic life might last several hundred million years. For electronic life forms, for infinity. The upper limit of 50 degrees C would be corrosively destructive. To prevent it, human or cyborg geoengineers could find new ways of modifying the environment (reflecting mirrors, broadcasting of waste heat, getting rid of junk information, etc), or could bring about a cooling effect by changing the planet’s albedo (the degree to which it reflects sunlight).
The new machines would be ADAPTIVE NEURAL NETWORKS INSTEAD OF PROGRAMMED COMPUTERS. And this life, too, organizes its own environment.
The artful concluding message features Guglielmo Marconi, in Mr. Lovelock’s eyes the founder of the Novacene who made the rapid transfer of electronic information possible and commercial. Everything in radio and TV evolves from Marconi’s simple experiments. He inventoried the first practical information technology—wireless telegraphy (radio signal)—and succeeded when rational science said the feat was impossible. This intuitive understanding of what is possible in the the world is what is so often lacking in our scientific culture, but it will be a skill of the cyborgs who will continue in our footsteps and spread wisdom and understanding from the living Earth out to embrace the cosmos.