Wednesday 13 December 2023

Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence - James Lovelock and Brian Appleyard (2019)


Rating: Excellent

James Lovelock was an important scientist who, among many achievements, saved humanity with his discovery (using one of his inventions) that CFCs were building up in the atmosphere and damaging the ozone layer. Lovelock also posited the Gaia Theory, that Earth is a self-regulating, synergistic system in which life maintains a habitable environment for itself, co-evolving with the inorganic environment in order to keep the planet cool, despite Sol's efforts to the contrary. The ideas behind Novacene go beyond organic life on Gaia toward the claim that the ultimate evolutionary endpoint for Earth will be cybernetic life based on information, which does seem to be the universe's universal currency. Lovelock refers to this soon to arrive era as the Novacene, despite the proposed current era of the Anthropocene not having been fully accepted as yet. Despite the small page count, Lovelock takes his time to explain his background reasoning, moving through his thoughts regarding life in the universe (he feels Earth contains the only existing life - I disagree), the meaning of our existence (we are are universe knowing itself - an idea I've always have been attracted to) and Earth's battle to contain the heat threat via its Gaian systems, something humanity is fast despoiling, which could be the end point of the Anthropocene I feel, although Lovelock begs to differ. According to Lovelock cybernetic life will, rather than destroying us, want to work with us in order to keep Gaia from overheating, an outcome he reasons would be just as bad for them as it would be for us.

Lovelock's thought processes and theories are fascinating and logically extrapolated. Lovelock genuinely believes that humanity will be the creators and midwives of cybernetic life which will exist on such a superior plane to us that we will be regarded in the same way that we regard house-plants. Such notions have been well explored by others, that AI's processes will take place at such accelerated levels that we will be more than redundant, however Lovelock's assertion that cybernetic AIs will want to keep us around goes against many accepted (pessimistic) theories on the subject, but his reasoning on this subject appears fairly sound and persuasive, although I don't agree with everything. Since Novacene was published we've seen the emergence of ChatGP and other such (for the moment) primitive AI systems. They are crunching information at frightening rates and interacting with humans in a sophisticated manner, however they are still not real AI, not conscious, self aware entities (that Lovelock pictures as spheres). Within this current context Novacene is a fascinating book and should be read by anyone interested in AI or the future of humanity. Along the way we also learn that Lovelock inadvertently held Stephen Hawking in his arms as a baby, was an advocate for nuclear power, but also that he was an extremely moral human, whose contribution to humanity was profoundly significant. Lovelock lived to be 103, but not long enough to see his Gaian Theory become accepted, nor to see humanity come to grips with human-caused climate change, but I hope he is correct about AI needing us around. Perhaps among the intractable problems that AI could help solve is the best and fastest way to terraform Mars, a planet Lovelock describes are totally inhospitable to life and a pipe dream for humanity. Then we would have the insurance of two homes. Although I hold no optimistic hope for humanity, you never know, maybe our future spherical AI overlords will really help us out.

This review is dedicated to my friend Eileen Bogart, who enthusiastically attended my library based book clubs and engaged with me with genuine warmth. Novacene was one of the many books she gifted to me before she passed a few months ago. I'll always remember you fondly Eileen, you were both interesting and interested, a quality not always found that readily among humans.

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