Novacene: The Coming Age Of Hyperintelligence by James Lovelock and Bryan Appleyard

The Blurb On The Back:

A new look at the future of life on Earth by the great scientific visionary of our age.

James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia hypothesis and the greatest environmental thinker of our time, has produced an astounding new theory about the future of life on Earth.  He argues that the anthropocene – the age in which humans acquired planetary-scale technologies – is, after 300 years, coming to an end.  A new age – the novacene- has already begun.

New beings will emerge from existing artificial intelligence systems.  They will think 10,000 times faster than we do and they will regard us as we now regard plants – as desperately slow acting and thinking creatures.  But this will not be the cruel, violent machine takeover of the planet imagined by sci-if writers and film-makers.  These hyper-intelligent beings will be as dependent on the health of the planet as we are.  They will need the planetary cooling system of Gaia to defend them from the increasing heat of the sun as much as we do.  And Gaia depends on organic life.  We will be partners in this project.

It is crucial, Lovelock argues, that the intelligence of Earth survives and prospers.  He does not think there are intelligent aliens, so we are the only beings capable of understanding the cosmos.  Maybe, he speculates, the novacene could even be the beginning of a process that will finally lead to intelligence suffusing the entire cosmos.  At the age 100, James Lovelock has produced an important and compelling new work. 

You can order NOVACENE: THE COMING AGE OF HYPERINTELLIGENCE by James Lovelock and Bryan Appleyard from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

James Lovelock is a Fellow of the Royal Society and the originator of the Gaia Theory that the Earth is a self-regulating organism.  Bryan Appleyard is a journalist.  This is an interesting but light weight and contradictory book that asserts humanity is entering a new age called the novacene where cyborgs (essentially AI machines) will become dominant but, due to the nature of Gaia, will partner with humans due to their equal dependence on Earth.

I came to this book having a vague awareness of Gaia Theory without understanding what it is or where it comes from.  If, like me, you’re new to it then this book does provide a handy distillation of the key principles so that you can understand Lovelock’s arguments.  I’ll start by saying that it’s an easy-to-follow book that’s not filled with unnecessary jargon or convoluted sentences.  Lovelock and Appleyard have divided it into 3 sections – The Knowing Cosmos, The Age of Fire and Into The Novacene, with each section setting out the basis for the next.

Lovelock and Appleyard begin with Lovelock’s assertion that we are alone in the universe and how humanity is essentially on the edge of extinction, whether through an asteroid strike similar to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs or a super volcanic eruption, which killed 70% of land life and 90% of aquatic life 252 million years ago.  None of this is particularly comforting, although Lovelock does set out how some of these events could be mitigated or prevented. He also explains how the sun is hotting up and how this works with the Earth’s eco system while drawing in the effects of climate change, which I found probably the most interesting of the book because of the way it ties in with his Gaia Theory.

The authors then move on to setting out the anthropocene age, which Lovelocks identifies as beginning in the 18th century with Thomas Newcomen’s invention of a steam engine to bail out flooded mines, allowing more mining to take place and birthing a speed of invention and technology that led to the Industrial Revolution, development of cities and beyond.  Again, it’s an interesting read, not least because Lovelock discusses some of his own extensive career (including his work for NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab) but also because he weaves in the dramatic consequences of climate change, including the effect of heating on the oceans.  Particularly intriguing is Lovelock’s rejection of some of the demands made by environmentalists, such as banning plastics on the basis that we need to have replacements in place before we can do so.  His suggestion is to regulate the use of plastic in disposable packaging and stop burning petrol and diesel, although he does also suggest burning waste plastic, which left me a little confused as I thought that while they don’t release methane (which is a by product of their decomposition), it did release other toxic substances.

Unfortunately I found the final section on the novacene era to be the least informative and convincing of the book, which is a shame given that it’s supposedly what the book is actually about.  While I do not doubt Lovelock’s arguments about the coming of artificial intelligence, self-learning systems and what it means for humanity, I found his argument that artificial intelligence would be willing to partner with us to be unconvincing.  Basically it’s one that seems to be based on AI understanding and buying into his Gaia Theory and realising that it needs humanity in order to secure its own continued life on the planet and to be honest, I just didn’t buy it.  This is in part because in the same section Lovelock talks about the dangers of self-deciding automated weapons systems and how this should not be explored because of the risk it poses to humanity – the fact that this contradicts his own view of a beneficial partnership doesn’t get addressed and is a glaring incompatibility.  Lovelock also argues that AI would be unlikely to want to colonise the cosmos on the basis that it needs worlds of certain temperatures and conditions in order to survive and again, I just didn’t buy it given that if the idea is that AI can think faster and work out better solutions, surely it can come up with an answer to that issue?

It’s not that this is a bad book – I enjoyed Lovelock’s dismissal of interest in colonising Mars and his points about how human experience limits us in conceptualising what life could be – but given what its premise is, it just didn’t convince me.  In part that may be because at about 130 pages, this is more a breezy look at the concepts of the novacene period than an exploration of what it means and where the weaknesses and strengths of his arguments are.  And I think part of the reason why it ultimately left me a little underwhelmed was because Appleyard in his foreword to the book makes a big deal of how Lovelock is a man who likes to think outside the box and have his views questioned – given that the book fails to address its own inconsistencies, I had to wonder about how true that statement is.

Ultimately, if, like me, you’re new to the Gaia Theory or have an interest in AI and technology, then this is a book that’s worth perusing but it’s not one that delivers on its promises.   

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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