Britain’s most eminent scientist is taking a windswept stroll through Dorset’s rolling hills. It seems hard to believe that James Lovelock – sprightly despite a walking stick and bristling with a fierce, bright-eyed intelligence – will turn 100 this week.
But the man known for proposing one of the most visionary scientific theories of the last century starts the day just as he always does, with a brisk walk from his coastguard’s cottage by the shores of Chesil Beach with his beloved wife, Sandy.
That Lovelock is conscious of his own mortality is to be expected. But that he is also musing on the future of the Earth he will never live to see – one which involves cyborgs, no less – is, perhaps, rather more surprising.
I am more than well aware that I have only got a few more years at the most to live and it doesn’t bother me,’ he tells me. ‘It is one of those things that happens. I think it’s much harder for Sandy than it is for me.’
I am meeting my dear friend at his small cottage to discuss his new book, Novacene: The Coming Age Of Hyperintelligence. Having known him for more than 25 years, I have always regarded Jim (as he is known by his friends) as the only true genius I have met in a lifetime of mingling with great minds.
Of all the thinkers with whom I have interacted, he is the most fertile in ideas that challenge the way we think about the world and our place as humans in it.
Long regarded as a maverick in the scientific community, Lovelock created the Gaia theory, named after the Earth goddess in Greek mythology. Gaia, which was a name suggested to him by Lord Of The Flies author William Golding during an evening walk and drink at the village pub, described the Earth as a self-regulating single organism which maintains the conditions necessary for life.
After he first proposed the theory in the 1960s, many scientists were highly sceptical, not least because the literary title suggested it was some kind of New Age mysticism rather than a serious scientific theory.
Over the past 50 years, however, it has revolutionised the way in which we see our world. It is now widely accepted that the Earth functions as a complex system in which everything is connected.
Not for the first time in his long and illustrious career, his new theory is likely to be met with incomprehension. Because, if he is to be believed, the next stage of evolution is a world in which the dominant form of life is not humans, but ‘highly intelligent’ technology.
This new kind of life, he believes, will come from the artificial intelligence we have already constructed and rely on. As Lovelock puts it: ‘Our children are already around us.’
Thermostats which turn our heating on and off already show some autonomy, he argues. Our mobile phones even more so.
But, despite the fact that ‘we haven’t invented it yet’, these programs will evolve and begin to think faster, all by themselves – and may soon become tens of thousands of times faster than us – far overtaking the intellect of the human brain.
What’s more, they will evolve far more quickly than organic forms of life. To put this into perspective, we currently have the ability to think about 10,000 times faster than a plant. It means biological life will take a back seat to technology.
Not that we need to be concerned about this new breed of intelligent machines, Lovelock argues – they’ll just be higher up the food chain. They will need us, he believes, just as we need plants.
I press Jim on this new non-organic life form – how will it evolve? Will it be conscious and able to think like a human?
‘I see hyper intelligence as the next stage in the evolution of Gaia,’ he explains. ‘It’s the way things are going.
‘The key thing is we have moved away from the era in which humans had a significant effect on the ecosystem into what I’ve called the Novacene – where the predominant form of life will not be organic.
‘Will it be conscious? I would think so. More conscious than we are because if it’s that much more rapid – 10,000 times or more faster than the human brain – there’s so much more time to get impressions, senses, feelings, everything.’
He also believes the cyborgs will be in charge.
‘I get very irritated when people think of our successors as being convenient butlers or slaves that will do everything we want and they are under our control,’ he says.
‘Cyborgs will be much more than our children, because they are totally different and have their own origins.
‘But the idea that they will replace us is silly. We would co-exist with them just as we co-exist with plants.
‘They will view us much in the way that we view plants – slower. They might very well find certain aspects of us interesting, in the same way that we might go to Kew Gardens.’
Of course, we’ve come across much of this already in science fiction. From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 200 years ago to modern Cybermen and Robocop, the idea of artificial life has long held a sinister threat.
Lovelock prefers to term the hyper-intelligent creations as ‘cyborgs’ rather ‘robots’ – because they will be nothing like the clunking mechanical replicas of human beings that we have come to know from books and films.
It would be easy to dismiss the idea of the Novacene. Yet Lovelock, who has been lavished with every academic accolade going and will later this month be made centenarian Fellow of the Royal Society, has a history of getting things right.
For instance, he was the first to detect harmful chlorofluorocarbon (known as CFCs) in the atmosphere which destroys the ozone layer.
And when it comes to intelligent design, Lovelock is also one of the best. Indeed, for many years he was an inventor working as a real-life ‘Q’ for the British intelligence services.
As a philosopher and historian of ideas, I have been deeply impressed by how Lovelock has challenged a key part of the prevailing view of the world – the idea that humans are at the centre of things and can shape their future as they please.
Gaia theory, and even more his new theory of the Novacene, show humanity in a more modest light. We humans are part of a world far greater than ourselves, which we cannot control.
Humans can’t be masters of the Earth. But that doesn’t mean we are completely helpless. We can try to understand our position in the scheme of things, and consider how we can make the best of our situation. Throughout the years I’ve known him, and for much of his long life, Jim has been doing exactly that.
Lovelock was born on July 26, 1919, and grew up in London in a Quaker family. He believes he had a stroke of good luck in not initially being able to afford to go to university (though he later spent 18 months at Manchester University and did a PhD at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) since it helped him avoid being confined to a single discipline at the start of his career.
Instead, he began his education by reading in Brixton public library and visiting the Science Museum in South Kensington.
Despite being registered as a conscientious objector when the Second World War broke out, in accordance with his Quaker beliefs, he was moved by the extensive naval losses and joined the war effort as an inventor.
He soon realised that his position was untenable. ‘The thing that moved me most of all was the death rates among the sailors who went on ships,’ he says.
‘They were feeding us and you couldn’t not participate in some way. It seemed too much of a privilege.’
In trying to find ways to prevent sailors being burnt to death when their ships were hit, he discovered that wet woollen blankets were more protective than asbestos which had been previously used.
He has remained an inventor ever since. Among many other devices, he created a pencil that could write on the wet glass of a Petri dish and an electron capture detector that was used in the study of atmospheric ozone depletion.
Among Lovelock’s most remarkable inventions were small sensitive instruments for testing the atmosphere that were used by Nasa on Mars.
He believed that the Red Planet could not support life – a view that seems to have been confirmed by later evidence.
As we talk in his cottage, he tells me with a boyish grin that some of these gadgets are on a shelf just behind me.
Here on Earth, meanwhile, Lovelock believes that by the end of this century – little over 80 years from now – cyborgs will be in charge.
Of course, his theory may seem far-fetched, but the revolution is, he claims, already here.
Two years ago, Facebook shut down an experiment when two chat-bots – artificial intelligence programmes designed to communicate with one another – began to talk in a language they had created for themselves.
Meanwhile, in a similar development, Google found that the programme it uses for its translation tool had created its own language.
Even more strikingly, Google’s programme DeepMind, which combined machine learning with input from humans, produced two ‘successors’ that did not use human input at all.
One of them, AlphaZero, turned itself into a superhuman chess player. In his book, Lovelock writes: ‘It now seems probable that a new form of intelligent life will emerge from an AI precursor made by one of us, perhaps from something like AlphaZero.’
The key point Lovelock makes about cyborgs is that they are the result of evolution – just like us. Rather than an alien force dedicated to our destruction, they are our natural successor.
We don’t know yet what they will look like, or even if they will take a physical form at all, let alone one we will be able to detect.
They may take the form of spheres, or even shifting mists, he suggests. They may simply be digital. But whatever they look like, they will evolve very quickly.
I press Jim on why he thinks hyper-intelligent cyborgs could be running things this century. For many might accept that it could be perfectly possible in hundreds – or indeed thousands – of years, but only 80 years ahead, perhaps less so.
‘Anything that starts off 10,000 times faster has got quite a head start,’ he replies confidently.
‘The new way that they will be able to share and spread information among one another will be so much faster. Therefore, their evolution will be much faster.’
Also evolving are Lovelock’s environmental theories – and cyborgs are, in fact, central to their success. His Gaia hypothesis led him to be regarded as an environmental guru by many in the Green movement.
Yet he has little time for what he regards as the ‘wrong-headed’ thinking today of groups such as Extinction Rebellion. Meanwhile, his support for nuclear energy has further shifted him away from the Green movement.
For Lovelock, the past 200 years of industrial expansion, urbanisation and technology has been a glorious blossoming in the evolution of life on Earth, rather than the ecological catastrophe condemned by modern environmentalists.
There has certainly been environmental damage, and Lovelock agrees with the Greens that we should stop burning fossil fuels as soon as possible.
But, when considering the alternatives, he is far more open to using nuclear energy.
‘In some ways the Green movement is like a fundamentalist religion,’ he says.
‘People must have something to have a fuss and a fight about and they don’t really care very much what it is as long as it’s a belief. Most of the Greens are not scientists.’
Environmentalists claim that they want to save the world, but humans can’t save the world, only adapt to it, a process that requires science and technology not faith and emotion.
‘It’s an extraordinary fact the Greens almost criminally ignore that the death rate of people working in the nuclear industry is a tiny fraction of any other industry in the world. It’s very safe,’ he says.
Lovelock also believes we cannot be sure the world could survive another devastating climate event, such as the mass extinction which took place before the dinosaur era.
That is why he is so excited by the rise of the cyborgs.
Far from being the ultimate threat to humanity so often portrayed in sci-fi, he believes cyborgs may, in fact, prove to be our best hope.
Their fast-evolving intelligence and information processing could find a new way to keep the planet cool and sustainable.
In any case, Lovelock believes that they will be obliged to join forces with us to do so in order to maintain their survival.
It makes war between man and machine-learning cyborgs unlikely – purely because of their own self-interest.
Fundamentally, it’s simply a future we have to accept – whether we like it, or not.