It might seem odd that a pioneer figure in the environment awareness movement would embrace part-human/part-machine cyborgs. But in 2019, James Lovelock (1919–2022) — one of the originators of the Gaia Hypothesis (that the whole planet can be thought of as a single organism) — wrote that cyborgs would inherit the Earth in the “coming age of hyperintelligence.”
Our reign as sole understanders of the cosmos is rapidly coming to an end. We should not be afraid of this. The revolution that has just begun may be understood as a continuation of the process whereby the Earth nurtures the understanders, the beings that will lead the cosmos to self-knowledge. What is revolutionary about this moment is that the understanders of the future will not be humans but cyborgs that will have designed and built themselves from the artificial intelligence systems we have already constructed. These will soon become thousands then millions of times more intelligent than us.James Lovelock, “Gaia Will Soon Belong to the Cyborgs” at Nautilus (March 4, 2020)
Cyborgs, he hoped, would “be the start of a process that leads toward an intelligent universe” and he says, do not fear them:
We need not be afraid because, initially at least, these inorganic beings will need us and the whole organic world to continue to regulate the climate, keeping Earth cool to fend off the heat of the sun and safeguard us from the worst effects of future catastrophes. We shall not descend into the kind of war between humans and machines that is so often described in science fiction because we need each other. Gaia will keep the peace.James Lovelock, “Gaia Will Soon Belong to the Cyborgs” at Nautilus (March 4, 2020)
Lovelock’s is a challenging perspective because, to believe that Gaia can keep the peace in his proposed “Novacene” era of cyborgs, we must believe in her literal existence. That is, Gaia is not a metaphor for planet-wide interdependency here but a source of power.
He sees no break between humans and cyborgs because “Cyborgs are a product of the same evolutionary processes that created us” and he sees us as giving birth to them:
Electronic life depends on its organic ancestry. I can see no way for non-organic life forms to evolve, de novo, on another Earth or any other planet from the mix of chemicals and in the physical conditions common in the universe. For cyborg life to emerge requires the services of a midwife. And Gaia fits the role.James Lovelock, “Gaia Will Soon Belong to the Cyborgs” at Nautilus (March 4, 2020)
But it will not be an equal relationship. Of that, he is quite sure:
Cyborgs will soon become thousands of times more intelligent than us. Parents we may be, but equals we cannot be. This raises a huge problem that cannot be solved by technical or scientific expertise. How do we plan our diplomacy in the last years of the Anthropocene, so that flesh-and-blood humans, together with the wet chemical life of Gaia, can enjoy a peaceful retirement during the first stage of the transition from organic to inorganic life?James Lovelock, “Gaia Will Soon Belong to the Cyborgs” at Nautilus (March 4, 2020)
Lovelock goes on to say much more. But this for now: He doesn’t recognize any break between life forms reproducing themselves and humans inventing non-living artifacts. Two problems arise:
He is very confident that the workings of evolution underpin his thesis but it is hard to see how. First, most life forms, whether flies or mushrooms, pass on life to their offspring without thinking about it. But humans invent things that are not human — and not alive — explicitly by thinking about it and working out every detail. The continuity Lovelock assumes depends on the assumption that there is no meaningful distinction between mental and physical activity.
But that can’t be correct. For one thing, mental activity — the source of our technology — enables humans to make or mar the environment beyond any other species. If we had no technology, we would have about as much environmental impact as chimpanzees. So the two are just not the same thing.
Second, it’s unclear why Lovelock thinks cyborgs would be so much more intelligent than humans. The general trajectory of AI has not gone that way. The more sophisticated the AI, the clearer the differences, as Robert J. Marks shows in Non-Computable You (excerpts are available here).
If, fearing trouble down the road, we are tempted not to proceed with cyborgs, Lovelock tells us, fear not, Gaia will be our protection:
The future is, for us, unknowable, as it always has been, even in an organic world. Cyborgs will conceive cyborgs. Far from continuing as low-life which is there for our convenience, they will evolve and could be the advanced evolutionary products of a new and powerful species. But for the dominating and overwhelming presence of Gaia, they would in no time be our masters.James Lovelock, “Gaia Will Soon Belong to the Cyborgs” at Nautilus (March 4, 2020)
Gaia didn’t save the trilobite or the dinosaur. Left to herself, she wouldn’t save us either if we had good reason to believe in the cyborg apocalypse.
It’s not clear that the Gaia hypothesis really mixes well with the nihilistic naturalism that underlies the vision of a takeover by cyborgs.
Panpsychism, as a post-materialist viewpoint, is more coherent than this current development of the Gaia hypothesis. A panpsychist need only insist that mental phenomena, understood as real, are shared by all sentient beings to a degree. He need not say that either machines think or that the planet does.
You may also wish to read: Astronomer: ET is more likely to be AI than to be a life form. Royal astronomer Lord Martin Rees explains that, apart from other issues, AI would last much longer in the hostile galactic environment. But if the extraterrestrials are AI, they may simply reiterate indefinitely the programs they were designed to execute long ago — we must hope, friendly ones.