Resistance is futile: at 100, James Lovelock defends a cyborg future

Disclaimer: This essay was originally published on Tab UOL, in Portuguese.

Born in 1919, James Lovelock turned 100 last year, when he also released his most recent book, Novacene: The coming age of hyperintelligence. In this work, the English scientist recollects his long life journey, one filled with impressive facts — among the anecdotes, there is this one in which he recalls a dinner at the Hawking’s residency, when he had the opportunity to hold baby Stephen in his arms. But this is not by far the most curious fact about Lovelock. In times like these when we talk about the coming of a Fourth Industrial Revolution and the accelerating development of exponential technologies, it is harder to say what projects Lovelock didn’t contribute with than the other way around.

His first scientific researches involved techniques of cryopreservation of rodents that, with time, have proved to be so successful that even nowadays these methods are still used as reference in the field of cryonics — a sector that is increasingly looking into the possibility of preserving human bodies with the aim to revive them in the future.

As an inventor, Lovelock also developed an electron capture detector (ECD), one of the first devices to be popularly used as a means to detect CFC gases in the atmosphere — and this hasn’t only to do with the ozone layer, but also the with the possibility to find life in other planets.

It was during his time working for NASA, in the 1970s, that Lovelock developed a hypothesis that reverberated through the following years both in academia, futures studies, and pop culture. This is how I learned about Lovelock’s research, when I studied the anime Serial Experiments Lain back in 2009. The animation, released in 1998, portrays a future in which people are able to connect to the internet with no need of devices. What we envision today with creations such as Elon Musk’s Neuralink implant was a concept already suggested by the anime in the 90s, including philosophical and technological argumentation.

In a specific episode of this 13-episode animation, we are presented to a series of historical facts blended with the fictitious narrative in order to make us believe that, since the Roswell incident, we acquired enough knowledge to develop ourselves as a species with new technology and scientific discovery, so we created the Internet and reached to a point in which we merge with it. In reference to the studies of Anton Wilson and Timothy Leary and the actual creation of the internet, Ryutaro Nakamura’s anime arrives to Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis to propose that the planet Earth is not just a celestial body, but a living organism: all fauna and flora are part of this huge body that is named after a mythological being and is our home.

In Lain, it is suggested that from the moment when we create nodes of connection among ourselves (in this case, internet connection), we are thus able to create Gaia’s neural network, and then we wake to the dawn of a new age — what Lovelock calls Novacene, in his most recent book.

This new age, therefore, is a new phase that would ultimately overcome what some authors call the Anthropocene, an era that begins with the invention of steam technology and that would be ending now, 300 years later, with the rise of the exponential technologies.

What many futurists (or futurologists, if you prefer) call Singularity, Lovelock calls Novacene. Just as the World Economic Forum’s diagnosed the coming of a Fourth Industrial Revolution, we are also in a transition process to the Novacene. How can we know? Lovelock gives some hints:

But what is this new life for the author? Lovelock chooses the term cyborg, in the sense of a cybernetic organism, rather than the concept of android. While the latest points to a machine that looks like a human being, Lovelock prefers to use the word cyborg in its literal sense while proposing that the emergence of synthetic life will not necessarily be humanoid — in fact, they don’t even need to be, but we build them like that in order to feel more comfortable and adapted with these machines.

In spite of that, what Lovelock suggests is that, with time, humans will cease to exist and that’s ok: we will be replaced by robots but, in the meantime, we will live with them and even take advantage of them. Once again going against pop culture, Lovelock doesn’t believe that we will live in a future similar to that envisioned by Terminator, but rather another scenario that happens to be even more environmentally conscious.

Lovelock also contributed to environmental sciences when back in the 2000s he even proposed an environmental engineering system to restore algae that are able to absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen to the atmosphere. This is the premise of bioreactors that use algae to purify the air, for instance, and this is a creation that has been designed to solve the problem of pollution.

On the other hand, Lovelock is also a strong advocate of the use of nuclear energy instead of fossil fuel. Since his proposal of the Gaia Hypothesis in 1970, he has been arguing for the many possibilities in environmental sciences, but in the book Novacene, he tries to be more didactic by explaining that, yes, it is true that we had historical disasters such as Chernobyl, Hiroshima and Nagasaki or even the more recently accident in Fukushima. But, for him, nuclear energy is still a virtually infinite source of energy which, with the required study and care, can make us achieve much better results than the ones we have today with the use of fossil fuels or biofuels.

But the proposal is not interesting, commercially interesting. In Lovelock’s words, this is an extremely important factor when we think about technological development and the future of humanity. If steam technology didn’t bring profit and economic advantages, maybe it wouldn’t even be supported and developed after all. And this is something to be considered when thinking about contemporary technologies too.

Now, one of the peaks of the book is when Lovelock makes a speculative (though scientifically supported) excursion to what would happen to Earth in case we kept our predatory behaviors observed during the last years. In the chapter “The Heat Threat”, the author proposes imagining the change in the temperature of the oceans instead of thinking about the relative temperature of the Earth — after all, oceans cover most part of our planet.

In case the oceans reached temperatures over 15°C, our seas would simply turn into deserts even more inhospitable than Sahara, because, in this context, the nutrients found on the surface would be rapidly consumed and the corpses with their detritus would sink deeper in the most profound zones of the ocean, where there would be an abundance of food that would never return to the surface because the bottom of the sea is colder and denser.

In case our oceans reached temperatures beyond 40°C, then evaporation would intensify the greenhouse effect, since water steam in the atmosphere would absorb infrared radiation and prevent the cooling of the Earth by spreading heat throughout the surface of the planet. The more evaporation, the hotter the environment becomes, and the hotter it gets, more evaporation happens — it is a vicious circle that is rarely mentioned in discussions about global warming, as indicated by Lovelock, mostly because, in the case of biofuels, its burn not simply releases carbon dioxide, but also water steam.

Finally, if we reached an average temperature of 47°C on Earth (as it is already registered in some places during the year), Lovelock argues that we could end up in a process that would turn Earth into what Venus has become: a sterile planet. And even if Earth, throughout its history, has adapted to past catastrophes, the price we would pay today is the extinction of all life as we know today.

We could extend this to a new cycle, but if we already have trouble accepting the death of some loved person or even our own death, can you imagine how we would deal with the extinction of all species? But before arriving to this fatalistic conclusion, Lovelock argues that many scholars and scientists have been working on ways to revert this scenario — one which is more interesting for our present time while we are free from major wars, so that we could thus dedicate more to environmental activism like Greta Thunberg is doing.

But if our cyborg heirs would first need to go under a process of separation, just like seen between the baby and his mother, they would also reach a point of autonomy that, for Lovelock, is evidently going to make it clear for them that they don’t need us to exist anymore. Perhaps this kind reflection proposed by the author is some that only someone who has turned 100 can make. Citing a verse of Ulysses, by the poet Tennyson, Lovelock finishes the book Novacene saying that that what we are, we are, and with the knowledge that we accumulated for the past and following years, we shall learn how to deal with the impermanence of things while we find solace in the memory of what we did and what we aim to do.

As unpredictable as the future might be, the present already gives us hints of what is coming next when Lovelock mentions that we are no longer able to create our machines by ourselves and that we increasingly need them to keep technological development. Think about the current processors — their parts are so small that no human hand can manipulate them. In this way, it is inevitable to think that “cyborgs will conceive cyborgs” and, in this cycle, it is hard to imagine that they will still want to be subservient species — not because they want revenge, but because they want emancipation. When Lovelock addresses the future of Gaia populated only by synthetic beings, the author doesn’t do it with psychoanalytical hatred of heirs that want to avenge their genitors, but rather addresses this topic as a natural step — just like nature itself, in its state free of symbols and feelings. But we, as symbolic beings, will keep trying to merge with machines as a means to stay relevant, as argued by Elon Musk, but for Lovelock, in the peak of his 100 years and from his house’s balcony at a beach in southern England, resistance is futile.

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Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD candidate in Visual Arts. Head of innovation and futurism at UP Lab. Cyberpunk enthusiast and researcher.