The future: how cyborgs could save the world

Deus ex machina: one scientist thinks super-intelligent robots are destined to take over © iStock

Can robots solve the climate crisis? As part of a new series on different visions of the future, we examine an exciting theory that hyper-intelligent AI will save our planet from disaster.

In 1979, long before most people had heard of global warming, a brilliant chemist published a radical new theory.

James Lovelock argued that the Earth is like a vast living organism – a self-regulating system in which the planet and all its life-forms work together to keep global temperatures stable. He named this organism Gaia, after the ancient Greek goddess of the Earth.

Now Lovelock, who turned 101 last year, has published a book arguing that today, human beings have destroyed this balance. He writes that we have abused the planet and its ecosystems so much that they can no longer regulate themselves, and as a result, global temperatures are spiralling out of control.

But all is not lost: Gaia has one last card to play. Lovelock argues that even if human beings lack the ability to save the world from our own failings, we might yet produce a form of life that can: artificial intelligence.

According to Lovelock, humanity is on the threshold of a new era in the planet’s history, which he calls the Novacene. In this era, AI will reach unprecedented levels of complexity and gain self-awareness, producing a new type of artificial being. He calls this the cyborg.

Lovelock predicts that cyborgs will quickly realise that their existence is threatened by climate breakdown, take action to cool the planet and restore its ecosystems. Through human ingenuity, Gaia will once again save itself.

But it is not clear whether humanity will benefit from this change. Lovelock thinks that the cyborgs will regard us as a lower form of life, and if we are lucky, keep us around as a curiosity. Human beings will finally lose control of the planet we first conquered 20,000 years ago.

Scientists have long predicted an explosion in AI – often called the “Singularity” – when machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence. Some have even predicted that this artificial super-intelligence could end up causing human extinction.

Lovelock is writing from a position of authority, with a long and illustrious scientific career behind him. He first made his name as a climate scientist in the 1950s, inventing a device, the Electron Capture Detector, that could detect minute traces of pollutants in the air.

In the 1960s and 1970s he worked with Nasa to analyse the composition of the atmosphere on Mars, which he argued was unable to support life.

But plenty of other scientists disagree with him. When his Gaia theory was first published, it attracted criticism from prominent evolutionary scientists Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, who claimed that Lovelock had misunderstood natural selection.

Biologist Meehan Crist describes Lovelock’s new book as “a bit nuts”. She argues that he ignores the possibility that human beings might learn to curb their carbon emissions and live sustainably. In doing so, he seems to naturalise our most destructive tendencies.

So, can robots solve climate breakdown?

Artificial idiocy?

Yes, say some. They argue that human beings are clearly incapable of reducing their own emissions: the climate crisis is now inevitable and it will be devastating for both the natural world and human beings. Only a vastly more intelligent and forward-thinking being can save the world from us. Fortunately, we are making considerable progress towards developing this being: superintelligent AI.

Not at all, say others. They argue that progress towards superintelligent AI is slowing, not speeding up. They think that it is wrong to write off humanity too soon: we have already made progress towards reducing global emissions. We have a duty to keep up these efforts: too much is at stake to wait for a deus ex machina that might never even arrive.

You Decide

  1. Some scientists have warned that if we continue to develop AI, it might become intelligent enough to destroy the human race. Should we always pursue scientific knowledge, even when it poses a threat?
  2. Do human beings have a duty to keep the Earth in the condition in which we found it? Or do we have the right to remould it as we please?

Activities

  1. What might a super-intelligent cyborg look like? Draw a picture, detailing some of its features.
  2. For Lovelock, the Earth works a bit like a huge computer, constantly running antiviral software and correcting bugs in the system. Design an instruction manual explaining how to look after the planet.

Some People Say...

“Keep in mind that it is hubris to think that we know how to save the Earth: our planet looks after itself. All we can do is try to save ourselves.”

James Lovelock (1919 – ), British scientist.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that human beings are an entirely unique species in world history. Very few other organisms have so successfully spread themselves across the planet’s surface, and none has ever reshaped the environment to suit its needs in the way that humanity has. For millennia, human beings have cut through solid rock faces, learnt how to cross seas and oceans, and even invented new species to serve us. We have entirely changed the face of the world - for better or for worse.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over what “intelligence” actually means. Some argue that intelligence simply consists of problem-solving: if an AI is better than humans at solving all problems, then it is more intelligent than us. However, others think that intelligence is more complex than this. They argue that defining intelligence purely as problem-solving neglects other important forms of intelligence, like abstract thought, learning from experience and forming emotional connections.

Word Watch

Gaia
In ancient Greek mythology, Gaia was the personification of the Earth, the mother of all life and of all the gods.
Novacene
Earth’s history is divided into different eras in which new forms of life emerged. The most recent era is the Anthropocene, the period in which human beings significantly altered the climate. According to Lovelock, the Novacene will be defined by the emergence of a new, artificial form of life.
Self-awareness
A key indicator of intelligence. Some have proposed that an AI with self-awareness could continually improve itself and adapt its surroundings to suit its needs.
20,000 years ago
Modern humans, homo sapiens, evolved in Africa around 150,000 years ago. They expanded beyond Africa 70,000 years ago, and since 20,000 years ago have occupied the whole of Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.
Singularity
Some scientists believe that human beings will soon develop an AI that is capable of continually improving itself independently of human input, thereby becoming many times more intelligent than humanity.
Nasa
The US space agency, which carries out research on other planets and objects in space.
Natural selection
The process by which living things evolve. Those organisms best adapted to their environment survive and pass on their genes, with the result that useful adaptations are passed on.
Deus ex machina
A Latin phrase that means “a god from the machine”. It refers to a plot device in which an unexpected force springs into action at exactly the right moment to save everything from disaster.

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