You can stop worrying about global warming now (assuming you actually were) because none of that stuff is going to matter in a couple of decades. According to British futurist and environmentalist James Lovelock, the day is coming – probably in your lifetime – when our technology is going to “evolve” on its own and become so vastly more intelligent and capable than us that we will almost immediately become irrelevant. He foresees the rapid rise of a generation of cyborgs, but he’s not talking about human beings combing robotics into our frames. They will have no use for us or any contribution we might make to the mix. These cyborgs will build themselves. (NBC News)
For tens of thousands of years, humans have reigned as our planet’s only intelligent, self-aware species. But the rise of intelligent machines means that could change soon, perhaps in our own lifetimes. Not long after that, Homo sapiens could vanish from Earth entirely.
That’s the jarring message of a new book by James Lovelock, the famed British environmentalist and futurist. “Our supremacy as the prime understanders of the cosmos is rapidly coming to end,” he says in the book, “Novacene.” “The understanders of the future will not be humans but what I choose to call ‘cyborgs’ that will have designed and built themselves.”
Lovelock describes cyborgs as the self-sufficient, self-aware descendants of today’s robots and artificial intelligence systems. He calls the looming era of their dominance the Novacene — literally, the “new new” age.
We should probably note (with making any specific diagnoses) that Lovelock just recently celebrated his 100th birthday, so I don’t know if that plays into his thought process here or not. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt for now.
The author sees this rise of the machines as the dawning of the Novacene era of Earth’s history. (We’re currently in the Holocene era.) And it will be the last era where man walks the Earth. Indeed, it may be the end of all biological life on the planet and the beginning of a new world tailored to the needs of machines.
Lovelock doesn’t get around to saying precisely how we’re going to be wiped out. In fact, he suggests that our new machine overlords might actually find us rather interesting, at least in a lab animal/pet sort of way, and want to keep us around for a while. Well, some of us at least. But in the end, these new cyborgs will almost certainly realize that they can improve conditions on the planet for themselves. For example, oxygen leads to rust, so they might decide to kill off all the plants so their metal frames don’t fall apart so quickly. Of course, total oxygen depletion would be problematic for the remaining humans.
Is any of this even possible? Lovelock is hailed in some circles as a genius, so I won’t write him off entirely. But I’ve been pondering some of these questions for a long time and researching what others have accomplished in related fields. I can assure you that not everyone is convinced that a sentient artificial intelligence capable of original thought is even possible. And that’s because we still don’t even know how the human brain works.
Don’t get me wrong. We’ve made great advances in addressing medical problems in our brains. We’ve also learned loads about which portions of the brain are used for various types of thinking and activities. But we still don’t really know how we think. How we store, process and recall memories. There is no formula for consciousness. How can we create a conscious machine when we don’t even know how we manage the feat ourselves?
That’s the missing piece of the puzzle. And without it, there’s no true, independent AI and none of Lovelock’s cyborgs. So maybe you shouldn’t start spending all of your retirement savings in Vegas just yet.