THINK of the word “Gaia”. Probably what comes into your mind is a hippy-trippy image of the planet as a single organism. It’s another name for Mother Earth – and you might also get the impression, as we bake one minute and flood the next, that’s she’s extremely pissed off with us.

The maverick scientist and engineer who both invented the term, and the discipline of earth systems that underpins it, would doubtless be happy to hear we had such a rich, though fearful, sense of the term. James Lovelock is a sprightly 100 years old this month, still thinking furiously at his seaside cottage on Chesil Beach in Dorset. He has celebrated by releasing a short but mind-blowing book,entitled Novacene.

Lovelock still holds his “Gaia hypothesis” strongly. Organisms and their terrains are elements of one unfathomably complex, self-regulating system, whose aim is to maintain the conditions for life on this planet. It’s so coherent that it easily deserves an identity (the name is taken from Greek mythology, and was actually conferred by the novelist William Golding).

Lovelock has become notorious in the last two decades for happily proclaiming that Gaia would flick a recklessly polluting humanity off its presumptive perch. As his collaborator Lynn Marguiles used to say: “Gaia is a tough bitch.”

It’s not so much that we have to save the planet, as save ourselves from its wrath.

But in this new book, Lovelock takes his cheery sanguinity about humans’ secondary status in the planetary scheme of things one stage further. We have just gotten used to the idea that we’re living in the Anthropocene – the era when human actions begin to decisively shape the behaviour and patterns of our climate, than simply respond to them. Indeed, Lovelock played a crucial role in one of the first and most dramatic realisations of this. In the 1970s, his “electron capture detector” discovered that CFCs, actively destructive of our ozone layer, were present in the South Atlantic. This directly refuted the claims of manufacturers, who were using them to make fridges and deodorants.

Now, Lovelock, pictured below, sees the Anthropocene – whose human-led creative destructions he regards as entirely natural, as much a part of Gaia’s system as photosynthesis – as a preparation stage, for an even bigger era. When you first read what Lovelock means by the “Novacene”, you’re slightly worried that the centenarian has been spending too many months in his easy chair, watching hardcore sci-fi on Netflix. But be patient with it, and you eventually realise you’re in the presence of a genuine (if somewhat scary) prophet.

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Rather like the physicist Stephen Hawking at the end of his life, and like the former Astronomer Royal Martin Rees now, Lovelock is convinced we are at the beginning of an age of exponentially-intelligent machines – who are the “Nova” in this era. Like many, he has been considerably freaked by Google’s DeepMind software AlphaZero. This didn’t just crunch through all available chess games, like IBM’s Big Blue vs Kasparov did in the 1980s. It learned, by playing against itself over 24 hours, three distinct games – Go, Chess and Shogi (Japanese chess). Then it practised each at a superhuman, or at least human-crushing, level.

With his engineer’s clear-eyed precision, Lovelock lays out just how much more quickly these machines can compute than we can. AlphaZero is already 400 times as fast. If you compare how quickly signals pass through wires, as opposed to a biological neuron,

it is potentially a million times faster. But even on a conservative estimate of 10,000 times faster, says Lovelock, these machines will regard us in the same way that we watch plants act (which is 10,000 times slower than us).

“Parents we may be to these children,” he writes, “but equal we cannot be.”

And before you snort and start tipping cups of coffee into that annoying Alexa present somebody once got you – I refute your AI revolution thus! – this isn’t just a senescent fantasy.

The bluff Northern Corbynista Paul Mason’s recent book, Clear Bright Future, is equally gripped by the threats to human primacy presented by artificial intelligence. His resistance involves serious state regulation, not to mention an Aristotelian education, of these runaway technologies (and of the male geeks who exult in them).

Mason would look very dimly on Lovelock’s eager acceptance of a “cyborg” future, as the elder puts it. Mason sees a horrific confluence coming towards us.

This is between authoritarian, anti-liberal regimes in Russia, China, and the US – and their heavy investments in artificial intelligence. They want to monitor, and seek patterns, in every move and word of their populations, so that they can second-guess and calibrate their lives.

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But I think Mason, pictured above, would be wrong to assume that Lovelock’s machine dreams automatically give succour to these new techno-totalitarians (or even to the dafter “Mission to Mars” fantasies of tech moguls such as Elon Musk). Indeed, Lovelock’s thinking might as easily give fuel to the most radical environmental sentiments.

He takes many unusual positions. He’s very pro-nuclear power (for zero-carbon reasons); and throughout this book, he consistently values “feminine intuition” over linear logic.

But as a herald of the sheer fecundity of nature, it’s most striking that he thinks, in terms of the presence of intelligent life in the universe, that we might well be on our own. The sheer quantities of stars (let alone planets) in the perceptible cosmos makes it weird that no civilisation, and no other beings, have made contact with us.

(Very possible, of course, as the physicist Enrico Fermi once suggested, that they’ve all gotten to this stage and then blown themselves up, or baked themselves away ... )

So if we turn out to be the material universe’s only moment of sapience, or awareness of itself, then the case for preserving our existence on this planet becomes literally cosmic. And this is where Lovelock is delighted that we look like we’re about to evolve a new, information-defined lifeform to help maintain the spark. One which can accelerate that intelligence, and impetus for learning, to unforeseen new levels.

Practically, one immediate task for these “cyborgs” might well be to comprehend the near-unthinkable intricacies of Gaia, or the whole earth system, itself.

Should we be guided in our climate decisions – about how to tweak our technologies, cities or industries to maintain our existence – not by squabbling politicians, or hedge-their-bets experts, but by AIs? At least they may be able to process the sheer complexity of inputs that come from the entire planet.

And what about the idea that these super-intelligences might eventually regard us humans as just so much “flora and fauna”? Livestock to be managed, or preserved in a zoo?

With some originality, Lovelock notes that both computers and humans start to expire and malfunction when the planet’s temperature gets close to 50C.

So these super-intelligences will need human assistance in stabilising the Earth’s conditions. We will have – at least in the early days – a mutual interest. Humans and cyborgs will both need to rebel against our extinction.

Are you taking refuge in that famous Burnistoun sketch yet? The one where a pair of office diddies roar “ELEVEN!” at a voice-operated lift? The AI here can’t even cope with a West of Scotland accent, never mind knife-edge mega-calculations about the direction of Spaceship Earth.

Funny. And understandable. But I would lay a side-bet on the scenarios that the venerable and visionary James Lovelock lays out in this short but readable volume. The country of James Hutton, D’Arcy Thompson and James Clerk Maxwell – never mind Smith, Ferguson, Hume and Macintyre – should hardly shy away from the biggest questions.

Novacene: the Coming Age of Hyperintelligence by James Lovelock and Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future: a Radical Defence of the Human Being, are both published by Allen Lane