Monday, September 26, 2011
The Utterly Amazing Future Awaiting High-Tech Humanity: An Interview With Dr. Michio Kaku, The Author Of "Physics Of The Future"
by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash
If you're interested in the future, or if you're a sci-fi freak, or a geek, or a lover of science, or a transhumanist, or a singularity nut, or a fan of Bladerunner or 2001: A Space Odyssey, or all of these (like me), this book is for you.
Author Dr. Michio Kaku gives us three futures to contemplate in his comprehensive overview of everything science is doing to take us into a future that is unimaginably different, weird and wonderful:
a) where we will be in the near term (present to 2030)
b) in midcentury (2030 to 2070)
c) in the far future (2070 to 2100).
Dr. Kaku's predictions are not only informed by the fact that he's a supersmart scientist himself (with the rare ability to explain abstruse science to ignorant amateurs like me), but that he has personally visited with more than 300 of the relevant scientists and hung out at their laboratories where our future is being designed right now.
Here's a brief list of some of his more startling predictions:
1. We will be operating internet computers that are lodged in contact lenses by blinking our eyes and making hand movements Theremin-style in the empty air.
2. We will have the ability to bring back the woolly mammoth and Neanderthal man, although Dr. Kaku is not so sure that we'll be able to bring back any dinosaurs.
3. Many diseases will be gone as dangerous genes are clipped out of humanity's DNA. Nanobots will be cruising our bloodstreams to zap rogue cancer cells long before they can take us down. We will beat most diseases except virus-caused stuff like the common cold or AIDS, because their viruses can mutate faster than we can learn to zap them.
4. Robots will only become smart once we are able to imbue them with emotions. Why? Because you can't make decisions without emotions. For example, people with brain injuries, which disconnect their logical centers in their cerebral cortex from the emotional center deep inside the brain, are paralyzed when making decisions. They cannot tell what is important or not. When shopping, they cannot make any decisions. That's why emotions are the next frontier in artifcial intelligence.
5. We will definitely be able to increase our lifespans (perhaps even live forever). Dr. Kaku quotes Richard Feynman as saying: "There is nothing in biology yet found that indicates the inevitability of death. This suggests to me that it is not at all inevitable and that it is only a matter of time before biologists discover what it is that is causing us the trouble and that this terrible universal disease or temporariness of the human's body will be cured."
The following interview with Dr. Kaku was conducted by email, and gave me a chance to ask some basic questions to give you an overview of his mind-blowing book.
1. Dr. Kaku, I used to listen to you in the 1990s on WBAI in New York. You were my favorite radio personality. Not only because you questioned authority, but also because you could explain abstruse matters of science in ways I could understand. I remember you explained superstring theory so well that I thought I clearly understood the whole thing for at least two weeks. First off, explain how everything in our world will be made intelligent with smart chips.
Moore 's Law states that computer power doubles every 18 months, which means that by 2020, chips may eventually cost a penny, which is the cost of scrap paper that we throw away. This means that chips will be everywhere and nowhere, like electricity is today. The word "electricity" has largely disappeared from the English language, and the word "computer" will soon follow it into the trash heap of history. This is because chips will be everywhere, in our clothes, body, furniture, walls, even in our contact lenses. In fact, internet contact lenses will give us the ability to identify strangers when we look at their faces, translate from one language to another, and download information from the internet, just by blinking. Actors will no longer have to memorize lines. Students will not have to memorize silly facts for exams.
2. Programmable matter: what is it and how will it change our interaction with the world?
Shape shifting seems like something from science fiction, but programmable matter may make it possible. The Intel Corp, in particular, is investing heavily in this technology. Programmable matter is based on the idea of making microscopic chips, the size of the head of a pin, that can stick to other chips via varying electrical charges. In one formation, these chips may combine to form something like a sheet of paper. But if you reprogram the charges on these chips, they suddenly rearrange to form, say, a cup or plate. Push another button, and these chips rearrange to form forks and spoons. In principle, one can envisions billions of these chips which are programmed to form furniture, buildings, even cities, at the push of a button. So in the future, when you want the latest Christmas toy, you will download the blueprint and rearrange last year's toy to form this year's toy. This could replace recycling, since you recycle chips to create anything you want. This could also alter society itself, since you will be able to create most objects simply by asking for them.
3. Tell us how telepathy and telekinesis might become real.
By mid-century, it should be commonplace for us to control computers around us via our mind. EEG sensors, for example, can pick up electromagnetic signals from the brain, amplify them, and can be programmed to control objects around us. MRI scans can detect blood and energy flows in the brain, so that patterns of electrical activity can be photographed. Since looking at an object creates a MRI pattern in our brain, scientists are developing a "dictionary of thought," which is a form of mind reading.
Or, chips can be placed directly onto the brain itself and then connected to a computer. Stroke victims, who are totally paralyzed, have been hooked up in this way, so that they can now read and write e-mail, play video games, control wheel chairs. In fact, these paralyzed individuals can now do anything you can do on a computer.
This will give us telepathic control of computers. Just by thinking, we will be able to drive cars, order tickets and plan vacations, send e-mails, and even move objects around (a form of telekinesis, using magnetism to push objects with the power of the mind).
4. Designer children: what are the ethical questions involved?
Today, parents spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to give their kids every advantage in this cruel world. In the future, parents will be able to tinker with the genes of their kids as well, which creates ethical questions.
For example, should children be ranked by intelligence tests when genes might be found which can enhance our intelligence by taking an expensive pill?Should we praise musically talented children in an age when you can buy genes which give us perfect pitch and musical ability? Or will people pay to see their favorite teams compete, knowing that the winner will be ones which can afford the best athletic genes on the market? Ultimately, we have to ask the question of who gets enhanced and who doesn't. Society will have to democratically decide how far to push this technology.
5. What are some ways in which we may be able to increase our lifespans, while we stay youthful-looking at the same time?
There are several ways in which we might be able to extend our life spans:
i) Already, we can grow, from your own cells, many parts of the body, including skin, blood, blood vessels, bone, noses, ears, bladders, windpipes. In 5 years, perhaps the first liver will be grown from your own cells. Within 20 years, many common organs will be routinely grown. So in the future, you will not die of organ failure.
ii) The telomeres at end of our chromosomes are like a biological clock. After each cell reproduction, the ends get shorter and shorter, until (after about 60 reproductions) they disappear (like the fuse on a stick of dynamite) and the cells become inactive and eventually die. But with the enzyme telomerase, one can "stop the biological clock." In this way, scientists have already "immortalized" human skin cells in a cell culture. These cells have divided thousands of times.
iii) Caloric restriction has lengthened the life span of every animal tested so far (except humans), from yeast cells to primates. If you eat 30% less, you live 30% longer. Scientists want to duplicate this process without having to starve yourself. So far, SIR-2 is a gene (from the sirtuin class of genes) which seems to regulate this process.
iv) Eventually, all of us with have our genomes on disks. Scientists will then scan the genes of millions of old people, then millions of young people, and then subtract. In this way, it should be easy to identify the handful of genes which control the aging process. Already, 60 genes have been found. Also, we are 98.5% genetically identical to the chimpanzee, yet we live twice as long, Among a handful of genes separating us from the chips, are the genes which double our lifespan.
6. Please explain Kardashev's ranking of Type I, II and III civilizations and why it may be useful, and why we are, according to Carl Sagan, a 0.7 civilization.
When ranking future civilizations, physicists use energy as the key parameter. This was used by Nicolai Kardashev in the 1960s to rank civilizations into Type I, II and III.
i) A Type I civilization is planetary. It can use all the energy falling on its planet from the sun.
ii) A Type II civilization is stellar, and can use all the energy emitted by its sun.
iii) A Type III civilization is galactic, using the energy of an entire galaxy.
Each type uses 10 billion times more energy than the previous type.
Kardashev then estimated how long it may take for our civilization (a type 0) to attain these higher rankings (measured in thousands of years). We can also rank civilizations from science fiction on this scale. Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon would rank as Type I. The Federation of Planets from Star Trek would rank as Type II. The Empire of Stars Wars (or the Borg from Star Trek) would rank as Type III. This leaves open the possibility of a Type IV civilization, which would have extra-galactic power, perhaps from Dark Energy. This would be the "Q" from Star Trek.
A simple exponential formula can be derived to rank these civilizations. Carl Sagan estimated, therefore, that we are actually a Type 0.7 civilization (still about 100 years away from reaching Type I status). So our destiny, within this century, is to make the historic transition from a Type 0 to a Type I civilization. This is our fate.
This is just a taste of a feast of mind-boggling speculative non-fiction. Get a copy, and lose yourself in the physics of our future.
Posted by Evert Cilliers at 12:30 AM | Permalink