Sunday, March 11, 2012
Captain Michio and the World of Tomorrow
By 2020, the word "computer" will have vanished from the English language, physicist Michio Kaku predicts. Every 18 months, computer power doubles, he notes, so in eight years, a microchip will cost only a penny. Instead of one chip inside a desktop, we'll have millions of chips in all our possessions: furniture, cars, appliances, clothes. Chips will become so ubiquitous that "we won't say the word 'computer,'" prophesies Mr. Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York. "We'll simply turn things on."
Mr. Kaku, who is 65, enjoys making predictions. In his latest book, "Physics of the Future," which Anchor released in paperback in February, he predicts driverless cars by 2020 and synthetic organs by 2030. If his forecasts sound strange, Mr. Kaku understands the skepticism. "If you could meet your grandkids as elderly citizens in the year 2100," he offers, "you would view them as being, basically, Greek gods." Nonetheless, he says, "that's where we're headed," —and he worries that the U.S. will fall behind in this technological onrush.
To comprehend the world we're entering, consider another word that will disappear soon: "tumor." "We will have DNA chips inside our toilet, which will sample some of our blood and urine and tell us if we have cancer maybe 10 years before a tumor forms," Mr. Kaku says. When you need to see a doctor, you'll talk to a wall in your home, and "an animated, artificially intelligent doctor will appear." You'll scan your body with a hand-held MRI machine, the "Robodoc" will analyze the results, and you'll receive "a diagnosis that is 99 percent accurate."
In this "augmented reality," as Mr. Kaku calls it, the Internet will be in your contact lens. "You will blink, and you will go online," he says. "That's going to change everything." Students will look up the answers to tests while taking them. Actors will cheat from their scripts while performing onstage. Foreigners will translate their conversations with natives instantly. Job-seekers will identify "who to suck up to at any cocktail party" surreptitiously. And President Obama "will never have to have teleprompters in front of him," he jokes.
Although these gadgets seem light years away, Mr. Kaku insists that they're "coming very, very fast." The military already has a prototype of the contact lens called "Land Warrior." In 2010, he tried out the device while filming a special for the Science channel, on which he appears regularly. The Land Warrior is a helmet with an eyepiece that allows the wearer to see the entire battlefield. "You see friendly forces, enemy forces, artillery, aircraft, everything," Mr. Kaku says, "just by flicking it down right over your eye."
As he describes the eyepiece, Mr. Kaku peers at me through his cupped hand. We're sitting in a side room off the lobby of his high-rise overlooking the Hudson River. With his silver-gray hair tossed behind his ears, he makes quick gestures to illustrate his points. And he laughs constantly. Despite his enthusiasm for science's successes, he also finds humor in its failures.
Take the paperless office. Futurists predicted that the computer would make paper obsolete. Now, however, we use more paper than ever. Techies overlooked what Mr. Kaku calls "the Caveman Principle": the fact that "our personalities haven't changed for 100,000 years, since modern humans emerged from Africa." The scientist likes high tech, "but the caveman likes high touch," he explains. "People don't feel comfortable with all the electrons on their PC screen." With the flip of a switch, those electrons disappear, worrying our inner caveman. "We want a hard copy."
Still, Mr. Kaku is bullish on mankind's prospects. Propelled by advances in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and biotech, we'll become a fully globalized civilization by 2100, he predicts: "The planetary language will be English. The Internet will be the planetary telephone system. The European Union and big trading blocs will be the planetary economy. Soccer and the Olympics will be the planetary sports. Gucci and Chanel will be the planetary high fashion. And planetary youth culture will be rock 'n' roll and rap."
Mr. Kaku has been exploring the frontiers of physics since childhood. When he was eight years old, Albert Einstein died, and the public reaction to the physicist's passing "was as big as Whitney Houston dying," he remembers. Amid the hullabaloo, he heard that Einstein had failed to finish his greatest work: a single, inch-long equation that would summarize the laws of physics. Einstein hoped this all-encompassing theory would explain how the universe worked. Fascinated by the idea, Mr. Kaku decided to pick up where he left off.
To understand the universe, physicists first need to figure out what it's made of. "We had to rewrite every textbook," Mr. Kaku recounts, "because 10 years ago they all said the universe is mainly made out of atoms. We now know that's wrong." In reality, atoms make up only 4% of the universe. The other 96% consists of dark matter and dark energy, two mysterious substances about which very little is known.
What's more, physicists are still finalizing the standard model, the theory behind particles. They now know there aren't just three types of particles—protons, neutrons and electrons—but rather, thousands of them. Physicists in Geneva are close to discovering the last particle they need to complete the model, the Higgs boson. Using a humongous atom smasher called the Large Hadron Collider, they spend their days shooting beams of protons into each other and inspecting what comes out.
Mr. Kaku is confident that researchers will discover the Higgs by the end of the year. Their next goal is to create dark matter. And eventually, they hope to nail down what exactly dark energy is. When calculating the amount of dark energy in the universe, the current theory produces an estimate that is off by by 10120. "That is the biggest mismatch ever between theory and experiment in the history of physics," Mr. Kaku admits, chuckling. "This is very embarrassing."
What's also embarrassing is that the U.S. is falling behind its rivals in scientific research. The Large Hadron Collider is in Switzerland because Congress canceled the construction of our much larger atom smasher, the Superconducting Super Collider, in 1993. In addition, many of our laboratories studying nuclear fusion are closing, while France plans to open a nuclear-fusion reactor in 2019. Finally, the U.S. is ceding the manned space program to China. "In 2025, don't be surprised if a Chinese flag is placed on the moon," Mr. Kaku warns.
And woe to the nation that loses its edge. Great Britain became a world empire when it pioneered steam power in the 19th century, Mr. Kaku recounts. In the 1920s, however, Britain began to rest on its laurels. British industry lost its focus on developing the latest technology, thus solidifying the country's status as a declining world power. "And who took over? Germany." German scientists split the atom and developed aeronautics. "So the cutting edge in science shifted from England to Germany with catastrophic results" in World War II, Mr. Kaku concludes.
Now, he says, the U.S. is losing its edge because we're not producing enough scientists. "Fifty percent of Ph.D. physicists are foreign-born, and they're here compliments of the H1-B visa," Mr. Kaku relates. "There's a brain drain into the United States; that's why we're still No. 1. But it can't last forever." China and India are slowly luring back their natives, while our top students are eschewing the hard sciences for lucrative careers in areas such as investment banking.
"I have nothing against investment banking," Mr. Kaku says, "but it's like massaging money rather than creating money. If you're in physics, you create inventions, you create lasers, you create transistors, computers, GPS." If you're an investment banker, on the other hand, "you don't create anything new. You simply massage other people's money and take a cut."
It's a shame, because Mr. Kaku believes humans are natural-born scientists. "When we're born, we want to know why the stars shine. We want to know why the sun rises." But then we hit "the danger years" for young people: high school. "And we lose them by the millions—literally by the millions. Why? It's a combination of bad teachers and no inspiration."
After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, Mr. Kaku's hobby became a vocation: "It was this huge national outrage that the Russians were beating us left and right. It was your patriotic duty to become a physicist." Today, unfortunately, no such catalyst exists for our students: "It's all gone." Mr. Kaku has spent his life trying to fill the void: "I want to inspire young kids to have their 'Sputnik moment.'"
Despite his concerns that his country is losing its edge, Mr. Kaku can't help but be optimistic. Just last month, scientists announced they had found a planet very likely to have liquid oceans (and thus the potential for life) 22 light years from the Earth. He predicts that within this century, we'll find evidence that "we're not the only game in town."
In short, physicists will keep pushing the frontiers of science ahead, whether or not the U.S. is in the lead. Mr. Kaku just hopes we won't let ourselves fall too far behind.
Source: Captain Michio and the World of Tomorrow