A startling vision of the future

 

SCIENCE: CORMAC O'RAIFEARTAIGH reviews Physics of the FutureBy Michio Kaku Doubleday, pp389, $28.95

THE GREAT Danish physicist Niels Bohr once remarked, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” This is the challenge taken on by Michio Kaku, the distinguished physicist and veteran science communicator, in his latest book, Physics of the Future. The title is misleading as the book is not a treatise on physics but a forecast of 21st-century technology and its impact on society.

That said, physics plays a central role in Kaku’s reasoning. Noting that Leonardo da Vinci accurately predicted many future inventions from his knowledge of the science of the day, the author bases his vision of the future of technology on known principles of physics.

This is a valid approach as a great many inventions arise from the same few principles. As Kaku points out, the silicon transistor, the digital computer and the laser all stem from basic principles of quantum physics.

The book contains interviews with many of the world’s leading scientists and engineers supporting a startling vision of the future that includes internet-enabled contact lenses, driverless cars and gene therapy. All ideas are rooted in today’s science.

In this approach, Kaku is very different from the hapless futurists eviscerated in Dan Gardner’s recent book Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions are next to Worthless and You can do Better.

The benefits of the author’s first-principles approach can be seen in his discussion of Moore’s Law, which states that computing power will double every 18 months.

Instead of extrapolating this law indefinitely into the future, as so many futurists do, Kaku explains how the trend arises from the miniaturisation of the silicon transistor and will soon be limited by the dimensions of the atom. He then describes the challenge for nanotechnology, the next phase in miniaturisation, to match the frenetic pace of the silicon era despite the fundamental restrictions of quantum physics.

Another example of Kaku’s informed approach can be found in the chapter on energy. An excellent overview of the potential of renewable energy sources is followed by a review of the challenges of nuclear fission that is eerily prescient of current problems at the Fukushima reactors in Japan. Unlike many futurists, he pays careful attention to the promise of nuclear fusion (the process by which the stars shine) and gives an excellent summary of the potential of superconducting materials, explaining how room-temperature superconductivity could revolutionise electricity.

The downside is the length of the book. There are comprehensive chapters on the future of the computer, artificial intelligence, medicine, nanotechnology and energy to name but a few. Kaku’s forecast of coming revolutions in information technology, biotech and nanoscience that will give us the ability to manipulate objects with our minds, transform human health and explore outer space is fascinating, but lengthy. As a result the book is not a light read, despite the author’s engaging, lucid style.

Kaku is most entertaining when he considers the effects of 21st-century technology on civilisation. Starting with a view of science and technology as the twin engines of prosperity, he suggests that the shift from commodity capitalism to intellectual capitalism already underway in developed nations eventually will be seen around the globe.

This leads to a favourite theme: that advances in technology will ultimately facilitate the rise of a single “planetary civilization”, a global population bound together by communication, economy and education on a planetary scale.

This may seem a rather optimistic view of the future, but it is interesting that the author’s vision of the internet as a liberating force in repressive regimes is already unfolding in the Middle East.

One puzzling omission in the book is the influence of society on technology. There is very little discussion of the fact that progress in technology is often affected by societal factors such as cultural bias, ethics and politics. It is not a given that the most promising technologies will be adopted by society, given the influence of marketing campaigns and the vagaries of the stock market. I also found the discussion of the threat of climate change rather optimistic, given that the responses to such challenges are framed as much by short-term business and political interests as by technological know-how.

All in all, Physics of the Futureis a provocative and entertaining read. Kaku is right that most pundits underestimate the pace of technological change, but are his own forecasts more science fiction than science? Only time will tell, but it is intriguing that his startling vision of the future is firmly rooted in today’s physics.


Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh lectures in physics at Waterford Institute of Technology and is a research fellow with the Science, Technology and Society programme at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University