Future Shocks

Michio Kaku
Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100
(Doubleday 2011)

In his newest book, Physics of the Future, futurist Michio Kaku attempts to predict the myriad ways in which technology will change our world over the next century.  Using current research and technological platforms as his foundation, Kaku takes the reader on an exhaustive (and at times exhausting) journey through the near future, discussing potential developments in computing, artificial intelligence, medicine, nanotechnology, military, energy, and space travel. Physics of the Future is clearly meant for those of us with little to no knowledge of science and technology, an effort by Kaku to let the commoners prepare for the radical planetary alterations that await them.  The result is an intriguing but inconsistent read which, depending on your own outlook, will either leave you either incredibly excited for or incredibly frightened of the remainder of the 21st century.

In writing about what are at times remarkably complex subjects in which the reader may have no background whatsoever, Kaku does manage to strike a comfortable balance between what our new technologies will look like, how they will be developed, and the science that is being or will be used to bring them about.  For example, his hopeful prediction that humans will come to deal with cancer comes full with an explanation of how nanotechnology works, how it will help to create objects that will be able to directly attack cancer cells, and how sweeping advances in computing will bring the detection of cancer into our very homes, ensuring that terminal late stage cancer will one day be a thing of the past.  The process of understanding these changes is made easier still by Kaku’s simple division of each chapter into three sections: Near Future (present – 2030), Mid-Century (2030 – 2070), Far Future (2070 – 2100).  This makes it easy to follow Kaku’s predictions and how the theories behind them will come to maturity.  This structure makes most of the alterations to our planet seem reasonable, as opposed to fantastical—although the advent of things like a Space Elevator do still seem a touch unbelievable.

However, his drive for simplicity is not without its problems.  The book is so rigid and formulaic that, despite the intriguing subject matter, it can be a rather trying if not boring read.  One particular stylistic nightmare is his egregious overuse of references to science fiction films to explain almost everything he discusses.  Robotic hands that have a human-like feel?  Well, do you remember that scene in Star Wars?  Humans who will have to be trained to kill rebellious robots?  Well, imagine Blade Runner, but for real!  Dozens of these references, no doubt meant to lighten the pages, instead undermine the work, and can make Kaku’s imagined future almost silly.

Even worse is the series of assumptions that Kaku makes in order to make his technological paradise viable.  As he moves from field to field, through his three designated time periods, he rarely sees a reason to give pause, to reflect on the potentially devastating social and humanistic implications of these new technologies.  Instead, for his predictions to come true, there seems to be no other possibility than a highly-functional capitalist system, in which market forces will usher these innovations seamlessly to the people.  Despite the fact that so much of our technological drive is centered around military and defense, Kaku seems to decide that things like war and oppression will vanish at the heels of our scientific greatness, as we create a truly planetary civilization.  Almost without exception, Kaku views these changes with unbound positivity.  Every technology will enrich our lives, make us healthier, stronger, more powerful.  But, he shows little ability (or perhaps just no desire) to reflect on the areas of our lives that will lose quality, or the dangers of a society that could well become technologically stratified.  When discussing the relationship of power with technology, he urges a shift in focus for foreign aid, helping developing nations with education to help them compete in our intellectual capitalism.  However, in the same chapter, he quotes economist Lester Thurow: “Technology is making skills and knowledge the only sources of sustainable strategic advantage.”  Kaku is trying to make the point that we must accept a move beyond manufacturing and commodity capitalism, into an innovation-based economic system.  But, if skills and knowledge are the only remaining strategic advantage, why would we imagine or assume that the powerful (wealthy), would choose to bestow them upon the powerless (poor), thus destroying what Kaku and Thurow believe to be their only advantage?  When it comes to these ethical, moral, and political questions, Kaku simply seems to wish goodness into being, to have faith that a species that has so often abused its technological capabilities will somehow become wise as the tools at their disposal become exponentially more powerful.  This seems at best foolish and at worst dangerous.

When discussing longevity, Kaku mentions that “caloric restriction is the only known mechanism guaranteed to increase the life span.” It is fitting that the idea of consuming less seems to help extend the life of a person, but that Kaku tells us that an all-consuming orgy of money, crash programs, energy, and time that proliferates our capitalist technocratic society is the cure that ails us.  As an exercise for the imagination, to see what the world may look like over the next century, Physics of the Future is a worthwhile read.  But, like so many ardent worshipers of technological advance, Kaku fails to offer any real analysis of the pitfalls of this future, and his half-hearted attempts to do so are, much like the writing itself, simplistic and uninteresting.


Michael Terry