Guessing what the future holds for us a challenge in making guesses

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100
Michio Kaku
Allen Lane, £22

FROM QUANTUM entanglement, via gene splicing, to the future wealth of nations, Dr Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future is a measured guess at what lies beyond the limits of present human knowledge.

Kaku, who holds the Henry Semat Chair in Theoretical Physics at the City University of New York, has used interviews with 300 of the world’s top scientists to piece together a vision of the breakthroughs and timescales that are going to shape the world of our children’s children, and very likely the robots that will serve them.

The scope is necessarily huge; the guesses, reasonable under the circumstances. A future as distant to us now as the first flight of the Wright Brothers, and as alien to us as our fast-paced information-led world would be to the pilots of the Flyer, is not easy to describe.

That’s not to say that there are not echoes of the future emerging now; the high priest of cyberpunk William Gibson, put it well when he said that “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”. To some extent, the fun is in the guessing; the thrill in tracing the path; today’s medical miracles, for example, are tomorrow’s everyday occurrences.

At the heart of much of the fear of the future that this book evokes in the reader, though, is how society will be served by science; scientific advancement itself can often be heedless of morality. The applications that breakthroughs provide, however, have a huge moral component — and, as a consequence need to be guided by a unified vision of a shared society. And that’s where it all may come unstuck.

Kaku firmly believes in progress; he accounts for, and then largely discounts, the technological terrors that may be unleashed — like nanotechnology’s grey goo, humanity becoming subservient to software, or the resource crises of the coming centuries — because this book is not about realpolitik; this is the voices of those inventing the future, sharing the scale of the tasks facing them, and tracing out a path for the future that may come about.

To progress, these scientists cannot hide in the cave, afraid of the lightning; they must learn to harness it.

However, despite the scientists’ greatest intentions, the weaknesses in the motivations of the naked ape seem to be our greatest hurdle to the visions espoused; the simple bags of water, biochemistry, and primitive desires that we are make us prisoners of our evolutionary past, with neither the wisdom nor the foresight to anticipate the full impacts of the change that we may forge, and with a global system of organisation that encourages short-term advantage over fairness.

This journey is written from the point of view of the privileged Western world. To the rest, struggling with poverty and failing to see the fruits of progress, the filter-down effect of innovation may represent a safety valve — but, if you combine this uneven distribution of the future with still-extant superstition and radicalism that sees Western scientific innovation as a means of control, the world is suddenly a very dangerous place.

As a think piece, the book is clever; it presents ingredients, not a recipe. It presents inputs, not necessarily an outcome. It should make those thinking of such things wary of many of the ways we do things now; should a quarter of the advances come through, today’s globalisation may lead to incredible pressures and resource wars on a scale unanticipated and unimaginable.

It’s not for scientists, truly, to make the moral decisions; but with so much science funded out of the public purse, there exists a greater need for anticipating social change and shaping such change than there does, largely, the blue-sky research that is at the heart of this book.

Kaku’s vision of the future is immeasurably more sophisticated than the jet packs and rocket ships of the 1950s futurists; on the other, the vision of human transcendence, through servant machines and ubiquitous computing, presents a sanitised and sterile vision of the future. Now, only better. Change is rarely like that, however; displacement will occur; at the bottom, as well as at the top.

Science alone will not solve these issues; legislators, moral leaders and the political classes will have to migrate together to enable the full application of new technologies to the greater good; if such an outcome is possible in a world where chaos is three meals away.

It’s almost an anthropological argument; science has the power to give fire to an infant — unimaginable power, but carrying the prospect of great harm. The only control we have on progress is tied to capital and to intellectual property laws that are designed to provide a return on capital, but whose applications are uneven and not universal. Thus, rogue states may release horrors greater than nuclear proliferation to an immature global society that cannot effectively regulate.

Sadly, the book is let down somewhat by Kaku’s plodding style; continual references to Star Trek, or movies whose premise are similar to the point being made grate after a time. Though probably intended to make the book accessible, these references tend to have the opposite effect — the shared vocabulary of the science fiction fan makes the science seem more daunting, not less. Gor, or Spock, are archetypes only to a particular type of nerd.

Still, if it was easy to predict the future, then everybody would be doing it. It’s a challenge to try to come about a different way of describing the future in a matter-of-fact way. Unlike the great futurists, who often have the luxury of scenario and narrative to encompass potential change, Kaku has to approach these seismic changes from first principles. It’s a good introduction to the issues; but those who have a familiarity with much of the material may find it repetitive and lacking in detail. But in that repetition, the message of vigilance is reinforced; we are capable as a species of self-harm, and we must remain vigilant that our inventions do not destroy us.


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