Physics of the Future: The Inventions That Will Transform Our Lives
By Michio Kaku
Penguin: March 2012
pb: 416 pages
Reviewed by Matt James
John F. Kennedy famously said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future”. One only has to make a cursory survey of the fields of science and technology to see that change and its cousin discovery, run as deeply embedded traits of these fields. Understanding not only how these changes and advances will affect us today but also tomorrow is something that captures the imagination of many of us and is what Kennedy urges us all to do. Michio Kaku’s latest book helps us in this pursuit by providing an informed, insider guide on the future and what we can expect to experience.
Michio Kaku will be known to many from his work in engaging the public with advances in science, in particular quantum physics. An internationally acclaimed physicist, Kaku holds the Henry Semat Chair in Theoretical Physics at the City University of New York. Through his many books, articles and media work he is a key figure in helping to communicate the wonders of science occurring not only today but with a focus on the future as well.
Interested and intrigued by what I had already heard and read on Kaku’s take on the future and the develop of technologies such as nano, biotech, AI and cybernetics I wondered what new insights and perspectives might be presented in this new book which sits amongst a number of other books the author has written in recent years. I was slightly disappointed by what I found. A great deal of the material and perspectives presented were not new to me, having been presented in earlier publications. Elements of new material are weaved in alongside previous material including reference to various interviews the author has conducted with leading experts. In essence, the book’s format can be boiled down to explanation, commentary and reflection on revolutionary advances.
Synthesis and overview
If you are not familiar with Kaku or his ideas then the book will present an excellent synthesis of his take on the future as well as a strong introduction to helping you to think more strategically about what lies ahead in the light of advances in science and technology. If you are looking for depth then this book really does not offer it but it is a good place to get an overview. To quote the Wall Street Journal’s the book presents, “a wide ranging tour of what to expect from technological progress over the next century of so”.
So is this just another sci–fi fuelled take on what the future will hold written by what is an emerging and “interesting” group of people who refer to themselves as futurists? It might well seem like it but at closer inspection it is not; the book certainly rises above all of that. This is a scientist talking and addressing the future. In my view there are no lofty, wild speculations but rather a discussion of how science and technology is evolving. Indeed, Kaku tackles this issue head on in the introduction claiming that whilst the futurists have been expounded their wild (and often incorrect) predictions of the future with very little scientific reasoning, scientists have been busy working away shaping the future, too busy to talk about the future with the general public. Considering Kaku’s scientific credentials an element of bias and self promotion could be detected here. Nevertheless when reading the book there is a clear sense that what Kaku is saying is grounded in science but if it is scientific rigour you’re looking for, you will be disappointing. But this is intentional; the book is not designed with that purpose in mind. Kaku quotes Churchill who said “Empires of the future will be empires of the mind”. Engaging the public in that empire building – a role that is crucial they fulfil – is what this book helps to do.
The book is divided into nine chapters and follows a thematic structure (“Future of….”) that will not be a surprising to readers of Kaku’s earlier books. So we start with the “Future of the Computer” before looking at AI, medicine, nanotechnology, energy, space travel, wealth and humanity. For those readers who have a good grasp of developments in these respective areas there will be no startling revelations. But for those who are new to them, they will be presented with an engaging and informative discussion which will enthuse as well as entertain. If you wish to explore further the ideas and advances the author discusses there is a well compiled series of endnotes as well as a comprehensive recommended reading list at the back of the book.
Kaku is very good at writing in a style that is easily understandable and accessible for a non–scientific audience. Given Kaku is a scientist, the science is not dummed down so there is still something here for the scientists and technologists, albeit it confirming much of what you are probably already aware of. The author’s passion and enthusiasm for the subject shines through and when he touches on his own field of interest – quantum physics – you certainly sense him hold back in terms of launching into further detail. A boring read it certainly is not! You cannot help but be caught up in Kaku’s excitement about the future and all that it entails for making our lives better. For example, writing of his schoolboy antics when he built a particle accelerator in his mum’s garage cogently communicates his infectious wonder of science’s power to transform, something that has shown no sign of diminishing as he has grown up.
To say the book is “authoritative” seems a little grandiose. Robust may be more appropriate. At the start of the book the author lists 12 Nobel laureates and over 200 leading scientists, “pioneers and trailblazers” whose ideas have helped shape and influence his ideas and who he interviewed and had discussions with in preparing the material for the book. From this you get the impression that this is more than just one man’s random ideas which he dreamt up and conceived in a short space of time. He has given time to consider and evaluate the past, present and future.
Without doubt Kaku is certainly an optimist and whilst expressing caution and the need for debate now concerning the future, the strong impression you receive from reading the book is that there are many positive gains to be made by embracing technology. Indeed, perhaps the main concern most people express over the future actually forms the basis of Kaku’s optimism: globalism and global approaches to economic, social and political problems ‘powered’ by emerging technologies. It would be fascinating to see a book published which has Kaku and other leading thought leaders from the fields of ethics, philosophy and politics discuss some of these issues as I think it would counteract some of the author’s optimism.
But one point I do find encouraging from reading this book as I have other work by Kaku is the value in still places in humanity. Throughout the pages of Physics of the Future, as you read of Kaku’s perceptions and the advances in AI and nanoscience, humans still have a part to play. I find this encouraging; that humans have not be subsumed or simply replaced by robots as some of the more outlandish thinkers might have us to believe. It is true, how and what our perception of “human” is in the future is up for debate and it is these points which cut to the core of the book.
In chapter 9 of book which looks specifically at the “Future of Humanity”, Kaku quotes Kant who said “Science is organised knowledge. Wisdom is organised life”. Based on this understanding Kaku believes that wisdom is the ability “to identify the crucial issues of our time, analyse them from many different points of view and perspectives and then choose the one that carries out some noble goal and principle” (p.350). Clearly there is still much to be done in order to arrive at the place of choosing that “noble goal and principle” and it might be helpful for Kaku and others to help to more clearly articulate the different points of view which are emerging so that the conversation can develop. However, to at least present the “organised knowledge” of science is a valuable and much needed endeavour. I think the book could have done with flagging up more of the potential risks and concerns, perhaps identifying key questions which need to be considered as we move forward. I think it is remiss of the author not to have taken the opportunity to at least have begun to set the reader on a course of questioning about what the implications might be of these technologies.
The last chapter of the book – “A Day in the life in 2100” goes some way in this regard but still lacks critique and questioning preferring to take a very optimistic slant. Rest assured I’m sure the future holds many exciting possibilities and should be something that is approached with that sense of wonder and fever. But I’m not so sure it is as clear cut and simple as Kaku can sometimes give the impression it is.
It goes without saying that if we are to engage with and shape the future then we have got to start thinking about it today. Physics of the Future, whilst offering nothing significantly new to the conversation, pulls together in one volume an engaging introductory text which sets out the key advances to date and how the future may well unfold. It is a book which everyone can and which everyone should read.
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