Michio Kaku is an American theoretical physicist who studied Physics at Harvard University and graduated summa cum laude. He went on to receive his Ph.D from the University of California, Berkeley and a lectureship at Princeton University. He has written several textbooks on string theory and quantum field theory, and his latest book, The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond Earth, will be his third New York Times Best-Seller. On Tuesday, he took the packed audience of Ruby Diamond Concert Hall on a tour of our augmented future.
Michio Kaku delineated an idealized picture of a perfect capitalism society. A future in which “every consumer knows everything about every product”. A future in which it will be impossible for your professor to catch you cheating on your finance exam because the breadth of the internet’s knowledge is contained in your contact lens. A future in which nobody will die waiting for a needed organ transplant because we can grow them in a matter of weeks, if not days. A future in which we may be the last generation to die, since our children and grandchildren’s consciousness will be preserved in “soul libraries”.
We have learned more about the brain in the past ten years than in all of human history before, and nearly every field of science is evolving in leaps and bounds, each bringing with it new gadgets, challenges, and benefits. So what did the world-renowned theoretical physicist have to say about some of the most popularized emerging issues in technology, energy, and ethics?
Mr. Kaku invoked the names of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Tesla CEO Elon Musk when describing the two “camps” of belief regarding the future of Artificial Intelligence or AI. Elon Musk has made several headlines with his warnings against the pursuit of general AI, which he believes poses a threat to the survival of humanity. Meanwhile, those who fall into the Zuckerberg camp hold a more optimistic view of the robot future. Mr. Kaku himself advised caution – but he pointed out that he was not worried, an attitude he says stems from the belief that Artificial Intelligence will never be real, learning, self-aware intelligence. Rather, it will never experience human emotion nor human learning, and it will never be fully self-aware.
Some dissenters of this view might point out that it is impossible to judge the evolution of the next thirty years by the metric of progress made in the past thirty years, as well as that not all life can be judged by the human metric. Tim Urban points out that Artificial Intelligence will be an exponential leap from human intelligence the way human intelligence is an exponential leap from the intelligence of an ant. An ant can no more comprehend why we do what we do and what exists beyond what we consider their narrow interpretation of the universe than we could understand an entirely new form of intelligent beings, a scary thought when some experts estimate we will have computers as smart as the human brain by 2050.
When asked by a member of the audience during the Q&A session about where emerging professionals in the fields of technology should focus their efforts to improve society as a whole, the current City College of New York professor’s answer was brief: “storage” and “batteries”. The obstacles on the road of evolution to total renewable energy is not a problem with the solar panels themselves, he emphasized, but with the capacity of modern batteries to store this energy for later continued, rather than immediate, use, in order to render the challenges of natural cycles (windless days, cloudy days, etc.) moot.
Mr. Kaku also brought up another future prediction of his which has drawn both awe and skepticism in the past: the idea that we will all one day be part of something he referred to as the “Brain-Net.” An internet for the soul, in which the expression of the feelings that we intend to convey will not be small, two dimensional smiling faces tacked onto the ends of text messages but real emotions and memories that we can share across space.
We are already witnessing the shift of the future of space exploration from federal sponsorship towards the realm of private investors and companies such as SpaceX. It seems to many, including Kaku that travel to and colonisation of Mars is a given for humanity, although Kaku emphasizes that this should be an insurance policy, and not a replacement policy for solving the problems of Earth such as climate change. He went on to note that the exciting questions of “What’s next?” and “How can we shorten the travel time to distant planets?” are the focus of his predictions now. In a vague “future” period, the professor claims that we will not have to worry about the physical movement of our bodies and the resultant wear on our bodies and minds. Instead we shall be able to digitize our consciousnesses, send them to a distant planet (or just Mars, to begin with) and download them into other bodies, or avatars, and continue our business as normal. One audience member asked if that reassembled consciousness and new avatar could really be considered the same person that was disassembled on Earth. There seemed to be a collective shrug of an answer from everyone in the room, and the idea filed away for a philosophical discussion to be held at another time, in another forum.
“We may be the last generation to die…Sorry,” Mr. Kaku announced mid-lecture to a chorus of nervous laughter from the crowd. He proceeded to paint a heartwarming picture of what he termed “Soul-Libraries”; places where every bit of data ever collected about an individual could be gathered in order to reconstruct and preserve an approximation of their consciousness in a library of people. Meaning that the professor could collaborate with his predecessor, Albert Einstein, and I could talk to one of my historical heroes (or as close as its possible to get to talking to the dead). Imagine the possibilities if the ways of thinking of some of history’s greatest minds could be combined with the technological advancements and modern geniuses. What could we accomplish if we were to utilize the true cumulation of man’s intellectual capability?
The future of immortality may not be as complicated (or as simple, depending on how you look at it) as uploading human consciousness to a super computer network.) Perhaps immortality includes the elimination of body death, and not just a bypass of the process. Mr. Kaku suggested that with our evolving ability to grow organs, skin, and bone cells, we may sooner than we think unlock the ability to continue on for the most part as we are, as we will have the ability to replace withering eyesight, faulty heart valves, and college-abused livers when they are no longer functioning at full capacity.
Mr. Kaku described a scene in which a man collapses on the street from a heart attack.
Of all of the foreseeable privacy issues that the aforementioned advancements raise, the idea that an individual’s clothes could be monitoring not only their every move but every biological change, every intake of food or drink, seemed to disturb the audience the most.
To me, all of this sounds too good to be true. A world without a digital divide, without disease, without restriction of information that could save lives. I want to believe in this technological Utopia, in which every problem truly can be solved by human innovation. And anyways, in the words of novelist Marie Lu, “everything is science fiction until someone makes it science fact.”