Is this sci fi - or the near future?

Michio Kaku, author of "Physics of the Future," describes a planetary civilization in which the next generation will lead "the lives of the gods."

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    Physics of the Future
    By Michio Kaku
    Knopf Doubleday
    389 pp
    View Caption

In 1863 French novelist Jules Verne wrote “Paris in the Twentieth Century,” a remarkably prophetic piece of literature about the city in 1960. Verne envisioned glass skyscrapers, gasoline-powered cars, fax machines, and a communications network much like the Internet. Acclaimed physicist and author Michio Kaku has set himself the same bar for accuracy in his latest book, Physics of the Future.

Though he acknowledges that “predictions will always be flawed,” Kaku asserts his book is the most authoritative attempt to describe our coming century. I spoke with Kaku about the future of technology, humanity, and why we should believe him.

Q. How is “Physics of the Future” different from your 2008 bestseller “Physics of the Impossible”?

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“Physics of the Impossible” goes thousands of years into the future, when time travel, wormholes, and dimensional gateways may be a possibility. This new book is much more ambitious. We’re talking about the next 50 to 100 years. I asked 300 of the world’s top scientists very concrete questions: Who will have jobs in the future? How long will we live? How will we communicate by computers? What about robots?

Q. Moore’s law states that computer power doubles about every 18 months. How has this rule of thumb driven your predictions?

For the next 10 years or so, Moore’s law will hold. After that it will sputter and eventually collapse. But it does mean that we can get a pretty good handle on how much computer power will be available and what we can do with it. For example, by 2020 computer chips will be distributed by the billions into the environment, including into our contact lenses. You’ll blink and be online. Your contact lens will recognize people’s faces, print out their biography, and give you subtitles as they speak Chinese or German or what have you. The military, of course, is pioneering this technology. They have a version of this now. I’ve tried it. Through a little eyepiece I saw an entire battlefield, with the positions of friendly troops, enemy troops, and tactics all marked.

Our grandkids will lead the lives of the gods of mythology. Zeus could think and move objects around. We’ll have that power. Venus had a perfect, timeless body. We’ll have that, too. Pegasus was a flying horse. We’ll be able to modify life in the future.

Q. How will humans move objects with their minds by 2100?

Already we can put a chip in people’s brains, hook that chip to a laptop, and allow paralyzed people to surf the Web, write e-mails, and do crossword puzzles.

There’s even a toy. A helmet picks up radio from your mind, and it moves objects around. The difference between my book and science fiction is that everything in my book has a prototype. I’m not making anything up.

Q. In this future world of disposable computer chips and Internet-projecting contact lenses, how will we ever disconnect? Do you find it at all unsettling?

We’ll always have the off switch. There were a lot of people who denounced the telephone. They said that we wouldn’t talk in person anymore, that we’d just talk to voices in the air. But we love it. In the future we’ll be able to mentally contact anybody we want, see whatever image we want. And when we don’t like it, we’ll just turn it off.

Q. How are these new technologies going to affect us as a world society?

The nature of the planet is changing. We’re becoming a planetary civilization, which we physicists call a Type I civilization. The Internet is the beginning of a Type I telephone. The European Union is the beginning of a Type I economy. English will be the Type I language. The Olympics is a Type I sport. Rock ’n’ roll is the beginning of a Type I youth culture. But we’re Type 0 right now. But by 2100 we should make the transition.

Q. What future technology do you wish we had in everyday life now?

When I was a kid I knew that I would never live forever. Longevity and youth used to be considered a mystery by scientists. No longer. There is reproducible, testable, falsifiable evidence in this direction. Aging is the buildup of error, error in our genes. We’re finding the genes that control these
errors. This is what scientists are talking about now. Of course we don’t have it yet – I don’t want to get people’s hopes up. But our grandkids may have the option of playing with their life span.

Q. Do we have to worry about robots taking over human jobs in the future?

Right now robots have the intelligence of a cockroach. But eventually they’ll be as smart as a cat or dog or monkey. I figure it’s around 2100 when we’ll have to put chips in all of our robots to make sure they don’t rebel. But there are things that robots cannot do. Robots don’t have common sense. They don’t know that water is wet, or that strings pull, not push. We can program these rules, but how many rules of common sense are there? Hundreds of millions of tiny, obvious rules.

The job market of the future will consist of those jobs that robots cannot perform. Our blue-collar work is pattern recognition, making sense of what you see. Gardeners will still have jobs because every garden is different. The same goes for construction workers.

The losers are white-collar workers, low-level accountants, brokers, and agents. Already when you book a flight, do you really talk to anybody? No. People involved in software, ideas, human values, leadership, and creativity will still have jobs in the future.

Nora Dunne is a Monitor contributor.

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