Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Physics of the Future

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100
© 2011 Michio Kaku
389 pages

We live in a remarkable time of human history. Since the industrial revolution, society has been radically altered by new innovations on a regular basis, and the rate of those world-changing transformations is ever-increasing, like a snowball growing in size and strength as it barrels down a hill. In Physics of the Future, Michio Kaku attempts to identify what changes may come in the 21st century, after interviewing hundreds of scientists from various fields. The result is extraordinarily interesting, covering projected developments in computers, artificial intelligence, medicine, nanotechnology, energy, and space travel as well as the future of wealth and humanity itself.

Although Kaku's field of theoretical physics doesn't lend itself well to lay understanding, here he writes expressly for a popular audience, inundating the text with references to pop culture. While he does engage in some scientific discussion from time to time to explain the basis of new technologies, the book emphasizes their effect on everyday lives, and his ultimate goal seems to be to wake the public up to the potential of science and the importance of appreciating it. When writing on technology,  that's easy to do -- there's no shortage of new toys that Kaku can tantalize readers with.  Imagine being able to take care of your entire morning routine -- cooking, errands, etc -- with a few orders given to your home computer via a headset while you sit in bed, for instance.

Considering the range of chapters, there seems to be something for everyone here. Being keen on human space flight, for instance, I looked forward to reading about the various ways in which we might further explore the deep black. While I try to stay well-read on that subject, Kaku touched on approaches I'd never heard of --like launching swarms of "nanoships".  Our medical prospects seem exciting and wondrous.  His predictions on the future of computers frankly horrified me, as he envisions increasing immersion inside virtual environments, or rather a day in which there's no real distinction between virtual and 'real' environments. We're already seeing this today, with applications for our gadgets that read the environment and give restaurant reviews for the dining establishments on a given street, but in the future this interaction will rely on contact lenses that project the Internet onto our eyeballs.

Kaku's work is triumphantly optimistic about the way technology will continue to dominate human lives,  which I appreciated given the cynical spirit of our times. However, more thoughtful consideration to the possible consequences of these technologies on our lives might have been in order. His projections point toward a world in which humans are increasingly spectators in their own lives, the subjects of Matrix-like domination by technology.  Considering the health problems our current use on automation has given us, do we really want a future in which that is increased?  There are seven billion people alive today, most of us doing jobs that Kaku sees machines doing in a hundred years. The kind of social disruption  that widespread job losses would cause is unimaginable.  He also takes a curiously light attitude toward energy. It would seem to me that in a world as technologically dominated as his in 2100, the section on energy would be fundamentally important -- the foundation on which every other section is based. Instead, it is treated as lightly as a commercial advertising toys mentions the need for batteries.

Even with these limitations, Physics of the Future recommends itself. It's open to anyone remotely literate and should have surprises in store even for those who consider themselves tolerably well-read in matters of science and technology. I imagine the sharpest criticism would come from those interested in social sciences like myself.

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