“No problem!” Michio Kaku predicts our sci-fi future.
March 19, 2011 10 Comments
On Wednesday night I went to the Strand to hear celebrity physicist Michio Kaku promote his new book, “Physics of the Future: How Science will Change Daily Life by 2100.”
I know Kaku is supposed to be a real heavyweight in the physics community — he co-founded string field theory — so I was surprised to hear him talking like the kind of giddy, incautious futurist that gave futurism a bad name: “By 2100, our destiny is to become like the gods we once worshiped and feared.” He even had a catch phrase, like a salesman: No problem. (For example: “Lose your hand in an accident? No problem! Scientists will create a new mechanical hand that can touch and feel.” ).
I’m willing to believe that it’s possible to make certain predictions about the near- to medium-term future with some confidence. But bad prognosticating is so easy and so common that my skepticism is on a hair trigger, and hyperbole and flowery language set it off immediately.
I flipped through Kaku’s book after the talk to see whether my first impression was accurate. Indeed, the book is full of grandiose claims about telekinesis, immortality, and avatars on far away planets. He tempers them with plentiful qualifiers like “may,” “might,” and “could.” But that doesn’t change the fact that he offers no evidence that some of the new technologies he’s describing are going to happen at all, let alone in the next 90 years.
Take this claim, for example: “By midcentury, the era of emotional robots may be in full flower.” Kaku describes how victims of brain injury whose emotional centers were severed from their cerebral cortices became incapable of making choices; everything had the same value to them. Emotion plays a crucial role in human decisionmaking, and Kaku makes the case that it would be critical to intelligent robot decisionmaking as well.
But the fact that instilling robots with emotion would make them more effective isn’t evidence that such a feat would be possible by 2100, or ever. There is a recently created robot called KISMET whose face can mimic a wide range of emotions, but, Kaku acknowledges, “scientists have no illusion that the robot actually feels emotions.” So there’s nothing, at least in this book, that backs up Kaku’s original claim about an “era of emotional robots” flowering this century.
Another claim that raised my eyebrows was that of telekinesis: later this century, Kaku says, we’ll be able to move things around with our minds. How will we do this? “In the future, room-temperature superconductors may be hidden inside common items, even nonmagnetic ones,” Kaku writes. “If a current is turned on within the object, it will become magnetic and hence it can be moved by an external magnetic field that is controlled by your thoughts.”
But there’s no evidence that room temperature superconductivity is even possible. Currently, the world record high temperature for superconductors is -211 degrees Fahrenheit. And we don’t even understand the science behind that success, Kaku says — so as far as I can tell, there’s no way to know how much higher we’ll be able to bring the record.
I don’t have any problem with speculation about radical new technologies. But that speculation should be framed as, “This is something that is theoretically possible,” not as “This will probably happen in the next X years.” Attaching a date to your speculation implies a precision which is, in Kaku’s and in most cases of future forecasting, deceptive.