“No problem!” Michio Kaku predicts our sci-fi future.

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.

10 Responses to “No problem!” Michio Kaku predicts our sci-fi future.

  1. Nikki Olson says:

    Great that you were able to attend this event!

    My issue with his claims has less to do with whether or not they are possible, and more with whether or not, given these things are possible (and hence many other fantastical things are also possible) he has any good precedent upon which to predict human behavior in that kind of future.

    Or, in order for most of what he predicts to be posible, many many things will be possible, and so where does your precedent for your predictions come from? So much of human choice now is based on micro-management of a framework with many limitations.

  2. Edward Clint says:

    Kaku might be a brilliant physicist and professor (I’ve been told as much by students), but he’s a dreadful orator. I’ve never seen him speak and not gotten the ‘colossal douche’ vibe. In particular, check out his bits in the otherwise wonderful science docu-bio Me and Isaac Newton. All of the scientists in it are engaging and down to earth in spite of their greatness- except Kaku. Kaku comes off as arrogant and self-aggrandizing. ugh.

  3. Jesse R says:

    Yeah, whenever a futurist gets on a pulpit I’m reminded of how the creators of Lost In Space thought that the future would be replete with large red buttons, computer with tape reels, and lots of technological things that for some inexplicable reason needed to involve vacuum cleaner parts.

    Having said that I spend a not insubstantial amount of time thinking about the possibilities that technological advances are going to make possible, and I’m almost convinced that we’ll be cyborgs of some description in the not too distant future (seeing as there’s already people walking around with cochlear implants and mechanical hearts). It’s certainly difficult to not stray into effusive hyperbolic language when talking about what might be possible in the future, but it’s certainly also wise not to anyway, especially if you’re going on the public record about specific predictions and dates that those predictions will come to pass.

    Even though there’s no small measure of unsubstantiated conjecture involved, I also suspect that even though most futuristic projections will end up being entirely wrong and look like absurd naivety in hindsight, they do however play a role in terms of paving the socio-psychological way forward in terms of what actually will end up being manifested. Somehow isn’t quite as inspirational.

  4. Jesse R says:

    *here’s to the cautious ones relying on peer-reviewed empirically proven data isn’t quite as inspirational

    (evidently i suck at html)

  5. Nick Stone says:

    Not being a string theorist, I can’t comment too much on Kaku’s scientific contributions, but as a popularizer I’ve got to agree with you and Edward Clint – he leaves a lot to be desired. And I say this as a diehard science fiction fan! Part of my gripe with Kaku is presentation, as he does come off as a bit condescending. Part is unseriousness – he appears on Coast-to-Coast, for crying out loud! Mostly, though, it’s prioritization – promoting technologies that have huge popular resonance (telekenesis, teleportation, time travel, etc) but dubious prospects over lower-profile but more practical, and maybe no less paradigm-shifting, developments (advances in machine learning, quantum computing, and nuclear fusion, IMHO) is a good way to grab the spotlight, but does the public a disservice.

  6. Jim Steele says:

    So, exactly what surprises you about a string theorist being ‘giddy & incautious’?

  7. I’m not sure I see such an important distinction between “futurism” and science fiction (besides, of course, the fact that science fiction tells much more compelling stories). They’re both important, and I would even argue both might play a role in shaping scientific advancement. But Kaku’s scientific credentials gives this type of wild speculation so much undue credence that I’m not sure if it is helping anything. In fact, it is probably even hurting the public’s satisfaction with science, since they don’t yet have flying cars or live to 200, like other futurists have predicted.

  8. Brad B says:

    I’m not sure what Kaku bases his predictions on, but I know of many respectable and popular scientistic figures who are leaning more toward the “law of accelerating returns” for their futurism needs. This idea, proposed by Ray Kurzweil, is based on factual evidence and shows how nearly every trend in information tech increases expontentially. He basically extends these graphs into the future and says “Here, this is what our computational power will be like in this year.” He then goes on to make predictions based on what that computational power is capable of.

  9. David Schreier says:

    Have not read him other a few articles in magazines etc, but whether he is a bit giddy or not, he is on the right path and understands that its not a matter of us becoming holy gods and such. He is simply bringing gods down to the level of people, (maybe a notch higher?), and that can only be a good thing.

    Gods, ‘living things’ , machines, just variations on a pervasive theme in our world which has no objects, but the appearance of objects, no movement, but the appearance of movement, and no time, just the appearance of it,. As predicted by many philosophers long, long before the 20th century.

  10. Grognor says:

    Ordinarily, I would just ignore awful presentations like this. But one of Kaku’s claims skips fanciful and leaps straight to dangerous: his claim that we would have “plenty of warning” before AI becomes powerful enough to take over the world.

    There is a lot of debate about that, far too much to summarize in a simple blog post comment, but there is almost certainly a danger of a recursively self-improving AI becoming powerful enough to turn the world into paper clips in a matter of days or weeks.

    Here’s a list of postings of one such debate: http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/The_Hanson-Yudkowsky_AI-Foom_Debate

    People like Michio Kaku shouldn’t be making predictions about how safe we’ll be when it’s not nearly so certain. It seems to me he never even gave it a second thought.

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