What follows is a book review I have written for the Times Higher Education Supplement (THE) published today.
Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 By Michio Kaku Allen Lane, 416pp, £22.00 ISBN 9781846142680 Published 5 May 2011
Here is a book with a grandiose title, aiming to provide a sweeping panoramic view of the future. However, the title is not entirely accurate – it is not really about physics, but technology broadly defined – and the book itself lacks the requisite thoughtfulness to render it invaluable for the average bookshelf.
Michio Kaku, an American theoretical physicis, has previously written texts on related subjects, and he is also a familiar face from our TV screens. He has a significant reputation as a populariser of futuristic science. However, this book seems unlikely to add to his standing. If you like a gallop past gizmos of various types and some crystalball-gazing, then this book may appeal. On the other hand, if you want a thoughtful reflection about what our world is going to look like 100 years from now and which of the many possible developments that science might bring about will actually transpire, then look elsewhere.
There is remarkably little discussion, particularly early in the book, about what changes may be desirable let alone acceptable in social terms, reducing the book to conveying the excitement of a young child staring in amazement at the goodies on offer in some shop, rather than a mature scientist’s considered opinion of the reality of life in the future. I was disappointed.
Kaku’s approach to gathering the information he needed for this book was to go out and interview 300-plus scientists to produce what he hopes will be “the most authentic, authoritative look into the world of 2100”. Sometimes he gives little vignettes of these visits.
The introduction to his visit to the biologist Robert Lanza gives an indication of his writing style, to which I became increasingly allergic:
“I met him one day at a radio studio for an interview and was immediately impressed by his youth and boundless creativity. He was as usual rushing between experiments.”
Does this help the non-scientist understand how science is done? Frankly, I doubt it. All it does is to personalise the meeting. The personal is very evident throughout the text, so that with remarkable (not to say boring) frequency we are told that Kaku once had a chance to try out, try on, sit on, look at or otherwise interact with some particularly fancy and expensive gadget (probably in preparation for some TV programme).
What about the science conveyed? It is possible that every invention he touches upon could come to pass, but that is very different from the fact that it will. For that Kaku cannot be blamed, but the lack of discussion of what is likely to be practically, socially, financially or otherwise acceptable is where I feel the primary weakness of the text lies.
Take the possibility of surrogates or “avatars”, familiar through the James Cameron film of the same name, in which the human body is in some sense merged with a robot, which Kaku discusses in a chapter on artificial intelligence. We are told “avatars are not possible today but may be possible in the future”, an unrebuttable and valueless statement. This remark should be read in tandem with a comment from the former director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Artificial Intelligence Laboratory that “fifty years from now, we can expect to see radical alterations of human bodies through genetic modification”. But even if the science is viable, this remark raises the question of whether society at large will be comfortable with such enhancement: a huge issue with a by no means foregone conclusion.
Or, to give another example, Kaku cites inserting pattern recognition software into “internet glasses”, so that the biographies of a roomful of strangers can be summoned at will to appear on the contact lenses everyone will wear. I have two immediate worries about this: how is one supposed to read these mini-biographies fast enough to absorb them while avoiding crashing into the furniture, and how will privacy issues be dealt with? People have fought hard enough in this country to avoid identity cards, but having my identity and potted history made manifest to all and sundry would seem to raise some pretty substantial privacy issues. The future is not only about the science, and it does science and scientists no good to go gooeyeyed about technology in this uncritical way.
Strangely, the two chapters at the end of the book – on the future of wealth and the future of humanity – were by far the most thoughtful. I wished they had come earlier; maybe then I would have been more convinced by the remainder of the writing. As it stands, I fear the book will be most appreciated by teenagers used to science fiction rather than the mature interested reader, which is a pity.