What Will the Future Look Like?

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.

 

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9 Responses to What Will the Future Look Like?

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    Internet glasses don’t sound at all unlikely. Similar technology already exists in the defence industry with helmet-mounted systems and you can certainly use eye-tracking to control the display of information, so I don’t think there is any danger of bumping into the furniture. The advantage of never having to worry about forgetting someone’s name could be a big selling point.

  2. cromercrox says:

    I read ‘An Optimist’s Tour of the Future’ by Mark Stevenson and reviewed it for BBC Focus. This starts very much like Kaku’s book (to judge from your review) but then asks some profound questions inspired by a words from William Gibson, to the effect that the future is already here, but just not widely available. In yet other words, the gadgets we have to make the future are already here – but we have yet to make the requisite adjustments to our present habits to use them to their best effect. My particular interest is telecommuting. Why, when we have the internet, people still commute physically to work, just as they did 100 years ago, when all the evidence shows that commuting is expensive, bad for morale, and bad for the planet?

    In general, futurology is bunk – people really have no idea what the future will look like, as they cannot hedge against the unexpected. Victorian prognostications of the year 2000 have women in crinolines floating around in steam-driven airships (how terribly steampunk of them!) Asimov’s 1950s view of the future had analog computers so huge they’d occupy entire planets. And so on and so forth in like fashion.

    • @stephenemoss says:

      No doubt there are many who need not commute to work, but for some of us this is not feasible. I know there’d be some sharp words from my wife if I started filling the house with centrifuges, PCR machines, incubators etc., in order to do all my experimental work at home. Though perhaps the futurologists would argue that physical experimentation may eventually be replaced by mathematical models.

      Thankfully my own commuting involves only muscle power and a bicycle, good for me and, I hope, tolerable for the planet.

  3. Laurence, I didn’t say internet glasses were unlikely – as I said I had no reason to doubt most of the stuff in the book was feasible – but as presented I did say I thought they presented problems. My whole complaint about the book was that so little thought beyond the gadgets themselves was included, hence I found it profoundly unsatisfying. Once I’ve recovered from this dose of what was referred to in the twittersphere as ‘risible futurology’, maybe I’ll try@cromercrox’s recommendation of Mark Stevenson’s book, which sounds a lot more thoughtful.

    I’m with @stephenemoss on the difficulty of all jobs being dealt with by telecommuting (although it is a problem for the students in my group much more than me, as my days hand-on with largescale equipment such as electron microscopes are past; I’ve become a paper or mouse pusher). I am also with him on the joys – and values – of cycling, as I’ve said before.

    • @stephenemoss says:

      To be honest, I too am rarely in the lab these days, but my PhD students and post-docs are, and I would find it very difficult to be an effective supervisor if I had to rely solely on phone, email, video link-up, Skype or whatever. Most days there is some form of interaction that could not be done remotely, like identifying some odd-looking cells in a culture dish, or using the ‘window test’ to find a very faint band on an x-ray film of a western blot. And then there are all the spontaneous interactions, often with colleagues, that occur in the coffee room, the lift, the corridor, that lead to new ideas and projects.

    • Laurence Cox says:

      Athene, I think that we will all have to accept a future where there is much less privacy than we have been used to. Let us assume for a moment that you could ban “internet glasses”; would this solve the problem? I think not, when a US company like Facebook is already using facial recognition to identify people in pictures. Add to that the videos uploaded to sites like YouTube, people’s own photo albums on sites like Flickr, and so on. The “internet glasses” become the last link in a network that will still function, if less effectively, without them. Also I can see a natural progression with the technology being used first for law-enforcement, before it becomes available to the general public.

  4. cromercrox says:

    Folks – beware! To find fault with telecommuting as a viable future strategy is to criticize it on the basis of our current lifestyles, which means on the lifestyles of people decades ago, such is the inertia of habit. There might come a time, perhaps not so long away, when people can commute to completely realistic virtual environments by the power of thought alone.

  5. Laurence, I think the point you are making that we will ‘all have to accept’ lack of privacy is part of why I objected to Kaku’s book, because I don’t believe there is or should be any imperative there. Maybe we will, but it needs a lot of thought before it is ‘acceptable’ to the majority and therefore whatever product – internet glasses or something else – we are talking about may or may not take off as a phenomenon. I am sure many people thought GM crops would straightforwardly be adopted, but they weren’t acceptable to a large enough segment of the population that the technology has not become widespread in many parts of the world. There are social and ethical values to be factored in, not just feasibility. It was the lack of this discussion that I felt made this book of limited value and readabiity.

    • Laurence Cox says:

      Athene, I wasn’t arguing about your conclusion that because Michio Kaku doesn’t cover the social and ethical issues, this limits the value of the book. Indeed, I own a copy of his “Physics of the Impossible” and have similar feelings about its lack of depth.

      However, I think you are making a false analogy in comparing GM crops to internet glasses as products. In the case of GM crops, there is a physical product, so a country can ban its production or import. What is different about internet glasses is that the product is information. It could equally well appear in an app on a smartphone as in a standalone form.

      Next, although I don’t use social networking sites myself, what strikes me about them is the willingness with which their users share their personal details. Obviously, they must think that they get enough in return. Internet glasses could be the outcome of a convergence in social networking technologies in the same way that digital cameras, music players and mobile phones have all converged into a single product, the smartphone. If this does happen, then you have strong social forces pushing it forward. Contrast this to GM crops in this country, where almost the only proponents were companies like Monsanto; where there was a vociferous minority against everything GM and the vast majority could see no benefit to themselves from GM crops. In the USA, GM crops are much more widely accepted and this may reflect a very different attitude to what is acceptable in ethical terms.

      So, whilst I would agree with you that social factors will be important in determining the take-up of an idea like internet glasses, I doubt that ethical issues will make much difference, not least because there is no common worldwide ethical standard and we are dealing with a product that is part of a worldwide market.