Civilisation on Mars, movies with feelings, digitised human thought and recorded memories are just some of the changes we can expect, according to Michio Kaku.
Such is the gist of Michio Kaku’s new book, The Future of Humanity, and his global speaking tour of the same name. Using classic science fiction (not to mention CS Lewis and Ghostbusters) as its roadmap, Kaku’s latest work gallops through interstellar travel, neural uploads, robotics, transhumanism and escape into parallel universes. There’s a quick, intriguing chapter on how a starship might be propelled, and a half page that seeks to resolve science and theology. So, what does he want people to understand from it?
“Well, first of all, the dinosaurs did not have a space programme,” says the physicist-turned-futurist. “That’s why they’re not here right now. Otherwise there’d be dinosaurs in this room. We do have a space programme. So, we’re able to control our own fate. We don’t have to go the way of 99.9% of all life forms.”
But, he believes, it won’t necessarily be Nasa – “the agency to nowhere for the past 50 years” – that gets us on the way, but the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson whose commercial space projects will snap the surly bonds of Earth. It’s an expression of the kind of American faith in progress and trust in invention that we haven’t heard much of since the mid-20th century. Which is exactly where Kaku reaches when his optimism is queried.
“As General Eisenhower once said, ‘Pessimism never won any battle.’ It’s the optimists who are the makers of history. The pessimists can bellyache all they want. But it’s the optimists who push history forward. That doesn’t mean they’re right, but that’s where progress takes place,” he says.
“And if you look at the problems facing society, we are genetically hardwired to be pessimistic. Our caveman and cavewoman ancestors were pessimistic thousands of years ago when someone said, ‘Let’s leave the forest!’, and other people said, ‘Nah, nah, nah, it’s too dangerous to leave the forest, we feel comfortable living in the forest, swinging in trees.’ Others said, ‘No, we’ve got to go to the savannahs and no longer swing in trees, but walk on two feet.’ And they became Homo sapiens. The pessimists are still primates, swinging in trees.
“So, I’m not saying that optimists are always right, I’m just saying that’s where progress takes place. And times have changed. That’s the key. We’re no longer in 1966, when space travel was very dangerous. You had to be a brave astronaut to go into outer space. We’re talking space tourism, now. Mum and Dad and our grandkids, honeymooning on the moon. It’s a game-changer. We have to change the way we think about space.”
Kaku’s breathless “caveman” analogy may trouble anthropologists – but probably not nearly as much as it irks his fellow physicists. As co-creator of string theory – a theoretical framework that proposes a “Theory of Everything” and implies multiple universes – in the 1970s, he has genuine standing in the field. But in the past couple of decades, his evolution into a futurist quote machine has generated regular explosions among his peers.
“Kaku is called by different media organisations to talk about such a wide range of topics that, although he consistently says wrong things about whatever he’s talking about at that particular moment, he’s usually only pissing off one subfield at a time, and the rest of science happily ignores him,” blazed physicist Chad Orzel in a 2013 SciBlogs post.
“What we really need is a ‘Michio Kaku Is Always Wrong’ Tumblr or something.”
Orzel’s detonation was one of several in response to Kaku’s characterisation, in a parade of TV interviews, of the recently discovered Higgs boson as “the fuse that set off the explosion that created the universe”.
“For the record, the Higgs had nothing whatsoever to do with causing the Big Bang,” growled Caltech physicist Sean Carroll in another blog post.
Physicists, it should be noted, do love to talk trash about each other. But Kaku – small and sunny, with swept-back silver hair right on brand – shows no sign of being bothered. By anything.
Not even by the end of cohesive American leadership, which seems a prospect at least worth debating in the present political climate.
“It doesn’t bother me, because to me the smallest unit of history is a decade. Anything smaller than a decade, you get random fluctuations. If you want to see the big picture, complete the dots. You’ve gotta do it decade by decade. And if you do that, you’ll see, oh my god, there’s a march of history.
“The spreading of machines, the spreading of electricity, the spreading of computers, the creation of the internet – there’s a progression. It doesn’t go backwards. And that progression is independent of any particular president. Because a president will try to influence policy as much as he can, that’s why he got elected.
“Decade after decade, we’ve seen a march of the world economy, and it’s going in a good direction. Now, I disagree with most scientists on this question. Most scientists would say that technology is ethically neutral, like a hammer. A hammer can be used to kill people, but also to build a house for the homeless. I disagree. I think technology has a direction. An ethical direction.”
Climate change does not greatly trouble him, either, in the greater arc of history.
“The future we’re talking about is decades away. We’re not talking about it being tomorrow. The United Nations 2018 report talked about 2040, 2050, before we see the very visible effects of climate change. And the people doing this are climatologists. Now, I’m a physicist. I’m not a climatologist. Physicists are the people who invent things. We don’t simply monitor things, we invent things. And we’re working on several things.”
Foremost among those things, he says, is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a nuclear-fusion experiment being built in France “at a cost of $10 billion”. (ITER’s own operators put the cost at $22 billion and the US Department of Energy insists it’s more like $65 billion.)
“We’re hoping it will work first time.”
But the meaningful stage of ITER experiments is not scheduled until 2035 and “working” would only mean demonstrating that in principle it is possible for such a machine to produce more power than it needs to operate. Is there not a case for humans to start riding bikes and taking public transport in the interim?
“Oh, well, I have nothing against people voting with their feet and instituting conservation measures and stuff like that,” says Kaku, sounding unconvinced. “I’m simply talking about the energy consumption of society as a whole, and that’s not enough. People throwing away their garbage, I think it’s a good thing. Sorting their garbage, yeah, it’s a good thing. But is that decisive? I don’t think it’s going to be decisive.”
There’s another reason Kaku looks past mere “conservation measures”: many of the admittedly thrilling ideas in his book rely on the availability of fantastic resources of energy. Like his last work, Physics of the Future: How Science
Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100, it adopts the premise of the Kardashev Scale, which was proposed in 1964 by Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev as a method of measuring a civilisation’s advancement by the amount of energy it can harness.
“What are we on this scale? We’re type zero. We get energy from dead plants. We don’t control the stars, we don’t control the weather, we don’t control anything! We’re that primitive. Now, we are about a hundred years from becoming Type 1. What is the internet? The internet is the beginning of a Type 1 telephone system. We’re witnessing the birth of the first major Type 1 system.”
Amila’s former business partner, Suzi Jamil, continues to operate Think Inc, which describes itself as “a community of individuals on a mission to expose the true face of modern society, armed with ideas”. This Is 42, on the other hand, characterises itself as a “dynamic and diverse team of young people who aim to advance humankind by bringing passionate people together”. Take your pick.
Susie Ferguson of RNZ National’s Morning Report takes the stage to introduce Kaku. Her introduction proves almost as long as the speech that follows – a remarkably insubstantial 15 minutes punctuated by popular culture jokes referencing Madonna and Lady Gaga – and it falls to her to extract the substance in an hour-long interview.
One day, he says, we’ll achieve the goal of becoming a “multi-planet species” by melting the ice on Mars, thus raising the planet’s temperature (“water vapour is a greenhouse gas”).
But under questioning, Kaku ventures far beyond space, imagining a future when “high-school children will type on a typewriter and create life forms” and conjuring up a transition “from internet to Brain Net”. We’ll be able to record memories, he says, and Alzheimer’s patients will be able to enjoy the memories they’ve lost via a chip connecting them to Brain Net.
Alighting on his specialist field, he says that physicists are looking to “complete Einstein’s dream of a Theory of Everything – we think we have it”. And that will lead to the discovery of “the meaning of our own lives”.
It’s time for audience questions, which turn out to be the best part of the evening. A psychologist stands to ask what the next great question will be.
“It is possible to digitise human thought?” he suggests.
Yes, is Kaku’s answer, of course. The next step on from moving pictures with sound will be movies that deliver actual emotions, he says. In a few decades, “screens with feelings” will be “commonplace”.
By the end of the century, we will be able to encode our entire selves – our very souls – and “laserport” ourselves across the galaxy.
Someone, he says, will “digitise Einstein” by feeding everything he said and wrote into a computer. (At best, this would be an AI application based on the famous physicist’s public statements, something that could be done today. It’s hard to see how it amounts to a reincarnated Einstein.)
When he enthuses that one day teenagers will be able to send each other real emotions over the internet – something that would seem to embody at least the possibility of unforeseen, not to say horrifying, consequences – I’m thinking I might need to go home and watch an episode of Black Mirror for balance.
But as we drive home, my son and I do have an interesting conversation about movies-with-emotions: whether that is really possible (are emotions innately individual and rooted in individual experience?) and what the content and stories might be. Would the cinema of emotions end up with storyless special-effects blockbusters, “movies” of sheer emotional spectacle? Would that be good for us?
These were questions Kaku hadn’t asked. And perhaps that’s the real value of his enthusiastic futurism: as a starter for 10. In that context, the book is a better bet than his interviews or stage appearances. Its philosophy may be superficial, but it’s pacey and tumbling with ideas.
Maybe those ideas are what we make of them. And maybe the same could be said of Michio Kaku.
This article was first published in the February 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.