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Why futurist Michio Kaku is optimistic about our chances here on Earth

Michio Kaku is in New Zealand for a lecture tour. He says small nations like New Zealand can compete in the fourth wave of technology. Photo/Getty Images

When it comes to futurists, Michio Kaku is one of those whose predictions tend to read like the Hollywood science fiction that for decades has coloured our view of what lies ahead.

But the 71-year-old theoretical physicist’s forecasts are shaped by decades of his own research on quantum mechanics and string theory, and informed by the work of leading scientists who he consults in writing his books like his latest, The Future of Humanity.

He may not see singularity coming as soon as 2045 as his contemporary Ray Kurzweil does, at which point machines become smarter than us humans. But in the course of this century, Kaku, a best-selling author and professor at the City University of New York, has us making contact with extraterrestrials, colonising Mars and figuring out how to stop the ageing process.

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Like the late physicist Stephen Hawking, he imagines a significant future for humanity off Earth. But arriving in New Zealand for a lecture tour following the release of the United Nation’s gloomy scientific report about the rapid pace of climate change, he’s also an optimist for our chances here on Earth.

Hope lies in super batteries

We are on the right track converting to renewable energy sources, particularly solar power, says Kaku, but the current bottleneck is in storing that energy in sufficient quantities for use when the sun isn’t out.

“The glimmer of hope is the super battery could be coming around the corner,” he says.

“Bright engineers are working on batteries to increase their efficiency, portability and power. In fact, prices have been dropping seven per cent, per year. So the solar revolution could become a reality if we can make cheap, portable, durable storage batteries.”

Over one hundred years ago, pioneering innovators and friends Thomas Edison and Henry Ford briefly experimented with electric cars, before gasoline-powered motors won out and fueled the automobile revolution and the huge success of Ford’s Model T.

“The battery could not keep up with the efficiencies of gasoline,” says Kaku. Moore’s Law may allow for computer processing power to double roughly every 18 months. But the same hasn’t held true for battery technology. The key now to finally weaning ourselves off fossil fuels is battery technology that can allow us to more efficiently harness the power of the sun.

Fusion power reactors, which replicate the energy-producing nuclear reactions in the Sun, are in their infancy, but could hold the key to affordable, renewable energy in the longer term, says Kaku.

“The ITER fusion reactor will be the world's first operational reactor that generates more power than it consumes. Now, of course, it's still decades away, but it could be a turning point.”

Fusion power reactors, like this one at Princeton University, could hold the key to affordable, renewable energy in the longer term, says Kaku. Photo/Getty.

Plan B for planet Earth

If the reduction of greenhouse gases is the key to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change on Earth, heating up Mars could be the key to making our neighbouring planet habitable.

“Scientists have seriously looked at what it would take to terraform Mars,” says Kaku.

“We have to heat up the surface of Mars by about six degrees. Once you do that then the ice caps begin to melt and it becomes self-sustaining, the more water and carbon dioxide are released from the melting ice caps.”

The process would involve injecting methane gas to stimulate the greenhouse effect. Solar satellites orbiting Mars could also be used to beam sunlight down to the ice caps, which could lead to water flowing freely on the surface of Mars for the first time in three billion years, says Kaku.

Given the costs of just getting to Mars are enormous, how much would it cost to terraform Mars? More fundamental are the technical questions, but Kaku says the costs are dropping all the time. He points to the US$70 million space probe that was launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation and which has been orbiting Mars since 2014.

In contrast, the Matt Damon movie The Martian, about a stranded astronaut trying to find his way off Mars, cost US$100 million to produce.

“A Hollywood movie about going to Mars cost more than actually going to Mars,” says Kaku. So costs are dropping and it means that if we have a settlement on Mars it is going to be an insurance policy.”

A back-up plan for humanity if things go pear-shaped here on Earth.

But Kaku isn’t alone among futurists in looking further afield for a new home.

“We know that there are billions and billions of Earth-sized planets right in our own backyard,” says Kaku.

The problem is that we don’t have the technology yet to reach them to explore their suitability for colonisation. But Kaku has studied one potential technique, which Stephen Hawking was backing before his death in March, that could at least get probes to distant planets beyond our solar system.

“One way is by using laser beams to fire up a tiny postage-stamp size chip with a parachute, blasting it with laser light,” says Kaku.

“That reaches 20 per cent the speed of light and in 20 years, it will reach the nearby stars. That's doable with today’s off-the-shelf technology today.”

The bottleneck, once again, is energy – fusion power would be required to send the starship on its voyage.

The future is bright, says Michio Kaku, if we can find the right super battery. Photo/Supplied

The failsafe chip

“I think that Zuckerberg is right,” says Kaku when asked about where artificial intelligence is taking us in the coming decades.

Like the billionaire Facebook founder, he sees AI creating new jobs and economic prosperity, an “engine of progress” for humanity.

It is further down the track, towards the end of the century, when we could run into trouble with AI.

“Robots today have the intelligence of a lobotomized, retarded cockroach. But as the decades go by, robots will eventually become as smart as a mouse then as smart as a rat,” says Kaku.

“Then as smart as a rabbit then as smart as a cat and dog and finally they could be dangerous by the end of the century when robots become as smart as a monkey. You see monkeys have self-awareness. They know they are not humans. Dogs on the other hand, well dogs are confused.”

Before that point, where AI is self-aware and conscious of the differences between itself and humans, we’ll need a failsafe mechanism to stop them from taking over.

“I think at that point we should seriously think about putting a chip in their brain to shut them off if they have murderous thoughts,” says Kaku foreshadowing a situation straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The problem is, they weren’t able to shut HAL down.

New Zealand’s edge

The world’s big economies dominate global affairs, but Kaku says small nations like New Zealand can compete in the fourth wave of technology.

The first wave was the industrial revolution, which saw the introduction of the steam engine. Then came electricity and the transistors and lasers that powered the hi-tech revolution.

Now the three forces of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and biotechnology are shaping the world’s future.

“You don't have to be a big country with lots of natural resources to compete. Look at Singapore. Look at Japan. They have hardly any natural resources to speak of, but they are competitive on the world scale because they utilise intellectual capital that is the capital of educated people,” says Kaku.

He sees medical technology, in particular, taking off in the coming decades, with an ageing population necessitating accelerated research into the big killers like cancer and heart disease and more fundamental efforts at a genetic level to extend the lifespan of humans.

AI too will be huge, necessitating us to re-skill and refocus on the things that remain beyond the capabilities of robots, software algorithms and programs.

“We forget the robots are adding machines," says Kaku.

“They add a million times faster than us, giving us the illusion that they're thinking. But they're not thinking at all and that's why I think that we have to make an investment in biotech, nanotech and artificial intelligence because they will be the drivers of prosperity in the future.”

“Intellectual capital is what robots cannot do. That is innovation, that is expertise, that is creativity, curiosity, leadership, analysis. Robots can't do any of the above.”

Michio Kaku is giving lectures this week in Auckland (Oct 31), Wellington (Nov 2) and Christchurch (Nov 3).