Michio Kaku: Invisibility Cloaks, Programmable Matter, Singularity

Michio Kaku - theoretical physicist, science advocate, and Einstein hairstyle aficianado.

Futurists come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors. Michio Kaku is like a giant coconut ice cream cone of techno-realism. The seasoned physicist is a professor at CUNY with an impressive resume of publications – he was among the first to develop string field theory. Despite this intimidating background, or perhaps due to it, Kaku is also a very approachable popularizer of science. He’s a best selling author many times over, hosts two radio programs that explain and discuss experiments and technology, and has an ongoing blog at Big Think wherein he answers questions from his readers. Recently, he discussed the possibilities of invisibility cloaks, programmable matter, and a Technological Singularity. According to Kaku, Moore’s Law alone isn’t enough to guarantee the rise of artificial intelligence, but we may have human like AI by the end of the 21st century. Hear more of his thoughts on the future, including our transition from a Type 0 to a Type I civilization, in the video below. Are all theoretical physicists required to sport an Einstein hairdo? I vote yes.

Many of the technologies and concepts that Kaku discusses have already been featured here on the Hub. We showed you Carnegie Mellon’s programmable matter (‘catoms’) last year, we talked about invisibility gear before that, and it seems like I’m heralding the rise of a global internet culture every other day. What really interests me about Kaku’s approach to the future, however, is that he seems to think not in possibilities, but in limits of possibilities. Can Moore’s Law continue to propel computing to human-level intelligence? Depends on whether silicon based chips are a surmountable limitation. Will humanity transition from a Type 0 (regional) to a Type I (planetary) civilization? Depends on whether or not humanity can overcome the limitations of sectarian violence and fundamentalism. Such limit-focused evaluation of the future seems like a conservative lens to use, but it’s nice to hear that less optimistic attitude expressed with well reasoned logic and scientific understanding. Also, Kaku has a really great way of explaining complicated scientific issues. Sort of like your dad telling you how you can build your first particle accelerator.

The second half of Kaku’s interview focuses on cultural issues that we don’t get a chance to explore that often here at the Hub. To the theoretical physicist, many of the social interactions of our day are pointing us towards a planetary civilization. Some signs of the upcoming Type I society are obvious: the internet, European Union, and NAFTA are all clearly aggregating forces. I’m not sure I would have included soccer/football among those influencing factors, but I can see Kaku’s point. Predicting the success or failure of individual technologies is difficult, and not very useful unless you seek to leverage or disrupt those technologies. Forecasting the march towards global unity, however, can be a powerful tool towards shaping modern politics, and a way to inspire hope for the future in general.

I’ve been striving to find experts who can provide balanced opinions about the Singularity. It isn’t easy. Proponents like Ray Kurzweil have convinced themselves (and others) so thoroughly with their logic and data that they seem reluctant to back down from their predictions. Opponents see this strong (and I would argue well reasoned) faith and leap towards ridicule – sometimes based upon scientific reasoning, but more often based on a sense of what seems peronally “realistic”. Others who confront the future do so while struggling to prove their theories (like Aubrey De Grey for longevity), or out of a sense of pending crisis (Martin Ford with economics and automation), and these are not objective contexts.

I like Michio Kaku’s discussion of the future because he leads with a vital confession: “I don’t know what will happen.” Many futurists will admit to this lack of certainty, but Kaku seems to really enjoy it. He doesn’t know what will happen, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to think rationally about what might or might not be, and what forces will influence the path humanity takes. His casual but enthusiastic discussion of the future is entertaining to watch, and provides what I consider a moderate outlook on things to come. Whether you are more techno-optimistic (like myself) or techno-pessmistic (like this guy), Kaku can give us a good balance on our perspectives.

Now, are his answers about the future more correct than any other science guru I’ve discussed before? I don’t know. But that doesn’t keep me from wanting to hear more of what he has to say.

*You can find a 45 minute version of Michio Kaku’s interview with BigThink here.
*Special thanks to BigThink for reaching out to us and providing Michio Kaku’s videos free to the internet.
[image credits: MKaku.org]

[sources: MKaku.org, BigThink]