Suspension of disbelief Known unknowns and unknown unknowns
Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100. By Michio Kaku. Doubleday; 416 pages
A MORE sober look at the future comes from Michio Kaku, who teaches theoretical physics at the City College of New York. Setting out to chart the direction technological progress will take in the 21st century, Mr Kaku is aware that history is replete with unfulfilled prophecies. To avoid his joining their ranks, he adopts a cautious three-pronged strategy.
First, he rejects any ideas that are at odds with what is currently understood about the fundamental laws of physics. No teleportation, wormholes or flitting between dimensions, then, at least until 2100, when Mr Kaku’s story ends.
Second, he dismisses innovations which, though possible in theory, go against the grain of human nature. Psychologically, man has changed precious little from the savannah-roaming brute of 100,000 years ago and is unlikely to do so in the next century. One example is humans’ preference for the palpable. This would explain why, say, the oft-prophesied paperless office never came to pass.
Third, Mr Kaku enlisted expert help from over 300 prominent boffins, including a dozen Nobel laureates. His interviews yielded an entertaining account of envelope-pushing research in fields as diverse as medicine, nanotechnology, energy and computing, and he makes a good fist of explaining the difficult concepts that fill the pages of top-notch scientific journals today.
What of the nine decades to come? Here, speculation begins. Telekinesis will be commonplace, with appliances controlled by brain scanners; microscopic sensors will continuously monitor cells for signs of danger, extending human life span; internet-enabled contact lenses will tag anything and anyone in sight, enabling omniscience on demand. In short, by the dawn of the 22nd century man shall, in the eyes of his early 21st-century forebears, wield godlike powers. Hyperbole aside, such claims are not that far-fetched. After all, technologies seen as humdrum today, like cars, aircraft, computers and mobile phones, might have inspired similarly divine awe a century or so ago.
Their 21st-century equivalents will also prove just as disruptive to economies, labour markets and societies. But perhaps not always in ways people fear. More robots need not, for instance, bode ill for all blue-collar workers, merely those with repetitive, assembly-line jobs. There will always, he argues, be a demand for certain types of manual labour.
However bold his view of the future, Mr Kaku may be treading too carefully. His problem is that technological prognostications sound credible only if underpinned by physics known today. Yet many technologies now taken for granted would have been impossible but for relativity and quantum mechanics, two theories that upended human understanding of the universe early in the 20th century. If history is any guide, thinking that no such revolution will be wrought again is complacent—and probably wrong. On the other hand, scientific theories cannot be predicted; they must be formulated and confirmed. Call it the futurologist’s paradox.