By Sarah Ventre
The story goes that Albert Einstein passed away when Dr. Michio Kaku was growing up. That event caused him to dedicate his life to finishing what Einstein began and was unable to finish.
Since that time, Dr. Kaku has become one of the leading physicists in the entire world, and has indeed begun to fulfill his childhood ambition. A co-founder of the ever-popular string theory, Dr. Kaku also researches teleportation, ray guns, telepathy, time machines, worm holes and invisibility. Believe it or not, according to Kaku, most of these concepts, which sound like science fiction are actually becoming science fact.
Here Dr. Kaku talks with the New Times about the social implications of his work, and the effect all of this complex research has for the average person, who might not understand the sixth dimension in quite the same way he does.
New Times: A large part of what you do is make science available to the masses. Why is it important for an average person to understand quantum physics or the physics of teleportation, for instance?
Michio Kaku: Our society is not getting any simpler. It’s getting much more complex, and multi-billion dollar decisions will be made by taxpayers. That’s why we scientists have to engage the public about decisions that will affect everyone on planet Earth – the future of the internet, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, global warming, all the future technologies that I talk about in, “Physics of the Impossible.” They’re going to have a direct impact on our lives whether we like it or not. That’s why I write books – so people are aware of what’s coming down the pipe.
I wrote a book called, “Visions: [How Science Will Revolutionize the Twenty-First Century]” years ago where I predicted the next 50 years, for example. All the predictions are coming true like clockwork. Why is that? Because I’m a scientist. I’m not a science fiction writer. I’m not a journalist. I’m a physicist. I work in research. My friends work in research. So the research that my friends are doing will have an impact on everyone’s life. I see these things inevitable. They’re not fiction. They exist in prototype form, and they will change the world.
NT: I know you’ve said that in about 20 years, Silicon Valley will be obsolete. What kind of impact will events like this have on the economy, or on global poverty?
MK: Two weeks ago I was in Seattle. I spoke before 4,000 engineers at Microsoft. I told them that by 2020, watch out. Computer power will slow down. We’re going to be exhausting the power of silicon. Silicon Valley could become a rust belt, just like large parts of Pennsylvania today are rust belts of steel…and they agreed with me.
Years ago, we told them and they were resistant. Computer firms like Intel didn’t want to hear it, that we physicists were predicting problems around 2020. Microsoft says, ‘Yeah. We’re preparing.’ They’re changing the computer architecture software. What will be on your desk will change as a consequence of what we told Microsoft and Intel. So that’s why if you know physics, you know a little bit about the future.
NT: How will this affect the economy, or the job market?
MK: We could have a massive depression or recession around 2020, unless we take measures today. At Christmas, we assume that our computers are twice as powerful, more or less, as the previous Christmas. That’s why we buy them. We’re not going to buy all these computers and goodies if they’re not more powerful than they were the previous year. That cannot continue. Around 2020, what you buy will have the same power as last year. Will you buy a computer? Will you upgrade? Will you buy the next model?
A whole industry – computation, banking, finance, music, entertainment, depends upon the increasing of computer power. It can’t continue forever. All things must pass. That’s why we physicists are looking at the post-silicon era, trying to construct atomic computers, quantum computers, electron computers, computers that compute on subatomic particles, rather than computing on gigantic molecules of silicon.
NT: Has there been any criticism that your explanation of complex science, like quantum physics, string theory, teleportation, invisibility, and ray guns for example, is “watered down” science, since it must be simplified to be understood by the masses?
MK: Well, if I were a science journalist, I would be subject to the criticism that I was, “dumbing stuff down,” and leaving out huge chunks of the essential ingredients. But I’m a physicist. I know the essence of why certain things work the way they do. I don’t have to fudge the words or anything.
Like invisibility. We physicists also have to admit when we’re wrong. Two years ago, every physics textbook said that invisibility was impossible. I said that in my optics class. I was wrong. Every textbook was wrong. Two years ago we did it with microradiation, and we’re now doing it with visible light as well.
We physicists have to be very accurate, but we also have to be humble about our mistakes. We do know that when we talk, we have the authority of thousands of years of physics behind. Rather than some kind of science journalist who knows about it in some kind of journalism class, I know from first hand, because these are my friends who are building these things.
NT: You mentioned in your lecture that the first applications for some of the groundbreaking technologies that you’re researching, like invisibility, are military applications. Are there questions about the morality of certain kinds of physics research?
MK: Definitely. One of the reasons for writing, “Physics of the Impossible” is to introduce people to the moral questions that they raise. If you have invisibility, what does that mean for criminals, who can commit crimes with impunity?
In fact Plato himself, 2,000 years ago, said that if you had control of invisibility, the temptation would be too great to steal, to assassinate the king, and to become the next king. He used that as an example to show that we need laws. Therefore, society cannot depend on the goodwill of your fellow man. We need laws. We need governments. So Plato actually used invisibility for his basic thesis on the republic.
We definitely realize that there are moral questions concerning invisibility, teleportation, and telepathy. For example, we physicists can now begin to read people’s thoughts. Not the hocus pocus you see in magic shows in Las Vegas, but with electron probes, we can begin to see the outlines of people’s thinking process. What about privacy? What happens if you don’t want your mind to be read and somebody reads your mind? These are questions that physicists have to address.
For example, lie detectors. We can now use MRI machines, brain scan machines, to read whether or not people are telling a lie. That’s going to go to court this year. Already the courts are going to be ruling on technology that we physicists created.
NT: You talked about understanding societies according to a ranked system, in which the rankings are based on the power of a society to harness energy. Is this ranked scale problematic because it leads one to the conclusion that certain societies are “more advanced” than other, western societies?
MK: We physicists rank civilizations in terms of energy. The Type I, II, and III classifications are civilizations hundreds to thousands of years more advanced than ours. So we’re not making a value judgment, we’re simply saying that any civilization that can harness the power of a star would be a Type II civilization.
The point of raising this is that we are headed for Type I. And people say, “What does it all mean? Where is it all headed?” The newspaper headlines seem to be gibberish, and random things that don’t make any sense. The European Union, the advancing computer technology of the Internet – what does it all mean? It all means one thing. We are headed for a planetary civilization, a Type I civilization.
That doesn’t mean that we’ll make it, but it means that the Internet is the beginning of a Type I telephone system. English will be the language of Type I. The European Union and NAFTA are the beginnings of a Type I economy, and we see the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll, youth culture, and high fashion as part of the planetary culture which exists in every nation of the world today. This is happening right before our eyes. Every headline in the newspaper more or less illuminates the transition to Type I.
NT: How does this affect non-western cultures, particularly in terms of cultural aspects like language, oral tradition, and music?
MK: Some people say, “This must mean that local cultures are going to be annihilated by a planetary culture.” Yes and no. Go to any country today, and the elite speak English. They co-exist with the local language and the local culture, but the elite have access to Chanel, and Gucci bags and what have you. That’s going to be a model for the world -- not just the elites of societies today, but the middle class of the future. The middle classes of the future will speak English, as well as the local language. They will have access to Chanel dresses, as well as all of the local dresses. So we’re going to have a planetary culture, with below that, millions of local cultures that will co-exist, just like English co-exists in any society within the elite. That’s going to be the model for the world.
NT: Economically, will that widen the gap between rich and poor? What happens to the working class?
MK: Yes and no. First of all, the working class is not going to be put out of business for the simple reason that robots cannot do most working class jobs. The one working class job that is severely under pressure is autoworkers. Autoworkers are doomed. They’re going to be like wagon makers of the past. Their jobs are going to be gone, because their jobs are highly skilled, but repetitive.
Semi-repetitive jobs will survive because robots cannot do semi-repetitive work, like picking up garbage. Every set of garbage is different. Every construction site is different. Every house that a carpenter builds is different. Robots can’t do that. Robots can only do repetitive tasks. So those jobs will flourish in the future.
Now, the nations that will suffer in the future are nations that are mainly commodity based. Certain commodities are falling in price, like food. Food prices, except recently have been falling, and certain African nations that put all their money on food are going to be in big trouble in the future. Nations that invest in what is called intellectual capital will survive. Nations that invest in commodity capital, except for a few commodities, are going to be in big trouble.
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NT: When do you see this transition to a Type I society happening?
MK: In about 100 years. We’re not talking about any abrupt transition. We are a Type 0 civilization. We get our energy from dead plants, oil, and coal. A Type I society would get their energy from a planetary way, which is solar hydrogen, for example. We are by the way about ten or fifteen years from a solar hydrogen economy, perhaps 40 years from a fusion economy. Oil prices go up, and solar hydrogen prices go down. When the two curves cross, in about ten to fifteen years, we will make a transition to solar hydrogen. We can’t do that yet, because some hydrogen is very expensive – three to five times more expensive than oil or coal. In ten to fifteen years, the two curves will cross. At that point, solar hydrogen becomes competitive.
NT: Is there anything else you wanted to add?
MK: Just that, “Physics of the Impossible” surprised me. Four weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List, the number one science book in the country, and the word “physics” is in it. Which is amazing that it can do so well with the word “physics” in it. It just goes to show that the average kid, the average person out there wonders after watching all these Hollywood blockbusters, if any of this stuff can be true. There’s a thirst for that.