Big Think Interview With Michio Kaku
Michio Kaku is a futurist, popularizer of science, and theoretical physicist, as well as a bestselling author and the host of two radio programs. He is the co-founder of string field theory (a branch of string theory), and continues Einstein’s search to unite the four fundamental forces of nature into one unified theory. He holds the Henry Semat Chair and Professorship in theoretical physics and a joint appointment at City College of New York and the Graduate Center of C.U.N.Y. He is also a visiting professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and is a Fellow of the American Physical Society.
Kaku launched his Big Think blog, "Dr. Kaku's Universe," in March 2010.
Question: What are some futuristic inventions that we’ll see In our lifetime?
Michio Kaku: So you ask a simple question. Invisibility: just decades away we will have something resembling Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.
Something equally astonishing is shape-shifting. When you see science fiction movies like "Terminator II" and you see the evil robot turn into jelly and then ooze its way through obstacles, you say to yourself "No way, no way can that happen." Believe it or not, we scientists are making huge inroads into that area. It’s called programmable matter. Matter itself that can rearrange itself, change color, change shape, change conductivity by pushing a button. And here is how it works: Why is it that certain substances can turn liquid and ooze its way across the room like in the movie "Terminator II?" It’s because of atoms. Atoms can slide over atoms, rearrange themselves, but what happens if atoms are replaced by chips, chips that are so small they’re smaller than the head of a pin. And you can change their electric charge. By changing the electric charge they bind and reform in different ways and they’re intelligent because each dot is a computer chip perhaps as powerful as a PC. These are called catoms and who is pushing this technology? The Intel Corporation, the makers of the famous Pentium chip that drives your laptop. The same company is now investigating the next several steps in the future, the ability to have programmable matter.
Now think about it. It means that if I have a clump of clay made of thousands of millions of little dots I push a button then the charges rearrange themselves to form a statue, a car, whatever you want. This means that I can push another button and this clay turns into a house or I push another button and a whole city, a whole city rises out of the desert. Sounds like science fiction, but the basic steps are being done today. And in fact, with a television crew I went to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and photographed it. Of course these catoms are quite large. They’re about the size of a head of a pin, but it’s only a matter of time before these catoms become so microscopic and so powerful that they’ll be able to rearrange just like what you see in "Terminator II," just like what you see in the "Transformers," just like what you see in X-men comics.
Question: Do you believe in the coming singularity?
Michio Kaku: There was a conference out of Sylmar that made headlines around the world. The brightest minds of artificial intelligence converged onto Sylmar and a reporter asked them a question" "When will this fabled singularity take place? When will the machines take over? When will machines become smarter than us?"
Well the answer was quite interesting. Among the top people assembled in one place the answers were anything from 20 years in the future to 1,000 years in the future—with some AI experts saying never. Some people put it at 2029. They even give you an exact date. 2029, that’s going to be the moment of truth that one day a robot will wake up, wake up in the laboratory, look around and say, “I am aware.” “I’m just as smart as you.” “In fact, I could be even smarter if I put a few more chips in my brain.”
Other people say: "Not so fast, not so fast because Moore’s law is going to break down." The reason why many people are so confident about this prediction of the so called singularity is because of Moore’s law that computer power doubles every 18 months and it’s a curve that has held sway for 50 years. If you go back 100 years back to the time of mechanical hand-crank computers, put that into Moore’s law and you still get a nice fit, so believe it or not Moore’s law has been in operation for about 100 years, going back to hand-crank calculators with computer power doubling every 18 months.
Well can this go on forever? And the answer is no because eventually physics takes over and that is physics says that silicon is unstable at the molecular level. Transistors get so small, so powerful and they generate so much heat that the silicon chip melts and electrons leak out because of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. You don’t know where the electron is anymore. Therefore, we physicists are looking for replacements for silicon. The post-silicon era will be about 10 to 15 years in the future. Silicon Valley could become a rust belt. Think about it, every Christmas your PCs, your computers, your gadgets will be just as powerful as they were the previous year and then the question is are you going to buy? Are you going to buy any more computer products for Christmastime knowing that they’re just as powerful as they were the previous year? Probably not. Which means that the computer industry could begin to shake as a consequence.
So we physicists are looking at optical computers, quantum computers, DNA computers, protein computers, all sorts of different kinds of architecture down to the molecular, down to the atomic, down to the microscopic realm, but none of them are ready for primetime yet.
So my answer is I don’t know. All I’m saying is there is vast uncertainties in projecting Moore’s law into the future. However, I would say by end of the century it is definitely conceivable that if we work out the technical problems we might be able to create machines that are as smart as us. Right now our machines are as smart as insects. Eventually they’ll be smart as mice. After that they’ll be smart as dogs and cats. Probably by the end of the century, who knows, they’ll be as smart as monkeys. At that point they could become potentially dangerous because monkeys can formulate their own plans. They don’t have to listen to you. They can formulate their own strategies, their own goals and I would say therefore at that point let’s put a chip in their brain to shut them off if they get murderous thoughts. Isaac Asimov advocated something like that with his "Three Laws." I say hey, put a chip in their brain to shut them off if they start to get murderous.
Question: What is the likelihood that mankind will destroy itself?
Michio Kaku: I say looking at the next 100 years that there are two trends in the world today. The first trend is toward what we call a type one civilization, a planetary civilization, a civilization that resembles something out of "Buck Rogers" or "Flash Gordon." A type two civilization is stellar. They consume so much energy they can play with stars. That is for example the Federation of Planets in "Star Trek." "Star Trek" would represent the typical type two civilization. Then we have type three, which is galactic like the Borg or "Independence Day" or the empire of "The Empire Strikes Back." That is a type three civilization, which is truly galactic. Now by the time you reach type two, you are immortal. Nothing known to science can destroy a type two civilization. Comets, meteors, earthquakes, even a supernova a type two civilization would be able to survive even a supernova.
The danger is the transition between type zero and type one and that’s where we are today. We are a type zero civilization. We get our energy from dead plants, oil and coal. But if you get a calculator you can calculate when we will attain type one status. The answer is: in about 100 years we will become planetary. We’ll be able to harness all the energy output of the planet earth. We’ll play with the weather, earthquakes, volcanoes. Anything planetary we will play with. The danger period is now, because we still have the savagery. We still have all the passions. We have all the sectarian, fundamentalist ideas circulating around, but we also have nuclear weapons. We have chemical, biological weapons capable of wiping out life on earth.
So I see two trends in the world today. The first trend is toward a multicultural, scientific, tolerant society and everywhere I go I see aspects of that birth. For example, what is the Internet? Many people have written about the Internet. Billions and billions of words written about the Internet, but to me as a physicist the Internet is the beginning of a type one telephone system, a planetary telephone system. So we’re privileged to be alive to witness the birth of type one technology, a planetary telephone system. What is English? English is the beginning of a type one language. Everywhere I go around the Earth, people speak English because that is the lingua franca of science, technology, business. They all speak English. It is the number one second language on the planet Earth. And what is the European Union? The European Union is the beginning of a type one economy. And how come these European countries, which have slaughtered each other ever since the ice melted 10,000 years ago, how come they have banded together, put aside their differences to create the European Union? Well to compete with us and who are we? We are NAFTA, so we’re beginning to see the beginning of a type one economy as well.
Then we’re beginning to see the beginning of a type one culture. Everywhere I go you turn on the radio and what do you hear? Rock 'n' roll, you hear rap music. You hear youth music. Youth music is now planetary, knows no boundaries around the planet earth. Everywhere I go I see high fashion: Chanel, Gucci bags. We’re witnessing the birth of a planetary fashion. Also sports, take a look at the Olympics. Take a look at soccer. We’re seeing the beginning of a tribal initiation rite called sports being turned into a planetary initiation rite that unifies the entire planet.
So whenever I open the newspaper every headline I see in the newspaper points to the birth pangs of a type one civilization information. However, every time I open the newspaper I also see the opposite trend as well. What is terrorism? Terrorism in some sense is a reaction against the creation of a type one civilization. Now most terrorists cannot articulate this. They don’t even know what the hell I’m talking about, but what they’re reacting to is not modernism. What they’re reacting to is the fact that we’re headed toward a multicultural tolerant scientific society and that is what they don’t want. They don’t want science. They want a theocracy. They don’t want multiculturalism. They want monoculturalism. So instinctively they don’t like the march toward a type one civilization. Now which tendency will win? I don’t know, but I hope that we emerge as a type one civilization.
Now in outer space we look for signs of intelligent life in outer space. So far we find none. Civilizations like type one should be commonplace in the galaxy. Some people assume therefore that type zero civilizations are rather common, but only a few of them make it to type one because that society for the first time in its history has the ability to commit planetary suicide, so maybe that is the reason why we don’t see aliens in outer space. Maybe they never made it. Maybe one day when we have starships and visit them we’ll see atmospheres that are irradiated because they had a nuclear war, atmospheres too hot to sustain life because they had a runaway greenhouse effect. Maybe when we go in outer space we’ll see the corpses of type one civilizations that never quite made it. Who knows?
Recorded on September 29, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman
A conversation with the CUNY theoretical physicist.
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