Michio Kaku: 3 mind-blowing predictions about the future

What lies in store for humanity? Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku explains how different life will be for your ancestors—and maybe your future self, if the timing works out.

1. We will become a space-faring species

MICHIO KAKU: We are entering what I call the next golden era of space exploration. We have not just new energy and new financing and money coming from Silicon Valley, we also have a new vision emerging. For Elon Musk of SpaceX it's to create a multi-planet species. However, for Jeff Bezos of Amazon, he wants to make Earth into a park so that all the heavy industries, all the pollution, goes into outer space. And Jeff Bezos wants to set an Amazon-type delivery system connecting the earth to the moon. And so he wants to lift all the heavy industries off the planet Earth to make Earth a paradise and to put all the heavy industries in outer space.

Now, I once talked to Carl Sagan and he said that because the earth is in the middle of a shooting gallery of asteroids and comets and meteors, it's inevitable that we will be hit with a planet buster. Something like what hit the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago, we need an insurance policy. Now, he was clear to say that we're not talking about moving the population of the earth into outer space—that costs too much money. And we have problems of our own on the earth like global warming. We have to deal with those problems on the earth not flee to outer space. But as an insurance policy, we have to make sure that humans become a two-planet species. These are the words of Carl Sagan.

And now, of course, Elon Musk has revived this vision by talking about a multi-planet species. He wants to put up to a million colonists on the planet Mars, sent to Mars by his rockets financed by a combination of public and private funding, including fusion rockets, ramjet fusion rockets, including anti-matter rockets. Some of these rockets, of course, their technologies won't be available till the next 100 years. However, the laws of physics make it possible to send postage-stamp-size chips to the nearby stars. So think of a chip, perhaps this big, on a parachute and have thousands of them sent into outer space energized by perhaps 800 megawatts of laser power. By shooting this gigantic bank of laser energy into outer space, by energizing all these mini-parachutes you could then begin to accelerate them to about 20% the speed of light. This is with doable technology today. It's just a question of engineering. It's a question of political will and economics but there's no physics, there's no law of physics preventing you from shooting these chips to 20% the speed of light. That means Proxima Centauri, part of the Alpha Centauri triple star system, could be within the range of such a device. Now think about that. That means that within 20 years, after 20 years of launch, we might be able to have the first starship go to a nearby planet. And it turns out that Proxima Centauri B is an Earth-like planet that circles around the closest star to the planet Earth—what a coincidence. So it means that we've already staked out our first destination for visitation by an interstellar starship. And that is Proxima Centauri B, a planet that goes around one of the stars in the triple-star system. And so this could be the first of many different kinds of starship designs.

But remember, we're talking about the future of humanity. If Elon Musk wants to put a million settlers on Mars you have to have a million hammers. You have to have a million saws. You have to have fleets of workers to begin the process of building things—unless you create the first self-replicating robot. With one self-replicating robot, you get two, then four, then eight, 16, 32, 64, until you have an army of these robots that can build cities on Mars. And so that's the weak link. Everyone dreams of having these gigantic dome cities on Mars as part of our science fiction heritage. But who's going to build these dome cities? I say, they're going to be built by self-replicating robots. Robots that can make copies of themselves by mining the minerals that are already on Mars. And then beyond that who knows? Maybe our destiny really does lie in outer space.

Remember that on the earth, 99.9% of all species eventually go extinct. Extinction is the norm. We think of Mother Nature as being warm and cuddly. And for the most part, she is. But sometimes the savagery of Mother Nature is revealed. And if you don't believe me, dig underneath your feet. Right under your feet, right now, are the bones of all the different organisms and fossils, the 99.9% that were doomed by the laws of nature. And the laws of physics also doom the entire planet Earth. And that's why I say given the fact that Mother Nature and the laws of physics have a death warrant for humanity that ultimately our destiny will be in outer space.

2. We will expand the brain's capabilities

MICHIO KAKU: In the history of science, we've had some big projects that galvanized entire nations. First, we had the Manhattan Project which gave us the atomic bomb. Then we had the Genome Project which allowed us to map the genes of the body. And President Barack Obama initiated the Connectome Project, a project to map the entire human brain. It is possible to connect the brain directly to a computer now. Stephen Hawking, the late physicist, my colleague—if you watch videotapes of him and look at his right frame, you'll realize that there was a chip in his right glass that communicated by radio with his brain, the chip in turn communicated to a laptop and it allowed him to type mentally. So we can now have telepathy. We can now combine minds with the internet, send memories, send emotions on the internet, and who's paying for it? The United States Pentagon. The United States Pentagon has already donated over $150 million for GIs from Iraq and Afghanistan who have spinal cord injuries. We can now bypass the spinal cord and connect the brain directly to the muscles of our body. And, in fact, Iron Man—it's possible to create an Iron Man exoskeleton. At the World Cup games in Sao Paulo, Brazil, there was a man who kicked the football and started the soccer games. Now, what's so important about that? That man was paralyzed. He couldn't move. At Duke University, they suited him up with an exoskeleton, connected to his brain and he was mentally able to walk and then kick the football, initiating the World Cup games. Now that's today. You can imagine what it's going to be like in the future now when we have direct brain-computer interface.

Eventually, computer chips will cost a penny which is the cost of scrap paper. There'll be everywhere and nowhere including your eyeball, in your contact lens. You'll blink and you'll be online. And who are the first people to buy internet contact lenses? College students taking final examinations. They will blink and see all the answers to my exam right there in their contact lens. And this could be very useful. If you're at a cocktail party, and there's some very important people there who could influence your future but you don't know who they are, in the future, you'll know exactly who to suck up to at any cocktail party. On a blind date, they could be great because, of course, your blind date could say that he's single, he's rich and he's successful. But your contact lens says that he pays child support, that he's three times divorced, and the guy is a total loser. So yes, we're going to have almost infinite knowledge and then beyond that we will communicate mentally. That is, we'll be able to think about emails, think about images, memories, and send them on the internet. Already, we can record memories. We've been able to record small memory, short memories in mice. Now it's being done on monkeys. Next, Alzheimer's patients. They'll push a button and memories will come flooding into their hippocampus. And maybe one day you'll push a button and have that vacation that you've never had.

So we're entering a new era where the internet itself could become 'brain net'. Brain net could replace digital internet. Instead of zeros and ones, you'll send emotions, feelings, memories on the internet. And, of course, teenagers will love it. Instead of putting a happy face at the end of every sentence, they'll put the entire emotion—their first dance, their first date, their first kiss, will be right there on the internet. And that's going to revolutionize entertainment. Because remember the talkies? When the talkies came, the silent movies went out of business. No one wanted to see Charlie Chaplin when you could hear actors talk. So movies are nothing but sound and a screen. Think of what will happen when you can feel emotions, sensations—feel what the actor is feeling. Then the movies will seem so barbaric, they'll seem such like a dinosaur technology once we have brain net capable of sending emotions, feelings, on the internet.

3. We will defeat cancer

MICHIO KAKU: I think we're entering the fourth wave of scientific innovation. The first era was steam power. When we physicists worked out the laws of thermodynamics, we could calculate how much energy you get from a lump of coal to energize a locomotive or a steam engine or a factory. That was the first big breakthrough. The second wave of innovation and wealth generation was electricity and magnetism. When we physicists worked out the laws of electromagnetism that gave us the light bulb, that gave us television, radio, gave us the electric age. The third revolution took place when we physicists worked out the transistor and the laser, opening up the world of high technology. The fourth wave is at the molecular level and that is artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and biotechnology. In fact, I think the synergy between biotechnology and artificial intelligence is going to revolutionize everything around us. First of all, the job market is going to explode in that area because baby boomers are aging, and baby boomers have disposable income, they want answers now to their problems, not next year. And so there's going to be plenty of money involved with people who want to find cures for horrible diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's—at the present time we have no cure for these—but a tremendous amount of effort is now being redirected toward illnesses of old age.

Also, take a look at cancer research. We're going to have a magic bullet against cancer using nanomedicine. That is individual molecules in the cells that can target individual cancer cells using nanotechnology. And the next big thing is when your toilet becomes intelligent. In the future, your toilet will be your first line of defense against cancer because your bodily fluids—blood and your bodily fluids—contain signatures of cancer colonies of maybe a few hundred cancer cells in your body maybe years before a tumor forms. Think about it for a moment. There are people watching this program right now, right now, who have cancer growing in their body, maybe a few hundred cancer cells in a colony but they won't know it for perhaps 10 years, when you have 10 billion cancer cells growing in your body, forming a tumor. We will have what is called liquid biopsies, DNA chips that allow us to search for the signatures of cancer at colonies of a hundred cells—cancer genes, cancer enzymes, cancer proteins circulating in our blood and bodily fluids. So, in other words, one day your toilet will tell you that you have cancer; do something, you have 10 years to do it. So, in other words, ladies and gentlemen, what I'm trying to tell you is in the future the word tumor will disappear from the English language. We will have years of warning that there is a colony of cancer cells growing in our body. And our descendants will wonder how could we fear cancer so much? Cancer is going to become like the common cold, that is, we live with the common cold, it doesn't really kill anybody except maybe if you have pneumonia. But for the most part, we tolerate the common cold because it's too difficult to cure 300 different varieties of rhinoviruses. In the future, we may see cancer in the same way. There are probably thousands of different varieties of cancer. We can't cure every single one, but we'll live with it. We'll tolerate it. And we will eradicate it in the same way that we live with a common cold.

  • Carl Sagan believed humanity needed to become a multi-planet species as an insurance policy against the next huge catastrophe on Earth. Now, Elon Musk is working to see that mission through, starting with a colony of a million humans on Mars. Where will our species go next?
  • Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku looks decades into the future and makes three bold predictions about human space travel, the potential of 'brain net', and our coming victory over cancer.
  • "[I]n the future, the word 'tumor' will disappear from the English language," says Kaku. "We will have years of warning that there is a colony of cancer cells growing in our body. And our descendants will wonder: How could we fear cancer so much?"

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