May 31, 2013


Close your eyes and imagine the future — what do you see? The Jetsons’ flying car? Captain Kirk and the team from Star Trek? Maybe living side by side with robots, a la Futurama?

Pop culture has infused us with expectations for the future, but few of us truly know what to expect. Enter Michio Kaku. When Kaku researched his book, “The Physics of the Future,” he found that some of the futuristic expectations you have for the future might not be so far out after all.

Science museum

How close is this science fiction museum to becoming reality? Credit Razvan / Flickr Creative Commons

SciFi or Reality?

Take teleportation, for example. You’ve seen objects dissolve and reappear in different places in SciFi movies. But did you know that scientists are able to teleport atoms and photons in a lab? Kaku has watched as scientists transported a Cesium atom from one room to another.

“Of course it will take decades before we can teleport molecules, and maybe a century before we can transport the first DNA molecule, but it’s rather shocking knowing how advanced it is,” he says.

And almost nothing you’ve seen on the screen is off limits. Were you jealous when Harry Potter received a cloak of invisibility? Kaku has met a group of scientists from Duke who can make objects invisible under microwave radiation. Currently, they can’t optically disappear an object — but Kaku says that’s coming.

“An invisibility cloak is, of course, not possible yet,” he says. “But it is conceivable within the laws of physics.”

Asimo, a humanoid robot, shakes hands. Credit: Honda

The Future is Now

Not all of the futuristic concepts Kaku researches are so remote. Some, like the idea of a self-driving car, are right around the corner. Kaku believes that napping through your commute while your car drives to work could happen within the decade.

“You’ll simply hop into the car, talk to it, and it immediately uses GPS to figure out a route,” he explains. “It uses radar to see if there are any obstructions or children playing in the playground — and boom, there you go. Driving in a driverless car.”

And do you remember the movie "AI: Artificial Intelligence," which featured a lifelike child robot? Kaku has met Asimo — a humanoid robot designed by Honda which he says looks like a little boy.

“[Asimo] walks, runs, jumps, climbs up stairs, and dances,” he says. “In fact, Asimo dances better than me.”

But even Asimo isn’t the futuristic robot that can do your dishes and clean your room — Kaku says that the problem with our current generation of robots is that they cannot recognize patterns or understand the properties of objects.

“Asimo does not know that water is wet, or that mothers are older than their children,” he explains.  

Google Glass

Will technological advances like Google Glass make the real world seem less exciting? / Credit sndrv / Flickr Creative Commons

The Dark Side

Of course, there will be some downsides to the advances of the future. Kaku predicts that contact lenses connected to the Internet are just a handful of years away — in fact, Google Glass might be their first iteration. It might be helpful to know, in real time, whether your blind date is lying to you about their career or living situation. But Kaku also predicts some people will become lost in an alternate reality.

“There will be, unfortunately, some people who are marginally employed or unemployed who will prefer to live in the virtual reality,” he says. “That’s something that we have to watch out for.”

Kaku also thinks that advances in technology will eliminate a group of jobs — jobs that involve what he calls “the middle:” taking inventory, pushing paper or coordinating between two groups. But despite the loss, he’s confident we will always rely on humans for expertise.

“Even though you don’t have to talk to a stockbroker about buying stocks anymore, because you do that online, why do you talk to a stockbroker at all?” He asks. “To get something that robots cannot provide — and that is common sense. You want to talk to a human that understands the stock market historically, understands all the latest gossip, has experience, talent, innovation. That’s what you pay for now.”

And though he might be a great dancer, Asimo just isn’t there yet.

Michio Kaku, physics, Sci and Tech

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