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An eminent theoretical physicist who believes in the existence of 11 dimensions, co-founder of the string field theory that may resolve Einstein’s unfinished work on ‘theory of everything’, Dr Michio Kaku is also a well-known futurologist. He meets Mohana Prabhakar for an exclusive interview on the future of our civilisation

The man

Michio Kaku (born January 24, 1947 in the United States) received a B.S. (summa cum laude) from Harvard University in 1968 where he came first in his physics class. He went on to the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley and received a PhD in 1972. In 1973, he held a lectureship at Princeton University.

In addition to holding the Henry Semat Chair and Professorship in theoretical physics at City College of New York, he has taught there for more than 25 years. He has been a visiting professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, as well as at New York University.

Dr. Kaku is the author of several scholarly, PhD level textbooks and has had more than 70 articles published in physics journals covering topics such as superstring theory, supergravity, supersymmetry, and hadronic physics.

When chips cost a penny

The day is near when microchips will be present in millions all around us - in walls, the furniture and may be, even in us

How much do you think a chip will cost in 2020? It’s one of those questions that you don’t want to hazard a guess about, and definitely not when you are sitting with a futurologist and one of the world’s best-known theoretical physicists. Dr Michio Kaku, who was in Oman for a brief visit on invitation from HSBC prov-ides the answer himself. “A penny. A chip will cost a penny in 2020 and computers will become scrap.”

In 2020, your glasses will have full Internet capability: you can teleconference from the beach with your boss and you can walk into a party without a worry because your glasses will recognise faces and download their entire biography for you. “If you are looking for a job, you will know exactly who to suck up to because you will know who the important people are at any given meeting. How do we know this? We are building these right now – we have prototypes.”

The day is near when microchips will be present in millions all around us. When roads are intelligent and your mirror talks back to you. It’s a world that sounds too strange to be true, yet physicists who were the architects of the 20th century firmly believe they are now on the path to creating the 21st century. “We created the laser, the PC, X-rays, television, iPods, radar – everything you can think of. Now we are laying out for you what to expect in the years to come.”

The downward spiral
Take Moore’s Law that says computing power doubles every 18 months. “This cannot go on forever and will collapse by 2020. This means we have a good 14-year run ahead of us when every Christmas, our toys will be almost twice as powerful as the previous year.” But after that, the word computer may disappear from the English language completely and become a part of the fabric of everyday life like electricity. “Electricity is everywhere and nowhere. You do not see it anywhere anymore, you assume it’s in the walls, it’s in a light switch. In the future, you will assume that all pictures move, you will assume that everything is alive and our grandchildren will be amazed that we lived in a world where you could not talk to things and things did not talk back to you.”

There could be a major depression in 2020 because silicon would have lost all its power. “The Pentium chip today has a layer of 20 atoms across – in 2020, it will be five atoms across and at that point, electrons will begin to leak out. We may see a vast dumping of computers. The whole economy is based on people buying the next model because it can do more. This can’t go on forever. At the same time people will not buy the same computer with exactly the same features and capabilities as it had the previous year.” Dr Kaku and his ilk are desperately trying to negotiate the post-silicon era: DNA computers, quantum computers, protein computers, optical computers. “About five to seven years ago, Intel finally acknowledged we were right.”

When a chip costs a penny, it will naturally impact all facets of life. “We may no longer have to have an iPod, a cellphone or all these different gadgets and appliances when things become animate. There will be conversions, things are going to be wireless and intelligent. To a large degree, the fairytales of the past will be very much our future.”

Life in 2020
2020 is when you could walk up to your mirror on the wall when you are lonely on a weekend and ask ‘mirror mirror on the wall…who’s available tonight?’ The magic mirror of Snow White’s wicked stepmother will be in every house. “Your magic mirror will access the database of everybody who is also in front of their mirror on a Friday night, hoping for company and you will see the printout. The computer knows your taste, screens out people ahead of time and you only get the top ones on the list.” 2020 is also when you can go back to your magic mirror and say you want to watch Casablanca. “Mirror mirror on the wall…we want to see Casablanca now, but remove Humphrey Bogart’s face and put my face instead and replace Ingrid Bergman’s face with my date’s.”

The future, in other words, will be like a Walt Disney movie. Pinnochio will be the future of the toy industry. “We will put chips in all toys to make them animate. Children will wonder how anyone could have played with an inanimate toy. The way to interact with the environment will be Pocahontas’ way. “We will talk to the wind and the wind will talk back to us.”

Cars and roads will be very different. “We would put billions of chips on the road to make it intelligent: this means when you drive a car, the road knows where all the other cars are, where the bottlenecks and accidents are and you can communicate with the road. We are already trying this outside San Diego with the road taking control of the car driving on it.”

Cars that drive themselves are also coming, says Dr Kaku. This is still experimental, but last year when a car drove itself through the desert it was a major step forward. At DARPA’s (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Grand Challenge 2005, the winners, Stanford University’s Racing Team, successfully competed with their driverless vehicle Stanley, which traversed 132 miles through the Mojave Desert. “But that does not mean driving it through New York will be possible. Street driving is difficult for intelligent cars, as there are too many obstructions and complications. Cars will be able to drive themselves on open roads, expressways, major highways and freeways: you just hit a button and relax.”

Once the car takes over, adds Dr Kaku, the rate of car accidents will be very low. “There will be a radar on the fender that will sight other cars on the road, plus the road itself will look out for other cars on the road and may even take cont-rol over the car.”

The doctor, the crystal gazer
Year 2020: You are at the doctor for a routine check. He takes a bit of your saliva for analysis and feeds it into a red box, which is a gene analyser. The box chugs away and spits out information listing every single gene in your body, including about six genes that are lethal and present in everybody (these are recessive and do not necessarily show up). The doctor looks at it and tells you when you can expect to find cancer, when you can get a heart disease, and when diabetes will set in.

2020’s smart toilet will analyse your bodily fluids each time you go to the bathroom and warn you if you have too much sugar, salt or fat in your body. It could also pick up proteins signalling an onset of breast cancer for exa-mple, and tell you that you will have breast cancer in five years.

“Today, if you feel something it’s usually too late. It is fiction that we can do something to help you. If you feel something, you have about 100bn cancer cells growing for five to ten years. So by the time you know about it, it is huge. In the future when you go to the bathroom, the toilet would pick up proteins emitted from as little as 100 cancer cells. The word tumour will probably disappear from the English language like the word, computer.”

As of today, it is possible to grow the heart, valves, skin, cartilage and bones. “I can take a piece of your skin and grow about six acres of it. The bladder was just grown about six months ago and this was our biggest milestone. The next one is probably the liver. Eventually, in about 20 years we will grow most organs of the body.”

The science of youth
Peter Pan is the future of the health industry. Like Peter Pan, people don’t want to grow up and eternal youth is the ultimate quest.

So will everyone be always young in 2020? “The cosmetics industry is based on a fraud.

In the US, the cosmetic industry is able to say whatever they want. It is unregulated because cosmetics do not penetrate the skin, therefore it is not considered medicine and cannot be regulated by the government. But because cosmetics do not penetrate the skin, they are also useless. The only active ingredient in any cosmetic is moisturiser.”

Ageing is nothing more than information loss: it is caused when cells divide, there is too much wear and tear, too much sunshine, chemical exposure and so on. Information is what keeps the cell vigorous and going.

“We have repair mechanisms, but not all of them work that well as we get older. What you want to do is isolate the genes that are related to ageing and you want to beef up their repair mechanisms. We have found that there are about 60 genes that are very intimately related to the ageing process. As of now, we know their names, but in the future we will figure out how they work.”

At the present time there is one process that will actually double the life expectancy of most organisms and that is calorie restriction, says Dr Kaku. “This works every single time. A bee, spider, cat or dog – subject them to calorie restriction and I will double their life expectancy. We do not know why it works but we presume it has something to do with a few genes like SIR2 which we think governs the oxidation process.”

The more calories you consume, the greater the oxidation and the more you ‘rust’. “The point is we have isolated many of the genes that seem to govern the ageing process, we do not know quite how they work; we have something that does work, but we do not know how the genes control it.”

Will robots take our job in 2020?

Today’s most advanced robot has just about the intelligence of a cockroach - actually a cockroach can do more

One of the commonest issues plaguing the dashing heroes of science fiction is the humanoid robot that will take man’s place. And that machines will become so intelligent that they will threaten our survival, a la Matrix. While advancements in physics and overall sciences have made a great deal many apparently impossible tasks possible as mentioned earlier, this is one area where Dr Kaku issues a firm denial.

“Robots are not going to replace humans in 2020 – you will be shocked to know how pri-mitive artificial intelligence is.” Take ASIMO, for example – Honda’s engineers worked for over 17 years on this robot, supposedly the most advanced one today. “ASIMO is very nice and friendly. ASIMO also has the intelligence of a cockroach and in fact even a cockroach can do things ASIMO cannot!”

Who will have a job in the future is actually closely connected to this issue of artificial intelligence. The two main stumbling blocks in its path are pattern recognition and common sense. “Robots can see much better than us, but they can only see lines and circles. They can see left, right but nothing more. When we enter a room, we can see Jim, paper, cup, carpet, floor. How do we know that? Through pattern recognition.” The second, even more important obstacle is that robots do not understand common sense. “We know that water is wet, if we die we won’t come back tomorrow, strings can pull not push, a mother is older than her daughter and we know this not because there is a line in mathematics proving it or someone taught us. It is common sense, and we know it because we experienced it, but robots haven’t. How many lines of common sense are there? About 800mn and we can programme just a few million lines into a robot.”

“If I tell a robot that ‘Charlie is a duck, ducks can fly and Charlie is dead’, the robot conc-ludes ‘Charlie is a duck, he can fly and he is dead’. But when you tell him that dead ducks do not fly, he will not understand because you did not feed him that information. They do not know anything about the real world.”

Just as humans build on the information they receive, robots don’t because of the top down approach taken in their research. “This means they take a CD with all the programming on it and put it in a machine. The machine says ‘I think I am aware, my name is Charlie and I am aware of everything’. That dream failed and will continue to fail. The brain is not a computer.” While computers are adding machines, the brain is a neural network, a bottom up learning machine. While humans have a 100bn neurons, even the most advanced neural network has a few hundred.

So the jobs of the future will be those that robots cannot do. Policemen, garbage collectors, construction workers will have jobs because they involve non-repetitive pattern recognition.” Highly skilled auto workers will no longer have jobs because each action is repetitive. The Internet will completely take over the jobs of brokers, real estate agents, travel agents, low level bank workers and so on. Hollywood will never have robots in the lead, comedians will survive as robots cannot tell a joke, robots cannot be leaders, scientists or writers – all of which involve creative abilities. In contrast to popular belief that just the Bill Gateses and hi-tech workers will flourish in the future, Dr Kaku believes that all jobs that involve leadership, talent and human experience are the jobs that we will have for at least 50 years.

Is there anyone out there

Going back to the future, Dr Kaku now looks at life beyond 2020. “I believe we are now in the greatest transition phase in our history – the transition between 0 and 1.”
It was the Russian astrophysicist Nicolai Kardashev who proposed the first scheme for classifying advanced technological civilisations in 1964. This first realistic attempt to analyse extra-terrestrial civilisations was based on the total energy output which could be quantified and used as a guide to explore the dynamics of advanced civilisations.

There are three types of civilisations in outer space: Type 1, Type 2 and Type 3. Type 1 is our future: it is a planetary civilisation where we harness the energy output of the entire planet giving us the power to control and modify the weather: earthquakes, volcanoes and so on. “Type 2 is like Star Trek – the civilisation cont-rols a few stars.” This generates about 10bn times the energy output of Type 1. “Type 3 is galactic – that is, they control the entire galaxy like the Empire in the Star Wars movies.” And Type 3 generates 10bn times the output of a Type 2 civilisation. And we are Type 0.

“Where do we get our energy from? Not stars or galaxies, but from dead plants, oil and coal.” While some physicists like Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study estimates that we are 200 years away from Type 1, Dr Kaku estimates that we may attain that status in as little as 100 years. “We can already see the beginning of a Type 1 civilisation.” The European Union, NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) – these are the seeds of a Type 1 economy. “The Internet is the beginning of the Type 1 telephone system. English or a subset of it will be the Type 1 language. We already see the beginnings of a planetary culture – Hollywood, rock, rap, TV. We will also have local cultures co-existing with the global culture. That’s the way it already is with most elites. You can go to any country in the world and you will find the elite have a planetary (global) culture, but with a strong local root existing. In the future, everyone will have it.”

The question then arises about what will be the biggest societal change when we move from Type 0 to Type 1. There are two things to consider, says Dr Kaku. “It’s a race against time. On the one hand, we have the forces of destruction. We have some people who don’t like this transition, who instinctively know that this is bad for them. And these are the terrorists. They know that a Type 1 civilisation is modern, tolerant, multi-cultural, multi-religious; they can’t articulate this but that’s what is happening.”

Then we have the forces of chaos in the environmental arena like global warming and pollution. On the opposite side there are the competing forces of integration, tolerance and understanding. It is still not clear which is going to dominate over the other.

“And that may be why they are not out there. I would suspect that many civilisations reach near-Type 1 status but it’s the most dangerous of transitions. We have all the savagery of our past, the passions of the swamp – the fundamentalism, the sectarianism, racism – all this garbage from the past may prevent us from making the jump to Type 1.” It is also possible, he adds, that when we finally go out there we may find planets whose atmospheres will be super-hot, radioactive because they never made the transition. Or they are not out there possibly because they destroyed themselves. “Intelligence can be disruptive.”

Mathematics tells us that the galaxy is teeming with intelligent life, so then where are they? Is SETI (Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence) doing the wrong thing by just listening to radio broadcasts? “We assume that aliens in outer space will use the most primitive possible communication system. We assume they are like us when they are a lot more sophisticated. They may not even be using radio for communication – may be they use lasers.” Dr Kaku goes on to give an exa-mple with the Internet as it currently exists. When we send a message, it is chopped into millions of data packets and then sent across multiple cities to its destination. But if one were to intercept a few data packets from our Internet, it would be garbled.

The SETI project currently only scans a few frequencies of radio and TV emissions of a Type 0 civilisation. Because of the enormous static found in deep space, broadcasting on a single frequency presents a serious source of error. So it is possible and certainly effective to break up the message and spread it over all frequencies and then reassemble the signal only at the other end.

In this way, even if certain frequencies are disrupted by static, enough of the message
will survive to accurately reassemble the message via error correction routines. So if we are listening in on the message on one frequency band, we would only hear gibberish.

The final and simplest reason why we don’t know of the existence of other life forms in deep space is that they may not want us to know. “I have my own personal viewpoint about this. If you see a dinosaur have lunch the first time, it’s quite amazing. But if you see a dinosaur have lunch over and over again you get bored. We are talking about people with technology that is very far advanced: the energy needed to bend time into a pretzel is comparable to a star. Someone with star manipulation technology may just not be interested in us.“

And even if they did visit us, why would they be interested in making contact with us? Dr Kaku’s famous ant example puts this very thought into perspective. “If you see a bunch of ants on an anthill, do you go down to the ants and say ‘take me to your ant-leader’, ‘we bring you trinkets’ and ‘we come in peace’, or do you step on a few of them?”

Hollywood’s take

While the search for life in outer space goes on, Hollywood has used all its collective imagination in depicting extra-terrestrial visitors. Dr Kaku says that the one thing Hollywood gets wrong is that the aliens always resemble humans – could be the eyes, a thumb, a claw. This is possible but not necessary or inevitable. “Imagine the octopus becoming intelligent. So after millions of years you may have octopods that are intelligent but they won’t look anything like us.”

What Hollywood does get right in Dr Kaku’s books is in depicting alien life forms as being aggressive. “We do expect that. Take a look at the animal kingdom. The lions, tigers and foxes (the hunters and the more intelligent animals) have eyes in the front of their face. They have to be able to ambush and to lock on to their prey. The rabbits and deer (the prey) have eyes on the side of their faces because all they need to know is when and how to run. We too have eyes in front of our face and that makes us predators as well. So it is almost certain that aliens in outer space will be aggressive and probably, territorial. But this
certainly does not mean they will want to kidnap us or eat us. Our proteins are different, our DNA is different so it’s unlikely we will be a good meal for them.”

Precognition as depicted in Minority Report is an absolute no-no either now or in the future, says Dr Kaku. You won’t be able to see or even dream the future, let alone download it. “It violates the laws of physics. But the hover cars that you see in the same film – that may happen. We expect to have superconductors that will be powerful enough to levitate cars. Japan, South Korea and Germany are experimenting with magnetic levitating trains. Of course, the cost at this point in time is prohibitive.”

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