Physics of the Future – Michio Kaku

Physics-of-the-FutureWowza, Michio Kaku really phoned this one in. He spends a good chunk of the introduction explaining how, unlike other books that aim to predict the technologies of the future, this one derives its ideas from “proper” research, interviews with specialists and yadda yadda yadda. We should, apparently, pay special heed to this book because Kaku isn’t some nonsense-spewing charlatan, but an actual scientist OMGZ. This egoism soon develops into an all-pervasive tonal smugness;  Physics of the Future is stuffed with constant references to Kaku’s achievements, the places he’s been and the things he’s seen, as well as all of the conferences he has “Keynoted” (note: “Keynoted” IS NOT A VERB!)

Unfortunately, and despite the opening’s protestations to the contrary, the book goes on to peddle the same kinds of utopian futurist bullshit we’ve seen over and over again. Kaku demonstrates an almost baffling lack of knowledge of even the most basic social and economic realities, and makes statements about the world so sweepingly general, Western-centric and atheist-normative that I began to wonder if he’s even aware that places and cultures outside of American laboratories actually exist.

On a stylistic level the book is a complete train wreck; equal parts convoluted and condescending, it reads like a waffly first draft of what should evolve into a much tighter, learner work. It’s full-to-bursting with clichés, and it’s mind-numbingly repetitive, with entire paragraphs of itself copy-pasted across several chapters, with only the most meagre attempts at hiding the fact that copy-pasting is the editorial modus operendi. Maybe he had a word count to fill or something I dunno.

One of Kaku’s more irritating stylistic ticks is his habit of repeating little refrain-type statements over and over again, but without any sense of self-awareness or irony, as if whenever he makes such a statement he’s doing so for the first time. The most grating of these is his assertion that advances in modern technology will grant us the powers of the “Gods of mythology”, “the ancients of mythology” and the “Greek Gods of mythology”. This last one is especially irksome, firstly because it’s tautological as all hell, and secondly because it doesn’t really mean anything. It seems to me that if you mention the powers of the Greek Gods, that you’re referencing a very specific set of established fantastics. I’m pretty sure Michio Kaku doesn’t mean that future technology will enable us to shapeshift into bulls so that we can rape beautiful maidens. But who knows? I’m sure NASA has all kinds of weird non-disclosed research projects going on.

Europe and the Bull

The technologies he describes are all fairly run-of-the-mill futurist things, familiar to anyone with even the most cursory interest in popular science: quantum computing, life extension, 3D printing that enables mass customisation of consumer goods etc. Despite its title, the book has almost nothing at all to do with physics other than in the very cosmically broad sense that everything is, technically, to do with physics. The thing is, I have no doubt that many of Kaku’s technology-based predictions will in fact come about. What I disagree with are his declarations that relatively near-future tech (the next 20-30 years or so) will unite all of humanity into a kind of affluent global super community. Seriously: internet contact lenses and wall-to-wall holographic projectors and asteroid mines aren’t going to wash away political and religious strife in the Middle East or mass starvation in African countries crippled by debt to their former colonial occupiers. As for genetic manipulations, life extension and nano-surgery: we all know who’re going to be the primary beneficiaries of that sort of tech: rich, rich white people, that’s who.

Physics of the Future doesn’t address the most striking social reality of technological advancement: that such things are never evenly distributed. Rather than producing a utopian global community on its way to becoming a type 1 civilization, the obvious concern is that super technologies like life extension, nano-surgical cancer cures and designer supermodel babies will create societal divisions between rich and poor of an unprecedented kind. I don’t want to fall into the trap of going too much in the opposite direction to Kaku, but it’s strikingly easy to imagine the end result of all this not as an utopian ideal, but a dystopian nightmare of split humanity, where the rich have access to near immortalising medical advances, and the poor remain as wretched and hopeless as ever. It’s a common supposition of the Left that we have to finally admit the revolution isn’t coming, but putting some of this future tech stuff into a sociological context makes me wonder if a major catalyst for mass action against social divisions isn’t just around the corner. At the very least it would have been nice if Kaku had addressed these commonplace concerns.

In short, Physics of the Future just isn’t very good. It’s a vision of the near future characterised by hysterical technocratic optimism on the one hand, and dull science fictional blah on the other. Occasionally Michio Kaku will hint at socio, political or psychological problematics (“holodeck”-addiction stuff), but such things are largely pushed into the margins of the work, and are swiftly dismissed. The book should have been so much more. Instead it’s just… drivel.


3 responses to “Physics of the Future – Michio Kaku

  1. It amazes me with people like Kaku how they think we can be on the verge of the singularity when so much of the planet still lacks clean running water and reliable electricity.

    And yes, genetic manipulations, life extension and nanosurgery will hit the streets of Mogadishu a little while after those of Kensington and Chelsea.

    This review doesn’t surprise me. Kaku’s a lightweight thinker who confuses technological possibility with social inevitability. It doesn’t follow, as you rightly say.

    Anyway, nice review, shame it wasn’t a better work. Kurzweill I think is more interesting, he could for example answer the Mogadishu question (I suspect he’d say that once our AIs start bootstrapping themselves the interregnum between benefits for the haves and benefits for all could be very short indeed, though I still wouldn’t be surprised if that’s right if it were rather a bloody period even so).

    • Everything I read by and about Kurzweill makes me think he’s a total crackpot. Doesn’t he now live in a Google office complex or something? And does he still think that if he can hang on to the age of 100, then he’ll be just in time for medical advances to enable him to live forever? Weird. I wonder if the human brain can cope with being immortal. Can memories last hundreds of years? Can the psyche cope with that many memories?

      Many thanks for reading and for your comment. I occasionally dip into these popular science books by T.V. physicists, and they’re almost universally disappointing. This has to be the worst I’ve ever read though. Just on a stylistic level, it’s one of the most horrible books I’ve ever read.

      Won’t be picking up another of his, I don’t think…

      • He does think that. He may be right, though I suspect even if he is he’s already too old to benefit and I also suspect they underestimate some of the challenges. I’d recommend Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire as a good fiction treatment of that concept.

        Who knows how the brain would cope? Kurzweill would expect it to get augmented by computers in due course anyway, so the question would be moot. After a millennia whatever being might be there would bear a chain of continuity to the person alive today, but otherwise would be as different from them I imagine as Kurzweill now is from himself at six months’ old.

        Kurzweill may be a crackpot, but he has a good track record for prediction, Kaku is just another neocon triumphalist when push comes to shove.

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