I, For One, Am a Little Afraid of Our New Robot Overlords: Michio Kaku, Physics of the Future

In Physics of the Future, Michio Kaku predicts that, by the end of this century, we will be like gods: ageless, immortal, and capable of manipulating objects with our minds. As opposed to predictions by writers and philosophers, a group of individuals that Kaku’s future seems to hold little room for, Physics of the Future is based on Kaku’s interviews and conversations with over 300 scientists and inventors.

He makes the sort of staggering claim that prototypes for all this technology, from contact-lens internet to bathroom tumor-monitoring to dime-sized MRI machines, exist already, and that the next hundred years will entail a succession of increasingly smaller and more powerful marvels. The book is divided into eight sections devoted to the future of the computer, AI, medicine, nanotechnology, energy, space travel, wealthy, humanity, with a concluding section entitled “A Day in the Life in 2100.” Within each chapter, Kaku divides the century into three sections, explaining what we can expect in the first, middle, and third part of the century.

This vision of the future is breathtaking. History, as Kaku reminds us, is almost always on the side of the optimist: pessimism about the limits of power, expense, and ubiquity for almost any sort of technology has, time and time again, proven ludicrously wrong. So, incredible as it is to imagine a world in which every piece of furniture has a supermagnet embedded inside it that, once switched on, could enable effortless living-room rearrangement, not to mention one in which your toothbrush could be continually monitoring your health, I’m quite willing to accept the day will come. I’m even sorry that I probably won’t be around to see the second half of it.

It’s popular in some circles to complain about the infiltration of technology into our daily lives. Yet almost everyone, given the chance, will adopt whatever life-easing form of technology possible, a contradiction you can see in the world of homesteading blogs, which chronicle to greater and lesser degrees a desire to return to some sort of simpler, more “natural” life – and blog about it at the same time. This contradiction arises from what Kaku terms the “high touch”/”high tech” dichotomy: no matter how high tech we get, humans remain primates, desiring and accustomed to face-to-face interactions, a need for green space, and evolved for movement. It seems unlikely that technology by the end of the century will change those evolutionary needs. But it is not impossible that eventually “human” will simply cease to exist.

Kaku does nod at the liberal arts, imagining a world in which humans are freed by nanotechnology from the need to make a living and so can devote themselves to whatever artistic pleasures they’d like. Short sections periodically raise ethical questions about these technologies, and the final chapters explore the possibility of planetary governments and economies. Yet the larger question goes unexplored: what does this technology mean, not for individual humans, but “the human”?

As a student and teacher of the humanities, I have a vested interest in preserving them. And I would suggest, with all respect to the scientists and inventors who make my life easier day by day, that there is something in the humanities worth preserving, beside my career. The lack of it, unfortunately, is manifest throughout Kaku’s book: dull, awkward, and forced, it is the work of scientist who sees value in information, not elegance. (He tips his hand by dismissively comparing science fiction writers to “real scientists,” ignoring the fact that science fiction is where, arguably, all the important ethical questions about science are asked.) It will be exciting to see the changes that the next few decades bring, but this is a very dull book to introduce them.

A few years ago, I had lunch with a friend from high school who had become really involved in the transhumanist movement. He was explaining to me the goals and possibilities envisioned by transhumanists, many of which are the same realities that Kaku’s book lays out: the end of disease and aging; freedom from work; enhancement of beauty, prowess, and intellect; the integration of technology and flesh. I’m no scientist, but I try to keep a rational and skeptical attitude, and so I was more interested by the way I viscerally recoiled from the future he imagined than by its actual parameters. I couldn’t exactly say why, because I love my iPhone, but I knew I didn’t want to live in that future.

Still, why *should* people age or suffer? Why *should* people work, if they don’t have to? What’s wrong with making yourself more beautiful and more intelligent, since we already do it with cosmetic surgery, and wealthy people have always had access to better education? Inequities aside (which I’m not minimizing, just in this context), what are the actual differences between genetic manipulation and $20,000/year kindergarten? Is it just years of social conditioning that makes me want to reject genetic enhancement? Why is it immoral to engineer smart babies but moral to engineer healthy ones?

I don’t have the answers yet, but I’m interested in what people think. Do you all welcome our nanotech overlords, or will you be raising pygmy goats off the grid when they arrive?

By Firstmute

Firstmute has a seventeen-month old, a nearly finished dissertation, and a pile of unfolded laundry. In between dealing with those three things, she likes to read, craft, watch movies, and get outraged.

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