Book Review: The Physics of the Future

During the last year, I’ve been attracted to books describing paradigm shifts enabled by today’s new technology, particularly big data and IT—hence my interest in books from visionaries, which might be useful in spotting changes and opportunities. I know that many of our subscribers are more interested in the future than in laboratory history. Eric Topol describes development of personalized medicine particularly enabled by smart phones.1 In the workplace, Segal et al. explore how new firms, based upon innovation, must adopt new workflow and management style to foster, support, and profit from creative talent.2 Innovation commands a high premium today, but not all organizations should be or can be innovators. In many important businesses, such as big pharma, innovation is sought in the disease and drug discovery stage, but the emphasis inexorably changes to consistency and predictability as the lead progresses to drug candidate and is licensed for sale.

I first noticed Prof. Michio Kaku (Professor of Theoretical Physics, City University of New York) as he reported on the Fukushima disaster in Japan. This was and is still is a problem in which physics plays the dominant role. The impact on life is large, with avoidance and distance being the safest short-term paradigm.

While looking for a beach book for a trip to Maui, I saw his book, The Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100.3 Prof. Kaku’s style is to address various topics starting with an historical narrative of the development, a short analysis of the state-of-the-art, followed by near- and far-term prognostications. Specific topics include “The future of the computer,” “The future of artificial intelligence,” “The future of medicine,” “The future of space travel,” and “Nanotechnology.”

I found his narratives on historical development interesting, since much of it has happened in my lifetime. He helped me fill in the gaps that developed, as I had to make my own priority set where advances in HPLC grabbed first place. The descriptions of the state-of-the-art seemed a bit dated, as they should be with a book with a copyright date in 2011. I was less impressed with the near-term prognostications. They seemed to be natural extension of the current state-of-the-art. I wondered about his time lines, since some fields move much more quickly than others.

When I reached the last three chapters (“The future of wealth,” “The future of humanity,” “A day in the life in 2100”) I recognized that my problem with the first chapters of Prof. Kaku’s book is that his writing style is simplifed for comprehension by the lay public. But, on these three topics I’m about as “lay” as they come. And then, I found his style engaging.

He led off with a quote from Lester Thurow, “Technology and Ideology are shaking the foundations of 21st century capitalism. Technology is making skills and knowledge the only sources of sustainable strategic advantage.” Ideology has been the nemesis. China declined after the Ming Dynasty. The Ottoman Empire declined when Muslim scholars rejected knowledge outside the Qur’an. Even today, religious conservatives and neo-Luddites seek to reject technology and replace it with fundamentalist theology.

Prof. Kaku goes on to analyze economic bubbles and crashes. Technology enables rapid income growth—railroads, automobiles, and, more recently, high tech (computer, lasers, electronics and information technology). It seems that the bubble is inflating again as I write. Will this bubble be as bad as 2008? Who knows? However, Kaku points out that the upside to bubble bursts is that the technology survives in a more sustainable manner and society benefits over the long term.

For the fortunate few, Kaku predicts a stimulating experience where information technology will make life easier to be creative. He feels that human creativity will continue to be the key differentiator between machines and humans. Perhaps, but today’s semantic information technology does enable inference. I recognize that my own career has been based upon digesting a lot of facts, which I then use to infer a hypothesis, which I test or often use.

I do not want to steal his conclusion, but he quotes Kant, “Science is organized knowledge, wisdom is an organized life.” His vision is that science can deliver. But, he also sees danger, particularly from unintended consequences. He concludes with a quote from M. Gandhi, “The roots of violence are: Wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, Commerce without morality and Science without humanity.”

I congratulate Prof. Kaku for authoring a thought-provoking view into our future. I’ll enjoy looking for his milestones as we pass them.

References

  1. Topol, E. The Creative Destruction of Medicine; Basic Books, 2013; ISBN 978-0- 465-06183-9. 
  2. Segal, L.; Goldstein, A. et al. The Decoded Company; Penguin, 2014; ISBN 978-1- 59184-714-4. 
  3. Kaku, M. The Physics of the Future; Anchor Books, 2011; ISBN 978-0-307-47333- 2.

Robert L. Stevenson is Editor, American Laboratory/Labcompare; e-mail: rlsteven@yahoo.com

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