10 September 2011


Michio Kaku. Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100. Allen Lane, 2011.

Steve Fuller. Humanity 2.0: What It Matters to be Human Past, Present and Future. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Human beings have perhaps always wondered about the future and what the world might be like after their own lives. Perhaps for long periods no one assumed that the future would be any different than the past, but at least in the West over the last 200-300 years there has been an assumption of a future very different from the present. This different future has been the subject of countless dreams and nightmares.
Michio Kaku is definitely on the dreamer end of this spectrum, and his book is a rather breathless account of possible scientific developments, though like many such it involves largely a projection into the future of current trends. Kaku correctly points out that predictions made at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century were far too conservative, what he avoids saying is that predictions made in the mid 20th century have often turned out to be over optimistic, most predicting lunar bases and Martian exploration long before 2000, to say nothing of the paper clothes, domed cities, undersea hotels, hypersonic aircraft allowing us to take day trips to Sydney and an afternoons shopping in New York, the paperless office, the 25 hour working week and more leisure and prosperity than we could know what do with. No-one predicted that children would still be taught in 19th century schools, that the old fashioned petrol driven car would still be ubiquitous, running on broken down potholed roads.

Kaku has toured around America with various TV documentary teams in tow and not surprisingly fund-hungry researcher after fund-hungry researcher has given glowing, hyped up accounts of their research. Some, mainly in the medical field, may well come to pass, even sooner that Kaku suggests, but others will encounter major hurdles.

As an example, take the idea of chips spread all over your body searching out and warning of disease, perhaps correcting it by means of nanobots. Initially that sounds great, doesn't it, but then think whether you would want employers, the state, insurance companies, scandal searching newspapers or even your partner, to have access to this data. Even if (and it is a big if) it were technically possible to produce a hacker-proof system, who can doubt that it would become a de-facto condition of employment to 'voluntarily' allow your employer access to your computer health check, and, as nasty things always happen from time to time, the state will find some pretext to persuade people to give them the power to access this data for "our own good".

Some of the other predictions here are old favourites, such as the intelligent house, the robot domestics and the intelligent computers. Kaku doesn't quite seem to understand by the way what is meant by a conscious computer, it isn't a computer which can solve very complex facial recognition problems, it is a computer which can experience things, can actually see the sunlight, feel the rain, experience something like hunger or pain if its electricity supply goes low. As no-one has any clear idea as to how conciousness arises in living organisms this is a large task indeed.

Kaku dreams of a global society living in peace and imagines that the Internet and the globalised economy might provide this, the only trouble is that in the 1850s similar claims were made for the telegraph and in the 1900s for the aircraft. History tells what the role of the latter has been as peace maker.

Kaku is correct in seeing that there is the development of a global culture of westernised young people, the International Cosmopolitan Bourgeoisie, who, whether they are in Cairo, Accra, Mumbai, Sydney or Rio de Janeiro have far more in common with each other than the 'peasants' just 10 km down the road. However it is this division between the ICB and the traditionalist peasants which is likely to fuel some of the major conflicts of the century. Furthermore as more and more people have access to global communications and entertainment systems more and more have their what they cannot afford thrust into their face. They will want it all and want it now, and when they can't get it the world will explode.

This is not an entirely bleak prospect, for necessity is the mother of invention, and the need to deal with continuous crisis will lead to new inventions, new forms of society and new discoveries. By 2100 Kaku's predictions will look as quaint as those made a hundred years ago (you really mean that in 2011 they believed that!).

Some of these futuristic dreams, particularly those surrounding human computer interaction or biological enhancement seem like nightmares to others, challenging the very concept of humanity. Sociologist Steve Fuller is one of those, and in his book he seeks to define a social science for the twenty first century. However his prescription, that both the social and physical sciences return to their theistic roots, part of which involves his promotion of intelligent design, is unlikely to win many sympathisers. Indeed so extraordinary does this project seem to many commentators that it has usually been assumed that his defence of Intelligent Design in the Dover school trial was some sort of postmodernist provocation.

Reading this book makes me doubt this, he is really serious about his aim to denaturalise science. In this he completely fails to understand the vital importance of operational scientific naturalism which allows scientists, whatever their own personal religious or philosophical views, to pursue common projects. He quotes the example of Joseph Priestley who was a Unitarian clergyman, but when performing his experiments on gases and electricity Priestley only invoked natural principles not angels, demons or boggarts, indeed in all secular matters he was a radical materialist. I also suspect that a mixture of Catholicism and Unitarianism is unlikely to attract the approval of many theologians in either camp. - Peter Rogerson.

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