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March 24, 2011

Michio Kaku's Physics of the Future reviewed by Glenn Reynolds

Michio Kaku has a largely optimistic view of the future.

Artificial intelligence will continue to grow, he says, as the size of transistors continues to shrink, until we reach a silicon plateau in 20 years or so, after which the growth of computer power will slow dramatically unless nanotechnology provides a new path.

Artificial intelligences may ultimately wind up much smarter than human beings. We're likely to embrace all sorts of upgrades—like those helpful contact lenses—that will make us much more competitive. Second, Mr. Kaku believes that research into "friendly AI"—computers programmed to want to be nice to humans—will likely bear fruit as well. The result will be more like the benign man/machine collaboration envisioned by Ray Kurzweil and other futurist scientists than the apocalyptic scenes in the "Terminator" movies.



Current problem - loss of science and engineering base

Mr. Kaku recounts a lunchtime conversation with physicist Freeman Dyson at Princeton. Mr. Dyson described growing up in the late days of the British Empire and seeing that most of his smartest classmates were not—as prior generations had been—interested in developing new forms of electrical and chemical plants, but rather in massaging and managing other people's money. The result was a loss of England's science and engineering base.

Now, Mr. Dyson said, he was seeing the phenomenon for the second time in his life, in America. Mr. Kaku, summarizing the scientist's message: "The brightest minds at Princeton were no longer tackling the difficult problems in physics and mathematics but were being drawn into careers like investment banking. Again, he thought, this might be a sign of decay, when the leaders of a society can no longer support the inventions and technology that made their society great."

The future belongs to those who show up. Mr. Kaku's description of that future is an appealing one. But will we show up?

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