Published: November 29, 2011
Imagine being able to access the Internet through the contact lenses on your eyeballs. Blink, and you'd be online. Meet someone, and you'd have the ability to immediately search their identity. And if your friend happens to be speaking a different language, an instantaneous translation could appear directly in front of you.
That might sound farfetched, but it's something that might very well exist in 30 years or less, says theoretical physicist Michio Kaku.
"The first people to buy these contact lenses will be college students studying for final exams," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "They'll see the exam answers right in their contact lenses. ... In a cocktail party, you will know exactly who to suck up to, because you'll have a complete read out of who they are. President Barack Obama will buy these contact lenses, so he'll never need a teleprompter again. ... These already exist in some form [in the military]. You place [a lens] on your helmet, you flip it down, and immediately you see the Internet of the battlefield ... all of it, right on your eyeball."
But Internet-ready contact lenses aren't the only futuristic item we're likely to see. Kaku describes some of the inventions that may appear throughout the coming century — based on developments currently taking place in nanotechnology, astronautics, medicine and material science — in his book Physics of the Future. Kaku details some of these inventions, including disposable computers, space elevators and driverless cars — which will likely be ready in the next decade and will completely eliminate the need for high school driver's ed classes.
"In the future, you'll simply jump into your car, turn on the Internet, turn on a movie and sit back and relax and turn on the automatic pilot, and the car will drive itself," he says. "Unlike a human driver, it doesn't get drunk, it doesn't get distracted and certainly does not have road rage."
The cars will be equipped with radar in the fenders that will communicate with road signs and sensors along highways.
"When the car comes to an intersection, the GPS system will alert the computer [inside the car] that there is an intersection coming up," he says. "[The GPS system] will look onto the [roadside] sensor and then slow down."
Kaku also explains how, in the future, our brains might be able to interface with artificial intelligence. He describes one study in which computer chips were placed into the brains of paralyzed stroke patients at Brown University. The patients learned that by thinking certain thoughts, they could manipulate a cursor on a computer screen.
"It takes awhile — it takes a few hours — but after a while, you realize that certain thoughts will move the cursor in certain directions," he says. "After a while ... [the patients] were able to read email, write email, surf the Internet, play video games, guide wheelchairs — anything you can do on a computer, they can do as well, except they're trapped inside a paralyzed body."
Similar technology could be used in the future to control robots that can go places where humans can't, says Kaku.
"It's very dangerous to put astronauts on a moon base where there's radiation, solar flares and micro meteorites," he says. "It'd be much better to put robots on the moon and have them mentally connected to astronauts on the Earth. So you'd go inside a pod, you mentally make certain thoughts, which then [could] control the robots on the moon."
Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics with the City College of New York, also talks about his childhood, his work with Edward Teller, a member of the Manhattan Project, and his work on the development of string field theory. He is the author of several books, including Physics of the Impossible, Parallel Worlds and Beyond Einstein. He has also hosted scientific documentaries for the Discovery Channel, the BBC and the Science Channel.
On Moore's Law and the future
"I'm a physicist, and we have something called Moore's Law, which says computer power doubles every 18 months. So every Christmas, we more or less assume that our toys and appliances are more or less twice as powerful as the previous Christmas. For example, your cellphone has more computer power than all of NASA when they put two men on the moon in 1969. And a birthday card that sings 'Happy Birthday' to you — that birthday card has a chip in it with more computer power than all the Allied Forces of 1945. Hitler, Stalin, Churchill would have killed to get that chip that you simply throw away in the garbage. Because of Moore's Law, we physicists can project 10, 15 years into the future with near mathematical precision."
On recorded memories
"Two months ago, history was made when [scientists] were able to put a memory directly into a mouse. This is the first time in history it has been done — it's something right out of science fiction. What they did was, they looked at the hippocampus of a mouse, and tape-recorded impulses as it learned a task. That's the gateway for memory: All memories first go through the hippocampus. They tape-recorded the impulses. Then they gave it a chemical which made the mouse forget the task. Then they took this tape-recording, shot it back into the mouse, and the mouse immediately knew how to do the task.
"This is the first time it has been demonstrated that you can actually tape-record a memory and then reinsert the memory into a mouse and have the mouse perform the task that it previously forgot. The implications of this are enormous. ... It means that memories, in principle, might be tape-recorded and then shot right back into your brain or somebody else's brain."
On building a particle accelerator in his garage in high school
"When I was 16 years old, I assembled a 2.3 million electron volt beta particle accelerator. I went to Westinghouse, I got 400 pounds of translator steel, 22 miles of copper wire, and I assembled a 6-kilowatt, 2.3 million electron accelerator in the garage. When it was finished, I would plug it in, there was this huge crackling sound as I consumed 6 kilowatts of power, I blew out every circuit breaker in the house. All the lights were plunged in darkness. And my poor mom would come home every night, see the lights flicker and die, and say to herself, 'Why couldn't I have a son who plays baseball?' " [Copyright 2013 NPR]
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In the future, computers may be able to interface with your mind, cars may drive themselves, scientists may be able to grow new kidneys and other organs.
My guest Michio Kaku has written a new book about scientific innovations in the works, based on rapid advances in computers, biotechnology and artificial intelligence. It's called "Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100." Kaku is a quantum physicist who describes his work as grappling with the equations that govern the subatomic particles at which the universe is created. He co-founded string field theory. He's a professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York. One of his previous books, "Physics of the Impossible,: was the basis of a Science Channel TV show "Sci-fi Science: Physics of the Impossible."
Michio Kaku, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's look at some of the inventions you think might be ready for use within the next 30 years. Why don't we start with Internet contact lenses.
MICHIO KAKU: That's right. The rate at which we are miniaturizing the Internet, it'll be inside our contact lens. So you blink and you go online. If you talk to somebody you'll see their biography appear right next to their name. And if they speak Chinese to you, you'll see instantaneous translation of Chinese into English. Now, of course, the first people to buy these contact lenses will be college students studying for final examinations. They will simply blink and see all the exam questions right in their contact lens.
KAKU: The next people to buy these things would be people looking for job.
GROSS: Wait, wait, wait. Won't they see all the answers too...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: ...if these contact lenses are so great?
KAKU: Yes. I'm a professor and it means that we have to change the way we grill our students. No longer will long strips of memorization, but concepts and principles have to be stressed. And people who are looking for a job will also buy these contact lens. In a cocktail party, you will know exactly who to suck up to at any cocktail party. You'll have a complete read-out of who they are. And actors and actresses - they'll never flub a line. They'll simply see all their lines right inside their contacts lens. Now, these things already exist in some form. I work for Discovery Channel, the science channel sometimes, hosting the documentaries, and I took a film crew down to Fort Benning, Georgia to look at the military's version of these Internet lenses. You place it on your helmet - it's a tiny lens - you flip it down, and immediately you see the Internet of the battlefield. Enemy forces, friendly forces, artillery, armor, aircraft, all of it right inside your eyeball.
GROSS: How can you extrapolate everything that you did from what the military is using now? You know, that actors will use it to...
KAKU: Well, I'm not...
GROSS: ...to act and will go to a cocktail party and see everybody's biography when we meet them.
KAKU: Well, I'm a physicist, and we have something called Moore's Law, which says a computer power doubles every 18 months. So every Christmas, we more or less assume that our toys and appliances are more or less twice as powerful as the previous Christmas. For example, your cellphone has more computer power than all of NASA when they put two men on the moon in 1969. And a birthday card that sings Happy Birthday to you - that birthday card has a chip in it with more computer power than all the Allied Forces of 1945. Hitler, Stalin, Churchill would have killed to get that chip that you simply throw away in the garbage. Because of Moore's Law, we physicists can project 10, 15 years into the future with near mathematical precision.
And prototypes have already been made of Internet glasses, Internet lenses, and also even a prototype of an Internet contact lens. And so, eventually, everyone will have it and we will live in what is called augmented reality. And so, this will be part of life. Everything we see around us will be annotated, footnoted and we'll love it.
GROSS: You sure of that?
KAKU: I'm sure, because how many times have we bumped into somebody and we say, who is this person? Jim, John, Jay, I know this person. In the future, you will know exactly who you are talking to and if you see an object you don't understand you'll immediately understand what that object is, and this is going to have a revolutionary effect.
GROSS: One of the things you write about is how our minds, our brains might in the future be able to interface with artificial intelligence. I guess I have no idea how that would work.
KAKU: Well, on several levels. Already at Brown University they've taken stroke victims and put a chip in their brains and connected the chip to a laptop computer. And these individuals who are paralyzed can now read e-mail, write e-mail, surf the Web, play video games, guide wheelchairs. Anything you can do on a computer they can do as well, except they're trapped inside a paralyzed body. And we can also use this to control robotic arms.
GROSS: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Let's back up.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: So they're having a thought like move this chair or type this letter. How does that thought get translated into the computer?
KAKU: What they do is they simply attach a chip into the brain and then you are allowed to look on a computer screen where the cursor is located. Then it's like riding a bicycle. Painfully you have to learn that certain thoughts control the movement of the cursor - moving it left, right, up and down. It takes awhile - it takes a few hours. But after a while by looking at the cursor, you realize that certain thoughts will move the cursor in certain directions. And after a while, you can simply move the cursor in any way to do, for example, crossword puzzles or to play video games. But it does take a while because the architecture of the brain is still not mapped out yet. That'll take many more decades before we have a roadmap neuron for neuron, and can attach these things directly.
GROSS: What you are describing sounds like a really painstaking process. Like if you wanted...
KAKU: It takes a few hours, but after that somebody who is totally paralyzed, cannot communicate with their loved ones, cannot do anything except vegetate, all of a sudden can control objects around them, write e-mail, surf the Web, anything you can do on the Internet, they can also do. And previously they were trapped. And in animals, for example, we've even taken it one step further. Monkeys have been connected at Duke University to robotic arms, so they control robotic arms and can even grab bananas and eat bananas by controlling a mechanical arm that is connected to their brain.
Now in Japan, they've actually connected a robot called ASIMO - one of the world's most advanced robots in the world - to a worker who puts on a helmet and the worker then can actually control the upper body motions of ASIMO. And this could also be the future of the space program. It's very dangerous to put astronauts in the moon base where there's radiation, solar flares, micrometeorites. It'd be much better to put robots on the moon and have them mentally connected to astronauts on the Earth.
GROSS: So let me ask you, if you take the kind of focused mind that you're talking about and you take away all the technology and think about what the mind can do, does that make a powerful argument for meditation?
KAKU: Well, the mind is powerful if it focuses and reduces distractions and you can increase learning capabilities. But you will have to enhance it using radio and using computers, especially if you get into very complicated things like memory. However, two months ago, history was made with a mouse brain. They actually were able to input memory directly into a mouse. This is the first time in history it's been done. It's something right out of science fiction. What they did was they looked at the hippocampus of a mouse and tape-recorded impulses as it learned a task. That's the gateway for memory: All memories first go through the hippocampus. They tape-recorded the impulses. Then they gave it a chemical which made the mouse forget the task. Then they took this tape-recording - this set of impulses - shot it back into the mouse, and the mouse immediately knew how to do the task. So this is the first time it's been demonstrated that you can actually tape-record a memory and then reinsert the memory into a mouse and have the mouse perform the task that it previously forgot.
Now the implications of this are enormous, because of all memories goes through this hippocampus, this is also how our brain functions and it means that memories in principle - it hasn't been done, of course, but memories in principle might be tape-recorded and then shot right back into your brain or somebody else's brain. So that somebody, for example, can learn calculus without having to study too hard.
GROSS: Well, how do you recorded memory? What is - how do you measure a memory? Yeah.
KAKU: What they've done is since we do not really understand the architecture of the brain, reverse engineering is still science fiction. What they've done is they've simply taken the impulses, the impulses that go through this part of the brain which is the gateway, the gateway to memories. So all new memories have to go through this gateway and you can simply tape-record impulses as it goes through the gateway and then later reinsert the tape-recorded message. And in the coming decades, as we get better and better at it, we may actually be able to record whole sequences of memories, like vacations, for example.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michio Kaku. He's a theoretical physicist, a co-founder of string field theory, and author of the new book "Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michio Kaku. He's a theoretical physicist, who is a co-founder of string field theory, and his new book is called "Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100."
Now when you were in high school - and you're kind of famous for this - you built a particle accelerator in your mother's garage. What is a particle accelerator?
KAKU: Well, it's an atom smasher. The biggest one in the world is much bigger than the one I built in high school. It's 17 miles in circumference and it creates a mini Big Bang to re-create the conditions of the early universe. What I did when I was 16 years old is I went to Westinghouse, I got 400 pounds of Transformers steel, 22 miles of copper wire and I assembled a six kilowatt, 2.3 mini electron volt of electron accelerator in the garage. When it was finished, I would plug it in. There was this huge crackling sound as I consumed six kilowatts of power. I blew out every circuit breaker in the house. All the lights were plunged in darkness. And my poor mom would come home every night, see the lights flicker and die and say to herself: Why couldn't I have a son who plays baseball? And for God's sake, why can't he find a nice Japanese girlfriend? What's wrong with him? Why does he build these machines in the garage? Well, I love to build machines. It got me into Harvard, so I can't complain, and that began my career as a physicist.
GROSS: So you ended up as a student being mentored by Edward Teller. Teller being known as the father of the hydrogen bomb. He worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the atom bomb. When you started studying with him did you think about going into nuclear weapons development as a career?
KAKU: Well, he very strongly urged me to go into nuclear weapons design. I was in high school. I was playing with antimatter. Antimatter naturally occurs from a substance called sodium 22. I put antimatter in a magnetic field and photographed the tracks of antimatter. I went to the National Science Fair and I met Edward Teller. In fact, I was on television with Edward Teller. I didn't have to explain to Edward Teller what antimatter was. He immediately knew what it was. He immediately knew what I was doing and he offered me a scholarship to Harvard.
However, you know, he had an ulterior motive as well. Let's be very frank about this. There's a book written by a New York Times reporter called "Star Warriors," and it's about a scholarship that Edward Teller was promoting. I was a recipient of that scholarship. And later it came out that the purpose of the scholarship in part was to create a cadre core of young bright scientists to propel a Star Wars program. These are young physicists just like me, who fell under his wing and were shepherded into the weapons program.
And when I got my bachelors degree from Harvard he made a pitch. He made a very big pitch. I could go to Los Alamos, I could go to Livermore, I could go to MIT and study nuclear weapons design. Unfortunately for him, I decided that I wanted to work in things that were not so destructive but perhaps had even more power, and that is an explosion called the Big Bang, which was infinitely more powerful than a hydrogen bomb.
GROSS: You're Japanese and your father was born in Japan. Did the fact that atom bombs were used on the country of your father's birth affect your decision at all? I mean understanding...
KAKU: Well, my parents...
GROSS: ...like the destructive power of it and maybe knowing something about all the civilians who were killed?
KAKU: Well, my parents were actually born in California. However, they were sent back to Japan, which was very common for immigrant families, and they grew up in Japan. They were U.S. citizens, born in California but raised in Japan. And then they came back to California at the wrong time. They came back to California before Pearl Harbor and when Pearl Harbor hit there was all this hysteria. And my parents were then locked up and shipped out to a relocation camp, along with 110,000 other Japanese-Americans. And my parents were citizens, and yet they, too, were rounded up and sent off to the camp. They lived from 1942 to 1946 behind barbed wire and machine guns.
All civil liberties were stripped from them, and they spent the war years basically locked up behind barbed wire. Now, the fact that the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima had an impact on me, being Japanese-Americans. But I said to myself that maybe there's some good that can come out of this. Maybe science can liberate us from poverty, disease, oppression, ignorance.
And I firmly believe this. I believe that science is the engine of prosperity, that if you look around at the wealth of civilization today, it's the wealth that comes from science. And by being a scientist, I can be part of this grand search for knowledge which will liberate because this knowledge will create prosperity. And much of the problems of human society comes out of scarcity.
And I think that by creating a world of plenty, by creating institutions and organizations that promote knowledge and promote understanding, I think I could be part of being in a better world.
GROSS: Now, among your accomplishments is that you are a cofounder of String Field Theory. I'm going to ask you to explain what that is in the absolute simplest way possible...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: ...simplest and briefest way possible.
KAKU: Okay. Well, Einstein spent the last 30 years of his life chasing after a theory of everything, an equation perhaps no more than one inch long, that would allow him to, quote, "read the mind of God," one theory which would summarize all physical law into a single expression.
Well, today we think we have the theory. It's called string theory. Very controversial, but we're testing the periphery of it with huge machines like the one in Geneva, Switzerland, the Large Hadron Collider. Now, what I've done is I've taken all the equations of string theory, which fill up an entire volume, a gigantic book of equations, and I've summarized it into one equation, one inch long. That's my equation. It's called String Field Theory.
The language of physics is something called field theory. We have magnetic fields, gravitational fields, electric fields. That's the language of physics. But string theory was this hodgepodge of little equations and rules of thumb, and what I decided to do was create a field theory of strings, just like we have a field theory of magnetism, a field theory of electricity, a field theory of gravity. And that's what I did.
We can summarize electricity, magnetism and gravity into equations one inch long, and that's the power of field theory. And so I said to myself: I will create a field theory of strings. And when I did it one day, it was incredible, realizing that on a sheet of paper I can write down an equation which summarized almost all physical knowledge. That was power, the power of mathematics.
GROSS: If I asked you what the theory is, would I understand your answer?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KAKU: Well, very simply, that all the sub-atomic particles - neutrons, protons, quarks - are nothing but musical notes on a tiny rubber band, that when you twang the rubber band, it changes from one frequency to another. So it changes from an electron to a neutrino. And you twang it enough, it can turn into all the subatomic particles we see in the world.
So all the subatomic particles that make up our body are nothing but different notes on many, many, many tiny little violin strings, little rubber bands, and that physics is nothing but the laws of harmony of these vibrating strings. Chemistry is nothing but the melodies you can play on these vibrating strings. The universe is a symphony of strings, and the mind of God that Einstein wrote eloquently about the last 30 years of his life, is cosmic music resonating through 11-dimensional hyperspace. That is the mind of God.
GROSS: How do you know you're right? How do you know the equation is correct?
KAKU: Well, no matter how beautiful the theory, one irritating fact can dismiss the entire formulism, so it has to be proven. So that's where we hope the Large Hadron Collider, the biggest machine that science ever built, will create what are called sparticles. Sparticles are super-particles. They are partners of ordinary particles. We're made out of the lowest octave of the string, but these little rubber bands have higher octaves - that is, new particles that have been seen yet.
They're called sparticles or super-particles for short, and we hope to create them with the Large Hadron Collider. It's still a bet. We physicists are taking bets as to whether or not the Large Hadron Collider is powerful enough to create sparticles, but if it does, that could change the whole landscape of modern physics.
GROSS: Sounds exciting.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KAKU: Yeah, it's exciting.
GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
KAKU: Oh, my pleasure.
GROSS: Michio Kaku is a professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York. He co-founded String Field Theory. His new book is called "Physics of the Future." You can read an excerpt on our website: freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews P.D. James' new mystery novel, which is James' sequel to Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.