(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 23, 2016.)
Michio Kaku (1947 – ) is the Henry Semat Professor of Theoretical Physics at the City College of New York of City University of New York. He is the co-founder of string field theory and a popularizer of science. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of California-Berkeley in 1972.
In his book, Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century, Kaku sets out an overall picture of what is happening in science today that will revolutionize our future.[i] He begins by noting the three great themes of 20th-century science—the atom, the computer, and the gene. The revolutions associated with these themes ultimately aim at a complete understanding of matter, mind, and life. Progress toward reaching our goals has been stunning—in just the past few years more scientific knowledge has been created than in all previous human history. We no longer need to be passive observers of nature, we can be its active directors; we are moving from discovering nature’s laws to being the masters of those laws.
The quantum revolution spawned the other two revolutions. Until 1925 no one understood the world of the atom; now we have an almost complete description of matter. The basic postulates of that understanding are: 1) energy is not continuous but occurs in discrete bundles called “quanta;” 2) sub-atomic particles have both wave and particle characteristics; and 3) these wave/particles obey Schrodinger’s wave equation which determines the probability that certain events will occur. With the standard model, we can predict the properties of things from quarks to supernovas. We now understand matter and we may be able to manipulate it almost at will in this century.
The computer revolution began in the 1940s. At that time computers were crude but subsequent development of the laser in the next decade started an exponential growth. Today there are tens of millions of transistors in the area the size of a fingernail. As microchips become ubiquitous, life will change dramatically. We used to marvel at intelligence; in the future, we may create and control it.
The bio-molecular revolution began with the unraveling of the double helix in the 1950s. We found that our genetic code was written on the molecules within the cells—DNA. The techniques of molecular biology allow us to read the code of life like a book. With the owner’s manual for human beings, science and medicine will be irrevocably altered. Instead of watching life we will be able to direct it almost at will.
Hence we are moving from the unraveling stage to the mastery stage in our understanding of nature. We are like aliens from outer space who land and view a chess game. It takes a long time to unravel the rules and merely knowing the rules doesn’t make one a grandmaster. We are like that. We have learned the rules of matter, life, and mind but are not yet their masters. Soon we will be.
What really moves these revolutions is their interconnectivity, the way they propel each other. Quantum theory gave birth to the computer revolution via transistors and lasers; it gave birth to the bio-molecular revolution via x-ray crystallography and the theory of chemical bonding. While reductionism and specialization paid great dividends for these disciplines, intractable problems in each have forced them back together, calling for a synergy of the three. Now computers decipher genes, while DNA research makes possible new computer architecture using organic molecules. Kaku calls this cross-fertilization—advances in one science boost the others along—and it keeps the pace of scientific advance accelerating.
In the next decade, Kaku expects to see an explosion in scientific activity that will include growing organs and curing cancer. By the middle of the 21st century, he expects to see progress in slowing aging, as well as huge advances in nanotechnology, interstellar travel, and nuclear fusion. By the end of the century, we will create new organisms, and colonize space. Beyond that we will see the visions of Kurzweil and Moravec come to pass—we will extend life by growing new organs and bodies, manipulating genes, or by merging with computers.
Where is all this leading? One way to answer is by looking at the labels astrophysicists attach to hypothetical civilizations based on ways they utilize energy—labeled Type I, II, and III civilizations. Type I civilizations control terrestrial energy, modify weather, mine oceans, and extract energy from planet’s core. Type II civilizations have mastered stellar energy, use their sun to drive machines and explore other stars. Type III – manage interstellar energy, since they have exhausted their star’s energy. Energy is available on a planet, its star and in its galaxy, while the type of civilization corresponds to that civilizations power over those resources.
Based on a growth rate of about 3% a year in our ability to control resources, Kaku estimates that we might expect to become a Type I civilization in a century or two, a type II civilization in about 800 years, and a type III civilization in about ten thousand years. At the moment, however, we are a Type 0 civilization which uses the remains of dead plants and animals to power our civilization. (And change our climate dramatically.) By the end of the 22nd century, Kaku predicts we will be close to becoming a Type 1 civilization and take our first steps into space. Agreeing with Kurzweil and Moravec, Kaku believes this will lead to a form of immortality when our technology replaces our brains, preserving them in robotic bodies or virtual realities. Evolution will have replaced us, just as we replaced all that died in the evolutionary struggle so that we could live. Our job is to push evolution forward.
Summary – Knowledge of the atom, the gene, and the computer will lead to a mastery of matter, life, and mind.
[i] Michio Kaku, Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century (New York: Anchor, 1998).