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Tech Q&A

Michio Kaku

Describe your latest project.
I have two on-going projects.

First, my goal in life is to help to finish Einstein's dream of a "theory of everything," which will allow us to "read the mind of God." He wanted a single equation, perhaps no more than one inch long, that would summarize all physical laws into a simple, coherent theory. He failed after 30 frustrating years of hard work. But today, the leading candidate for such a theory is called string theory or M-theory, which reduces all sub-atomic particles in the universe to the "notes" on vibrating strings and membranes. I've been working on this theory for the past 30 years.

Later this year, there will be much excitement as the Large Hadron Collider gets turned on outside Geneva, Switzerland. It is 17 miles in circumference, making it the biggest instrument of science ever built. We hope to be able to test the periphery of string theory with the LHC. The discovery of sparticles, or superparticles, could herald a tremendous triumph for the theory.

But unfortunately, string theory cannot be fully tested because this theory is not finished. String theory is still evolving, and we still do not know the fundamental principles behind it. As a consequence, some people have criticized the theory. My goal, therefore, is to finish the theory. Once in its final form, we should be able to match its predictions with reality, and see if it lives up to its promise as a theory of everything.

Second, my other goal is to use science to predict the trends of the future. Science is the engine of prosperity, and understanding the most advanced trends in computers, AI, biotechnology, physics, etc. helps one to understand how we will live our lives in the future. Every week, I interview some of the world's top scientists on my nationally syndicated radio show (which broadcasts live to 120 radio stations around the country) and I get to pick their brains to understand the trends shaping up our future. I get a front row seat watching the revolutionary trends in science which will shape the 21st century.

Many of these ideas got incorporated into my new book, Physics of the Impossible.

  1. Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration Into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel
    $8.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "Science and science fiction buffs can easily follow Kaku's explanations as he shows that in the wonderful worlds of science, impossible things are happening every day." Publishers Weekly

    "[Kaku] does a great job here of making concrete the heady abstractions necessary to our grasp of the physics behind these ideas." Seattle Times

  2. Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the Tenth Dimension
    $7.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "[Kaku's] intellectual perceptions will thrill lay readers, SF fans and the physics-literate." Publishers Weekly (starred review)

    "A roller coaster of an intellectual ride through the extraordinary world of black holes, wormholes, parallel universes, higher dimensions and time travel." Philadelphia Inquirer

  3. Parallel Worlds: A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos
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    "Kaku covers a tremendous amount of a clear and lively way." Los Angeles Times Book Review
  4. Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century
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    "With this fascinating volume, Kaku positions himself as a worthy successor to the late Carl Sagan as a spokesman for the potential of science to revolutionize our lives." Kirkus Reviews
  5. Einstein
    $7.98 Sale Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Thanks to Kaku's insight...and his flair for explaining dense scientific concepts...this brief book weaves Einstein's life and work into a seamless, hard-to-put-down narrative." Scientific American

    "An expert in quantum mechanics and string theory, Kaku is an equally able popular writer, vividly evoking the pictorial imagination behind Einstein's revolutionary thinking." Booklist

  6. Beyond Einstein: The Cosmic Quest for the Theory of the Universe
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    "With his lucid and wry style [Kaku has a] knack for bringing the most ethereal ideas down to earth." The Wall Street Journal
What inspires you to sit down and write?
When I was a child, I remember my teachers announcing in hushed voices that a great scientist had just died. Everyone was talking about it. The newspapers later that day flashed pictures of his desk, with the unfinished manuscript of his greatest, unfinished work. I was fascinated: what was so difficult that the greatest scientist of our time, Albert Einstein, could not solve it? But whenever I went to the library, it was so frustrating. Either the books were too difficult, or were silly and too simplistic. I knew that the latest cutting-edge developments in science must be thrilling and fantastic, but I could not access that information.

I vowed to myself that when I grew up and became a theoretical physicist, in addition to doing research, I would write books that I would have liked to have read as a child. So whenever I write, I imagine myself, as a youth, reading my books, being thrilled by the incredible advances being made in physics and science.

Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
I did not have a favorite childhood teacher, but there was one person who had me riveted to the TV screen every Saturday afternoon. I used to watch the old Flash Gordon series on TV, and it was thrilling to rocket to the planet Mongo every week. But after a while, I figured out that although Flash got the girl and all the accolades, it was really Dr. Zarkov who made the series work. Without Dr. Zarkov, there could be no Flash Gordon. I was fascinated by the fact that here was a humble individual, who could, by the sheer force of his intellect, change the course of history and save the earth. Although Flash had the looks and the muscles (which we are born with), Dr. Zarkov was a self-made man who could create rocket ships, invisibility rays, and defeat dictators. It made me appreciate the power of science and technology, and the ability of one man to change history by unleashing the power of science.

Chess or video games?

What do you do for relaxation?
Many mathematicians and physicists have a favorite form of relaxation. Many of my mathematician friends play the violin. (If you bring 4 mathematicians together, you automatically get a string quartet). If you bring string physicists together, however, they like to relax by mountain climbing. Well, personally, I never liked mountain climbing. Several of my physicist friends, in fact, died in horrible hiking accidents. So, for relaxation, I like to figure skate. Being on the ice and spinning and jumping, I feel very close to nature. In particular, I feel very close to Newton's laws of motion. On the ice, you can experience Newton's laws of motion in their purist, most elegant form.

What was your favorite book as a kid?
As a kid, I read Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. They opened up a whole new world for me. The very idea of a galactic civilization tens of thousands of years more advanced than ours was a thrilling idea. Technologies that we would consider "impossible" might become possible in the far future. This, in fact, was the inspiration for writing my new book Physics of the Impossible.

So many times, certain technologies are dismissed because they are impossible. For example, many scientists roll up their eyes when they hear of UFO sightings. Scientists say that the distances between the stars is so great that it's impossible for an alien race to visit the earth. Most of these UFO sightings may, in fact, be explained by natural means, but it would be incorrect to say that starships are impossible. What is more scientifically correct is to say that star ships are impossible with today's technology, or the technology many decades into the future.

But consider a civilization tens of thousands of years more advanced than ours, as in Asimov's Foundation series. By then, their energy production may be so vast that star ships might well be possible. In other words, there is no law of physics that says that star ships are impossible. That is what Asimov's Foundation series taught me: to ask which technologies are really against the laws of physics, and which technologies are compatible with the laws of physics. Similarly, things like antimatter engines, invisibility, teleportation, telepathy, psychokinesis, time travel, are all considered impossible with today's science, but they might become possible in the coming decades, centuries, or millennia. In fact, I group these "impossibilities" into three categories. Class I impossibilities are those which are possible in the coming decades or century. Class II impossibilities are those which may take thousands to millions of years to accomplish. And Class III impossibilities are actually totally impossible by all the known laws of physics.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
Several types of technologies will enrich our lives. First, biotechnology will give us a "human body shop" by which to grow human organs from our own cells. Already, skin, bone, blood, noses, ears, heart valves, blood vessels, and even the human bladder can be grown in the laboratory. Within 5 years, perhaps the first human liver and pancreas will be grown, which could revolutionize medicine. In a few decades, perhaps every organ of the body (except the brain) will be grown in the lab, giving us spare parts to enrich and length our lives.

Second, the genes for aging are now being isolated. In the future, by comparing the genomes of thousands of the elderly with thousands of genomes of the young, scientists should be able to isolate the genes which, in part, control the aging process. Already, genes like sir2, daf-2, age-1, age-1, have generated enormous interest among scientists.

Third, our computers will gradually attain "machine intelligence" as computer power doubles every 18 months (Moore's law). In the 1970s, it was the mainframe computer that led the way. In the 1980s, it was the PC. In the 1990s, it was the internet. In the 2000s, it is "ubiquitous computing," when chips get placed in our telephones, TVs, appliances, etc. to make them intelligent.

And in the coming decades, it will be machine intelligence. This does not mean robots that can talk, gossip, tell jokes, or interact with us socially. But it does mean robo-doctors, robo-laywers, i.e. robots which can respond by simple yes and no answers using a system of rules. 90% of what we ask our doctors and lawyers can be answered with yes and no answers. This is called "heuristics," and will give our machines and the internet the ability to intelligently answer our questions and carry out our wishes. As our computers gradually master machine intelligence, they will have the ability to drive our cars, set up our schedules, teach us college level courses, find the cheapest and best products to buy, and perhaps even find us a date on Saturday night.

What was your best subject in high school? Your worst?
My worst subject was French. I realized very early in life what my abilities and limitations were, and foreign languages was definitely one of my limitations. With strenuous effort, I just barely passed my French class at Harvard so I could graduate.

My best class was actually a correspondence course in advanced calculus. I already took calculus as a junior in high school, so my high school had nothing left for me to learn. So I took a correspondence course (by mail) from the Univ. of Calif. at Berkeley (before the coming of on-line courses). Even as a kid, I realized that mathematics was the main stumbling block preventing bright students from going into physics, so I tried to excel in math.

Today, I receive scores of e-mails from high school kids, as well as the elderly, asking if they can do science. I tell them that anyone can thrill to the latest scientific breakthroughs, but at some point you have to learn the math. I sometimes get e-mails from very successful middle-aged men, asking if it's too late to become a scientist. As a high school kid, they loved science, but their parents put pressure on them to become a doctor or lawyer. Now, they are very successful and wealthy men, but they still feel partly unfulfilled, because they still long to do science. I have to tell them that science is something that can be appreciated at any point in their lives, but to do actual research, the problem is mastering the math. If they can master the math, then they can do research.

What are some of the things you'd like your computer to do that it cannot now do?
There are two things which computers still cannot master, and this is the fundamental reason why we don't have robots. I discuss these two problems at length in my book Physics of the Impossible.

The first is pattern recognition. It takes hours for a mainframe computer to recognize stranger's faces, handwriting, voices, etc. It takes a robot hours to walk across a room, bumping into the furniture in the process. Our computers have the intelligence of a cockroach, a retarded, lobotomized cockroach at that. Even cockroaches can hide, search for food, scurry behind objects, find mates, etc. all of which are robots cannot match.

The second problem is even greater, the common sense problem, which is the number one problem facing AI research today. Robots do not understand the simplest things about the world. Such as: strings can pull but not push, mothers are older than their daughters, animals do not like pain, sticks can push but not pull, once you die you do not come back. As a result, robots cannot gossip, engage in human small talk, understand a children's fairy tale, or carry on a simple conversation. There are literally hundreds of millions of lines of computer code necessary to analyze the common sense of a three year old child.

This means that the robots you see in county fairs, on TV, in the movies, are actually sophisticated tape recorders. They are pre-programmed, pre-scripted, and pre-recorded. They do not have the ability to improvise, take on new tasks, or talk back to you.

But perhaps this is a good thing. If robots were that easy to make, perhaps they would put us humans in zoos and throw peanuts at us from outside our cages and make us dance, like we do with animals today.

By the end of your life, where do you think humankind will be in terms of new science and technological advancement?
I would hope that, by the end of my life, the groundwork for an emerging Type I civilization will be laid. We physicists sometimes rank advanced civilizations into three types: Type I, II and III, according to the level of their energy production. A Type I civilization can harness the power of an entire planet, utilizing 100% of the sunlight that falls on the earth. The world of Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers might be a Type I planetary civilization. A Type II civilization can harness the power output of an entire star, as in Star Trek. A Type III civilization can harness the power of an entire galaxy, like the Borg on Star Trek, or the Empire in Star Wars, or the Empire in Asimov's Foundation series. You can calculate that each type harness 10 billions times more energy than the previous type.

By contrast, we are a Type 0 civilization, i.e. we get our feeble energy from dead plants, oil and coal. But we should become a Type I civilization within 100 to 200 years. (It will take several thousand years to become Type II, and perhaps 100,000 years or so to become Type III).

I can already see the beginnings of a Type I civilization in my lifetime. The internet is the beginning of a Type I telephone system. English will be the language of this Type I civilization. The European Union, NAFTA, etc. are the beginning of a Type I economy. Rock and roll, youth culture, high fashion, etc. are the beginning of a Type I culture. In fact, every headline I see in the newspapers is related to the birth pangs of the coming Type I civilization.

So, in my lifetime, we are making the greatest transition in the history of civilization, the transition from Type 0 to Type I. But there are speed bumps along the road to a Type I planetary civilization. Some people instinctively hate this transition, even though they cannot articulate it. These are the terrorists. They instinctively hate a Type I civilization because it is tolerant, multi-cultural, progressive, and scientifically advanced. Also we have the danger of nuclear proliferation and designer germs. So the transition to Type I is certainly not guaranteed.

Which country do you believe currently leads the world in science and technology? In ten years?
The US is still number one. Historically, the US was in the backwash of science until recently. (Go to any university library and look up the science journals. The total annual output of US scientists before World War II could barely fill a single journal volume. Then came World War II, the coming of top European scientists to the US, and Sputnik. Now, the sheer size of US science journals is absolutely overwhelming, filling up whole shelves ever year. But there is a weakness here. Sadly, today many of the world's top scientists are not home grown, but arrive here from overseas because of a "brain drain" into the US. Science education in the US, unfortunately, is one of the worst known to science. Our students now score near the bottom on all science tests. But we have a secret weapon that many don't know about: our H1B visa. This is called the "genius visa" since it allows top scientific talent to short-circuit the visa process and get into the US rapidly. These scientists do not take away jobs from Americans; they go on instead to create entire new industries which can employ thousands of Americans. So this is both a strength of US science, and a weakness. We cannot continue to rely on foreign-born scientists to maintain the excellence of US science. We have to improve science education in the US, which is in a very sorry state.

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Michio Kaku is Professor of Theoretical Physics at the City College of the City University of New York. He graduated from Harvard and received his Ph.D. from Berkeley. He is author of Beyond Einstein (with Jennifer Trainer), Quantum Field Theory: A Modern Introduction, and Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universe, Time Warps, and the Tenth Dimension. He has also hosted a weekly hour-long science program on radio for the past ten years.

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