Michio Kaku is a theoretical physicist and one of the founders of string field theory. He also believes that many of the technologies we now consider science fiction will be possible in the future.
Last year, he gave a presentation titled “The World in 2030: How Science will Affect Computers, Medicine, Jobs, Our Lifestyles and the Wealth of our Nations”, in which he takes a look at what the next few decades may hold in store for us. It’s a combination of his and other scientists’ predictions of the near future.
Kaku is pretty entertaining, and I encourage you to watch the whole video (the action starts around 5:30 in). Below is a list of some of the predictions he makes.
Increase in computer power
According to Moore’s law, computing power doubles every 18 months. This has held true in the past, and it looks like the rate is going to stay the same at least for a while now, which means that the computers of the next decade are going to be vastly more powerful than they are now.
At the same time, computer chips are becoming cheaper and cheaper. The result is that by 2020 microchips will be so cheap to produce that they will become ubiquitous, “everywhere and nowhere”, in the same way that electricity is now. Products such as cellphones will become more powerful, but tiny computers will also be in other things like clothes and toys.
In contrast to virtual reality, augmented reality means the real world augmented with something extra. When you combine the low cost of microprocessors with a wireless internet connection, you get products that react to objects in the real world and give you access to more information about them.
For example, when you look at a product in a store, your augmented reality glasses will identify the product and show the information right on the screen. Or you could watch a movie anywhere, with the video being displayed right in front of your eyes and the sound coming through your earphones. Or listen to someone speak in a foreign language and have subtitles displayed in front of you.
Personally, I think usability is an issue with augmented reality glasses. The inconvenience of wearing them is partly why virtual reality glasses and helmets never really caught on. However, as Kaku points out, the same thing can be done with contact lenses equipped with a tiny computer. Again, this is somewhat more complicated than glasses, but I can certainly see a market for augmented reality contact lenses. Prototypes are already being developed.
Cars that drive themselves
You may already have seen a prototype of a car that does not need a driver. All the passenger has to do is tell the car where they want to go, and the GPS system will take care of the navigation and the steering. Obviously, the cars are intelligent enough to avoid collision with obstacles like other cars or people.
The bathroom of the future will analyse your precious bodily fluids and for example tell you which nutrients you may be lacking. It can also do a more complete daily medical checkup and warn you in time of things like cancer, much earlier and more efficiently than a traditional medical checkup every five years or so.
Personal genome scanning is already available. At the time of the video, the cost of having one done was up to $50,000, but today the price has come down drastically. In fact, a while ago there was an offer for getting a copy of your genetic data on a CD for a few thousand dollars. Since genetic testing is within the sphere of Moore’s law, in the future it will be so cheap that anyone who wants can have their genome scanned.
Genome scanning is something of a hot topic among politicians these days. Apparently some people think that there is something wrong with knowing as much as possible about yourself. Better not to know you have an increased chance of, say, lung cancer, right?
The more interesting issue, one that has so far escaped the attention of politicians and bureaucrats, is that as genome testing becomes more common, it will be possible to buy a copy of someone else’s genome. All you need is a strand of their hair. The question is whether there is anything really wrong with that – more on that in another post.
Growing organs and tissue in labs
It comes as a surprise to most people that even today, we can grow a lot of living material using your own cells: skin, blood, heart valves, blood vessels, bone, noses, ears, bladders. Next up are growing human livers, pancreases and kidneys. In mice, growing entire hearts is already possible. One day, even lab-grown human hearts will be available for purchase.
In my opinion, the growing of organs and tissues in laboratories is only a part of the medical breakthroughs we will see in the future. The larger trend is complete replaceability of human body parts. Lost an arm in a traffic accident? We’ll grow you a new one.
Whether organic or mechanic replacements will become the standard depends on the body part in question. While you might want to have a new human liver grown from your own cells to replace the old one, maybe you prefer a cybernetic hand with superhuman strength.
Robots to help people
One of the reasons Japan is so interested in building robots is that their population is aging very fast, and there are not enough young people to take care of the old people. Robots that can actually perform useful work would therefore be very welcome in hospitals and nursing homes.
But what about the robots gone bad? Robots that take over the world are probably everyone’s favourite doomsday scenario of the future. But as Michio Kaku points out, the most advanced robots of today are really, really stupid. It will take a long time before we are able to build a robot as smart as a mouse, and an even longer time before they are anywhere near human intelligence.
This means that we should have plenty of time to come up with solutions that force robots to be friendly. But of course, the idea of a self-improving artificial intelligence making ever-improving copies of itself is interesting enough to warrant its own blog post.
Connecting directly to the brain is one of the most interesting predictions. For people who are unable to move their limbs, even simple implementations of such technologies have immediate uses. For example, we can already do things like control the cursor on the screen of a laptop using an electrode sensor placed on top of the brain.
Even that is a remarkable achievement, but in the future we will see much more fantastic implementations of similar technologies. At the moment, it’s possible to connect directly to the brain to capture the outlines of an object a person is looking at. That is, if you’re looking at a pear, a device connected to your brain can read parts of the information sent through your eyes and print a pear-shaped object on a computer screen.
Now, who hasn’t wished for a device that could record dreams and play them on the screen afterwards? In the future, as brain-reading technologies become better, that may be possible. And vice versa, if we can read images from the brain, why not insert images as well? Imagine screenwriting your own dreams!
The inventions mentioned above are things that, at least according to Michio Kaku, we will very likely see within the next few decades. However, he also discusses things that are in the farther future. Among those are teleportation, wormholes and time travel (which apparently violates no known laws of physics).
If you’re interested in what may be possible in the the far future, I recommend watching the presentation. As you might expect from a theoretical physicist, Michio Kaku has some pretty fascinating ideas of the future of civilization – most of which I agree with.