The good thing about reading non-fiction years after its publication is that you see how much has changed since the time it was written. You can ascertain whether the author really knew what they were talking about. When such a book, such as Michio Kaku’s Visions, purports to predict the future, it gets even more fun.
Under normal conditions a book such as Visions, with its look into the far future and published only a decade and a half ago, you wouldn’t deduct points for getting it wrong. “Wait a few years,” you’d say. But we’re on the cusp of the event horizon here in 2013. Our fabulous future is supposed to be upon us right around 2020. This fifteen year period since the book’s publication is important. If stuff hasn’t started happening by now, 2020 is looking a little early for the main event.
I’m referring of course to the Singularity. Its date keeps changing, but things were definitely supposed to start happening by the turn of the century. Thirteen years on and we’re still far from hitting our milestones. If the robots are going to take over in a decade, we need to get things moving. Taking a look at how things are happening or not happening as per a late twentieth century visionaries’ visions could prove instructive. Maybe even enlightening.
Although the word “Singularity” is not used in Visions, the book feels like a primer on the subject. Chronologically it sits firmly between Vinge’s 1993 piece and Kurzweil’s ideas of the past few years. Bridging those two abutments, Visions could easily stand as a compendium for the various Singularity theories and hopes for a better world. Reading it we can see how some of those theories have already gone awry.
Kaku’s predictions with AI and genetics make the mistake that many Singularists make: just because you can create a fabulous technology doesn’t mean humanity will buy it. Who will the technology be available for? The rich and powerful only? Further, will they be rich and powerful enough to ensure the technology sees traction? How will the rank and file respond to it? For instance, will enough people really want an intelligent house that nags you to pick up after yourself? We already have spouses for that. If there’s no traction with the rank and file, a new piece of tech will probably not go into heavy production, even for the rich.
And the perennial question remains: if AI is going to do all our work, what is humanity going to do? Do we really believe we’re going to allow ourselves to obsolesce? Sure, we’re lazy and stupid, but not that lazy and stupid.
Kaku does not confine himself to the robots and nanobots of the Singularity. For instance, he has much optimism in the area of energy, specifically fusion power. Fusion is the step cousin to fission, our current nuclear option. Fission is a great way to make electricity if you’re not concerned about the terrorist/plutonium connection or the need for an entire mountain to contain the slowly decomposing isotopes created during the power cycle. Fusion promises to free us from that.
In spite of such an advantage, many experts believe fusion will never happen. The problem is fusion requires ungodly high temperatures to work. How will you contain the reaction under such conditions? What kind of vessel can withstand the million degrees of heat required?
The optimists say not to worry, we’ll figure it out. Kaku is one such person. He said we’d have a 1000 MWatt ITER fusion plant by 2010 and by 2025 we’d be making power with fusion. By 2035 we’d have a plant that was commercial (i.e. making money).
According to Wikipedia, however, the 500 MWatt ITER fusion plant will not be completed until 2019. Nine years behind Kaku’s prediction and a little light in the megawatts. They’ll fire up the plasma in 2020 and finally start making helium, the byproduct of fusion, in 2027 (pretty close to Kaku’s date of 2025). The plant will continue operation until 2038 at which time it will presumably be decommissioned. ITER is not necessarily going to become commercial; its mission is to determine if and how fusion is possible.
Truthfully, we know fusion is possible. It has, in fact, already been achieved. The jury is still out on whether or not it is a viable source of commercial power, though. That’s the mission of ITER. Several countries have banded together on the project. They’ll spend around 20 billion dollars to answer the question. Kaku is not alone in his optimism.
Once ITER answers positively the fundamental question of plausibility, the move to commercial power will be undertaken by project DEMO. Fifteen percent larger than ITER, DEMO is scheduled to begin construction in 2024 and operation around 2033, two years ahead of Kaku’s prediction of commercial operation in 2035. Of course DEMO construction will not begin at all if the numbers from ITER are not right.
I think we’ll eventually get fusion. It’s a matter of money and time. Even if ITER and DEMO don’t make a go of it, we’re not going to drop the option. We put a man on the moon. We’re good at tech. We can make this happen. Hopefully before the ice caps totally melt and tech is represented by a floating raft of drowned pine logs lashed together somewhere over what was formerly Pittsburgh.
How did Kaku do in other areas of the energy problem?
For solar: “…solar technology inevitably will continue to grow and prosper in the twenty-first century, in spite of foot dragging by the politicians.”
In connection with this prediction he drops such names as Amoco and Enron. Supposedly they were forward thinkers in an optimistic vision of clean energy in the world’s future. As we all know, there’s no need to do a surf on Enron to see how that company is contributing to solar energy research nowadays. What about Amoco?
Amoco merged with BP in 1998. Right around that time we heard lots of news announcements about BP’s commitment to renewable energy. After that period the news reports seemed to fade. But things looked up in 2005 when BP established an alternative energy business for the purpose of exploring “low-carbon energy options.” However, in 2011 BP announced it was leaving the solar power business altogether. BP Solar had been in operation for 40 years by then. That’s quite a statement on the potential for this form of energy. Apparently BP remains committed to biofuels, but I’m not sure that would be considered alternative energy. I doubt very much switching to ethanol and its cousins is going to save us from global warming.
All in all, it seems Kaku did poorly in this one area that is most important to us. Perhaps it’s not his fault. With so much money riding on the world of energy production and distribution, the clash of the titans is inevitable and you never know how that’s going to turn out. They make decisions, we float along on our little raft of lashed together pine logs, subject to the vicissitudes of the current. Can anyone predict anything to do with energy with confidence?
In the area of space travel, Kaku did slightly better.
International space station Alpha was supposed to be finished by 2002. Actually, it was finished in 2000. Since then there have been over 125 launches to the station and it has been visited by 204 individuals. A number of people feel the ISS is a waste of tax payers money. I’m not sure how much worse it is than our war on terror, though. At any rate, Kaku was vindicated with this one.
Then there’s the subject of high speed flight. In 1997, Kaku wrote that there were plans for developing a reusable launch vehicle called VentureStar. It was to eventually replace the Space Shuttle as being cheaper and safer to operate. Its maiden voyage was scheduled for March 1999 and it was supposed to have had 15 test flights by 2000. By 2006 a full-sized craft would be in operation. The reality is, in 2001 VentureStar still hadn’t been completed and in fact the project was canceled in February of that year.
Related to VentureStar was an aerospace plane that would take travelers from New York to Tokyo in an hour, using hypersonics (highly supersonic-Mach 6). It would take off and land like a jet, but soar into space like a rocket. It could attain a speed of 4,000 miles per hour. Tests were to begin in 2000; its first flight in 2002. It was dubbed the “Orient Express” by Ronald Reagon. The original project (NASP) was scrapped even before 1997, but Kaku goes on to mention Hyper-X, a project to create four unmanned reusable vehicles that would reach Mach 5 by 1998. Its first flight failed in 2001, but there were subsequent test flights and Mach 9.6 was attained by Hyper-X’s X-43A test craft in 2004. According to Wikipedia: “After the X-43 tests in 2004, NASA Dryden engineers said that they expected all of their efforts to culminate in the production of a two-stage-to-orbit crewed Vehicle in about 20 years. The scientists expressed much doubt that there would be a Single Stage to Orbit crewed vehicle like the National Aerospace Plane (NASP) in the foreseeable future, also known as the “Orient Express”, that would take off from an ordinary airport runway.”
Hypersonics are possible, they’ll no doubt be a reality. Someday. Not within the time frame hinted at by Kaku. Maybe never for the proletariat.
Moving back into outerspace: Kaku predicted that in 2001 Kepler, the planet finding space craft, would be launched. By 2007 it would be joined by Space Interferometry Mission and Terrestrial Planet finder (SIM). Kepler actually launched in 2009. SIM has been scrapped.
So again, Kaku is sort of right, sort of wrong. The problem is with timing. These fantastic things will happen but not in such a time frame that will make a difference to us here and now.
How about something more down to Earth?
Kaku said that in 1999 Earth’s population would reach 6 billion. It would reach 7 billion in 2011, 8 billion in 2025, 9 billion in 2041, and 10 billion in 2070. It would level off at 12 billion in the 2100’s.
According to the United States Census Bureau as reported by Wikipedia world population exceeded 7 billion on March 12, 2012, a year behind Kaku’s schedule. However, the United Nations Population Fund says it reached that milestone on October 31, 2011, right on schedule. So it makes a difference which source we’re looking at to decide if Kaku was correct. Different experts predict more growth, stagnation, or decline by 2150. Depending on whether you believe technology will save us or not, will determine which of those outcomes you agree with. If you believe our planet is not going to sustain us regardless of new tech developed, you’ll probably go with the decline scenario. Decline happens because of starvation. Stagnation wouldn’t be bad. Growth is too scary to think about. Sure technology can save us, if we don’t mind eating Styrofoam and literally living on top of each other.
What I surmise from all this is that as usual predicting the future is a crap shoot. Even if you’ve done a lot of research like Kaku, sometimes you get it right sometimes wrong. The foibles of humanity are perhaps subject to chaos theory and so are hard to pin down. I don’t think that’s the problem. Even chaos has an element of predictability. I think our foibles are subject to nothing at all. We like change and will follow it even to the point of insanity.
Will the Singularity be upon us mid-2020s? Will technology save us or doom us? Save us from what? And will we be happier even if it does?
What will regular working class people do with these fantastic new technologies? Or will only a sophisticated class have access to them? What will humans do if factory workers and farmers and doctors are no longer needed?
Here’s a thought: maybe they will become mere content providers and content consumers. Like now only more so. Humans will be entertainers for the entertained. The entertained will need more and more because they have less and less to do.
Will providing content for this new consumer pay? Let me ask you this: how much are you paying to read this blog post?
Thanks for reading!
Watch the video of Sue Lange’s latest story, Princess Dancer.