Being passionate and knowledgeable about your field is one thing. Successfully communicating that passion and the intricacies of what you do is something else entirely. As Sir David Attenborough has helped millions of people appreciate the majesty of nature, 71-year-old American theoretical physicist Michio Kaku has brought millions to modern-day science.
The bestselling author has written nine books and regularly appears on podcasts, narrates documentaries and gives public talks – all in the name of demystifying and popularising the technological advancements of humankind, á la Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, Bill Nye and local poster boy Doctor Karl. In particular, Kaku is a “futurist” – someone who speculates on forthcoming technologies and the effect they’ll have on society 10, 20, 50 or 1000 years from now. Ahead of his tour in November, we phoned Kaku at his home in New York to find out what’s next for humanity.
Broadsheet: You've been involved in science since the ’70s. In 2018, what are you still excited about?
Michio Kaku: Science comes in waves. We've had three waves of prosperity, wealth generation and science. The first wave was the steam engine and the industrial revolution. The second wave was Thomas Edison and the electric revolution. The third wave was computers and the internet. Now we’re entering the fourth wave of wealth generation, spearheaded by artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and biotechnology. They're going to change everything. Not to mention the fact that space travel is becoming more and more a reality, even for the average consumer.
BS: This fourth wave, is that what you’ll be discussing on your Australian tour?
MK: That’s right. I'll be talking about the fourth wave – from artificial intelligence, robotics and [their effects on the] job market, to outer space. We’ll talk about the plan to go back to the moon, starting next year. We hope to send the SLS Booster Rocket on a one-man mission to the moon, and after that create a moon orbiter and after that create a Mars rocket. These are all on the agenda now and being taken seriously to open up the heavens for space exploration.
BS: What draws you to engaging with the public via podcasts, touring, documentaries and writing books, as opposed to just being in a research position behind closed doors, like so many scientists are?
MK: First of all, I am a research physicist. I’m one of the founders of the subject of string theory. We think string theory is in fact the theory of everything; the theory that eluded Einstein for the last 30 years of his life. But I realised I could spend the rest of my life boring 20 people in the classroom, but if you’re on television you can bore 20 million people and you could begin to impart the love and excitement and drama of science in the making. How many people are ignorant about where science comes from? I’m on radio and quite a few people actually think that aliens from outer space gave us the microchip and that's why we have computers and the internet. They don't understand how physicists created microchips.
BS: Sometimes I worry I’ll die before all these amazing science fiction things that I've dreamed about come to fruition. Do you think about that too?
MK: Immortality is something that has eluded scientists and myth-makers ever since, well, before the bible. However, now we are beginning to get real, tangible, scientifically reproducible results. We’re now isolating the genes that control the aging process – over 60 of them have been identified so far. We can double the lifespan of almost any animal that’s in nature, starting with yeast cells, going all the way up to primates.
And there are digital people. One day we might be able to digitise our personality and put it into an avatar. So that, when you go into a library of the future, instead of taking out a book about Winston Churchill, you talk to him, because he's been digitised. His memories, thoughts, speeches, mannerisms – they’ve all been digitised. I would love to talk to Einstein. One day you could become immortal, either biologically or digitally, so that your great, great, great, great, grandkids can have a very interesting conversation with you, because you’ve been digitised. All this is well within the grounds of possibilities.
BS: But not within your lifetime, right?
MK: Well, as someone pointed out to me, we may be the last generation to die. Our grandkids may have the option of getting to the age of 30 and stopping. They may like to be 30 indefinitely. Because we are now beginning to understand that aging is entropy. Aging is information loss. Every time a cell divides, every time your cell moves, it oxidises and creates a little bit of chaos. These errors build up and that's why cells become less functional, and that's why we develop wrinkles and cells create organs that don't work that well and we die of disease. We die because of a build-up of errors in our body. But we also have error-collection mechanisms. Gene therapy may eventually allow us to repair the genes that were damaged by aging. Take a look at the car. Where does the aging take place in a car? Well, at the engine. Why? Because that’s where combustion takes place. Where does combustion take place in the cells of you body? The mitochondria. Bingo! We now know where most aging takes place in your body: the power cell of cells, the mitochondria. If we can fix those genes, we can in some sense live forever.”
BS: If you could bring one technology to the market right now, what would it be?
MK: Well, I think artificial intelligence is around the corner. I’m not talking about replacing humans. I’m talking about helping augment our human abilities, just like a carpenter. A carpenter uses a hammer. The hammer doesn’t replace the carpenter, but the hammer is part of the toolkit of the carpenter. If I think about the future, things will become animated, you'll talk to them and they'll talk back to you. When you need a doctor, you'll talk to a wall; robo-doc is in your wallpaper. You’ll talk to him and he'll give you a perfect diagnosis of all your medical problems. And robo-lawyer will answer all your legal problems. I think artificial intelligence is going to make life easier, more productive, smoother, more seamless. But these robots are not going to replace humans because there are many things that robots cannot do.”
BS: Do you think there's a theoretical limit to what humans can achieve if we don't go extinct first?
MK: No, I don’t think there’s a limit to what we humans can create, because humans are unpredictable and therefore we can unpredictably create new innovative things that aren’t foreseen by any equations or foreseen by any philosopher or science-fiction writer. The brain is not a digital computer. Our brain is a learning machine, it's a neural network; it rewires itself after learning a new task. Your laptop can't do that; your laptop is just as stupid today as it was yesterday. So because our brain is not a digital computer, because it’s not predictable, it can continue to create things that will shock every previous generation.”
BS: Speaking of extinction, are you optimistic about our chance of survival and what do you think of Elon Musk’s plan to set up a colony on Mars in case we can no longer survive on Earth?
MK: Well, remember the dinosaurs didn’t have a space program. That's why they’re not here today. Sixty-five million years ago, when that meteor hit Mexico, the dinosaurs were clueless. They didn't know what hit them. But today, we do have a chance. We do have a technology to put settlements on Mars. Now, I’m not saying that we should move the entire population of the earth to Mars – that's impractical – but a settlement, an insurance policy, a back-up plan, a plan B – that's what Mars is. It’s simply too dangerous to put all our eggs in one basket called “The Planet Earth”. And now because of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, the price of space travel is dropping like a rock. That movie The Martian, with Matt Damon, that cost $100 million, but the Indians put a probe on Mars for $70 million. So a Hollywood movie about going to Mars cost more than actually going to Mars. That’s how cheap rocketry has become.”
Dr Michio Kaku tours Australia from November 8 to 14, 2018. Tickets are priced between $87 and $297.
Thu November 8 – Sydney Opera House
Sat November 10 – South Bank Piazza
Mon November 12 – Perth Concert Hall
Wed November 14 – Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre