Kaku began his talk, presented by the University of South Florida, by thanking College of Arts and Sciences Dean Eric Eisenberg for his glowing and not-too-stuffy introduction. Because his book deals with the century ahead, the 65-year-old Japanese-American offered up a modest disclaimer about his ability to predict the future, going so far as to quote Yogi Berra ("It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future") and Woody Allen ("Eternity is very long, especially towards the end").
These and other charmingly nerdy lowbrow quips won over the audience of students, faculty and fans who've read his books, listened to the theoretical physicist on NPR's Explorations or watched his shows on the Discovery channel.
Kaku began with a lesson on the cyclical nature of science and its role in economic bubbles and their eventual bursts, adding that history's three major financial crashes happened in uncanny 80-year intervals — from the late 1850s to late 1920s to 2008 — piggybacking the three waves of scientific breakthroughs: the steam engine, electricity and computer technology.
What's next? “The future of the computer is going to be everywhere, but nowhere,” he said. “We are going to look for the Internet portal the same way we look for a light switch when entering a room.”
The Internet will be accessible via our retina, our walls, the air itself, and PCs will be be "scrap computers," equivalent to Post-It Notes. He predicted that microchips will sell for 99 cents and that the World Wide Web will be different from what we imagined, becoming an ever-evolving and unavoidable presence in our lives, with computer chips embedded in contact lenses and holographics surrounding us like scenes from The Matrix.
Even grandparents will interact with it on a daily basis, when 50 percent of it will be porn, he joked, adding that information could be so readily available that VP Joe Biden could stay on script.
Not exactly rocket science, for sure, but the dumbed-down humor helped soften the blow as he detailed creepy-cool devices of the future — gadgetry that will ride the fourth wave of scientific breakthroughs: artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and biotechnology. His video presentation, "2057," played out like a sci-fi infomercial, revealing a new way of living, healing and consuming, with scenes of heart-valve reproduction and computers talking back to people from seemingly invisible places.
It's all part of an augmented reality (not virtual reality; that's for kids, he clarified) enhanced by mass customization, a trend that builds on the storing and cross-referencing of personal information and will evolve to retailers matching a clothing item's size to a customer's precise weight and measurements from a virtual screen. (Making dressing rooms obsolete would be one of the best developments, right?)
Other inventions include Google glasses, driverless cars and smart toilets equipped with DNA-filtering microchips. Doctors will be able to read early signs of cancer and other health issues from your No. 1 and 2. Many of these prototypes exist today, and Kaku foretold the end of visible devices larger than little clips and wires you can fit in the palm of your hand, making your stats readily available at any moment. "You just have to walk outside," he said.
In Kaku's future world, people will have to monitor their privacy settings in everyday life the way they do on social networking sites now — times a thousand. "There will be no secrets," he said.
Kaku didn't go into potential negative outcomes (war, sensory overload) but emphasized the positives: diseases will be cured and doctors will grow vital organs and tissue in labs. But technology won't make life easier, he said. "People will bellyache no matter what year it is." In the future, just like now, we'll have to make our own happiness.
Fans of Kaku's radio show no doubt enjoyed the Q&A session with its elucidations of string theory, "sparticles" and dark matter, explaining that unified theory will bridge the gaps between the theory of relativity and quantum physics.
But most rewarding overall was Kaku's emphasis on the importance of education, decrying both presidential candidates for not making science a part of their discourse. He said that lawmakers spend their time slicing up priorities like pieces from a pie. "We need a bigger pie," he said. He also lamented his field's under-representation in the U.S. government; only three members of the Congress have science ph.Ds.
- Courtesy of Michele Dye/USF
According to the USF Oracle
, Kaku drew more than 1,000 attendees, "going over maximum capacity to stand in aisles and sit on the floor, to see him speak about possibilities of the future." Some arrived as early as 2 p.m. for the 6:30 lecture, the student-run newspaper said.
Whether Kaku was telling a joke about a lawyer, priest and physicist or musing on a trading-places gag pulled by his "favorite icon" — you know, that other long-haired scientist, Albert Einstein — Kaku did at MOSI what he always does: He made science entertaining, enlightening and relevant to our everyday lives, the way all great teachers do.