Friday, August 22, 2014

Physics of the Future

Version 0.31

A Cautionary Tale from Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku

Interesting interference effects from having seen the author in many interviews, probably by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. From those interviews, I know he's a nice guy and means well, and I want to say nice things about his book, but this one was quite disappointing and even harmful. I'm not able to assess his expertise in his own field of physics, but I can clearly see places where he went amiss in some of the other fields (perhaps exacerbated by his conservative political leanings). 

The area that most bothered me was his shallow and misleading interpretation of genetics. I actually see it as a kind of threat that people will use his poorly worded descriptions to support their wrongheaded actions, especially as regards the topic of abortion. He actually describes the DNA as a blueprint for a human being, and he thinks that it would be possible to clone Hitler and produce another human monster. This is delusional, but exactly the kind of delusion that anti-abortion extremists are suffering from when they equate a fertilized egg with a unique human being. The DNA is NOT a blueprint, but more like a recipe book. Actually, I could argue that this book was helpful in that his sloppy writing helped me realize that the DNA is also like an instruction manual and some repair instructions. For simpleminded animals like insects, the DNA includes the complete behavioral repertoire and instinctive responses to all of the stimuli the insect is expected to encounter in its entire lifetime. However, he was generally discussing DNA in medical contexts, where it is the repair instructions and their limitations that are the real concern. If you cloned a human being from Hitler's DNA, you would NOT get another Hitler. You would get a NEW human being who has capacities for evil, but that's true of you and I, too. The entity that was Hitler was a unique being, and the DNA was merely a starting point on the sad journey. Actually, those references actually made me speculate about what sort of traumatic incident must have happened to create such insane hatred, but whatever it was and whenever it happened, it was NOT predetermined or even influenced by his DNA. Almost surely something in his childhood, but it must have been lost in the famed mists of history.

Another aspect of the disappointment was what struck me as a mismatch between his intentions and imagination and what his publisher must have wanted. Dr Kaku simply isn't up to predicting the mid-term future, and can't even make a persuasive case for his long-term ideas when he is closely tracking the current trends. It seems quite likely that this book started as a collection of short-term projections, and it remains firmly rooted in the current research and the current problems under attack, but his publisher must have insisted on including the sections about long-term projections for 2070 to 2100.

Okay, so it was an interesting read, and he has a light style that goes quickly. The background information was solid, too, but the book was supposed to be about the future, and it didn't go there.

Detailed (but sporadic and unsystematically sampled) Notes:

My first strong reaction wasn't until page 117, when he mentioned both Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil, reminding me to check if any of their books are newly available in my public libraries.

Page 234 was where he explicitly called DNA "blueprints", which I regard as almost unforgivable scientific naivety at this point. Stop fueling the fools! Now my dander was up, so to speak.

On pages 239 to 240 I had my next strong reactions. One was to his naive economic speculations about robot-driven universal prosperity and downright silly and simplistic interpretations of socialism and communism. However, he was again thought-provoking and perhaps contributed to my thinking about time-based economics in terms of mapping global investments back to the individual level in the use of leisure time.

Page 318 had one of his speculations about positive uses of nuclear weapons. This idea of nuclear-bomb-powered spaceships is just silly and unrealistic, but it casts doubt upon his expertise even in his own area. What manner of blast shield does he imagine that could withstand thousands of nuclear detonations? Page 327 had another blaring slip that challenged his own expertise. Obviously he slipped a decimal place and meant to say 4,000 years where he wrote 400, unless the speed was supposed to 1% rather than 0.1% of c.

On page 334 he had one of his extreme misunderstandings of basic biology. It is absolutely not the case that "mammals produce just a few offspring and make sure that all survive." He evidently wasn't willing to really consider eugenics, but instead went much farther with speculations about essentially artificial genes added to the parents' own genetic material.

Page 348 features IBM, but what caught my attention was the statement "Today, the only place you can find a stand-alone computer is in a museum." Actually something of a contradiction to places where he acknowledges the growing presence of computers in arbitrary devices. Perhaps almost all of them will be networked in the future, but that is certainly not the case today. However it also reminded me of the IBM photo-typesetting equipment I used around 1977 and which I later saw abandoned in the hallway outside the Thresher offices. Unlikely any museum would have accepted it, though it was worth about $20,000 when new... (Also triggered by that recent book on fonts.)

On Page 360 he got way over his head in speculations about "perfect capitalism". Essentially he wants to believe human nature will go away or people will forget about personal advantage? Whatever he meant, he was unpersuasive. Page 361 continues with the buzzword of the day, "cloud computing", but his lack of expertise was only typical of the prophets of that field. I still feel like Sun had it right, for all the good it did them.

On page 367 is more of his peculiar economic speculations, though on the important topic of immigration. Page 369 addressed the shift in England from engineering to speculation, but with less insight than the Rice professor's book. Page 370 included the old saw about teaching a man to fish, provoking me to add "Teach everyone to fish and they will overfish the oceans and go back to starvation." On pages 372 and 373 is part of a series of contradictions about the educational strengths and weaknesses of America and other countries, while ignored the inconvenient parts of land and resource seizures. He showed some awareness of bits of history in places where he wrote about the conquistadors, but he is not any sort of grand historian. He wrapped up this part on page 374 with some contradictory discounting of China that mostly made me speculate about his ultra-conservative biases against China, or perhaps some legacy of the Meiji-period Japanese disdain.

On pages 385 and 386 he is repeating the fantasy interpretation of Reagan's strength rather than the Soviet Union's internal problems, and must of the rest of the book looked more and more conservative (and naive). Perhaps the best that could be hoped is that it was more influence from the publisher? Pages 392 and 393 were notably twisted and contradictory.

I did like the Benjamin Franklin part on page 402 and the Asimov quote on page 405: "The saddest aspect of society right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom." However, I think "knowledge" and "wisdom" are being used in slipshod ways in the entire section, and mostly showed that Dr Kaku is also not an expert in epistemology.