Forecaster fails to detect any clouds

August 7, 1998

Will genetically perfect humans chat amiably with conscious robots by 2100? P. W. Anderson isn't convinced

.This reviewer is old enough to have seen a lot of futurology come down the pike, pass, and disappear into history. It was 25 years ago that I first wrote up my thoughts on the subject, long enough ago that some of the futurologists I then quoted are just now, as myself, becoming what one might call "chronologically disadvantaged". There was a book called Toward the Year 2000 published in 1965, which had already begun to come seriously unravelled by 1975 and is now completely detached from reality (although, I note, it is being plugged for millennial reading).

At that time I classified the art of futurology into three, possibly four, categories. These were, first, "prophets" - in general, creators of utopias, or anti-utopias, like Huxley, Orwell, Ivan Illich, Samuel Butler, and many science fiction writers such as Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Often they were wildly off the mark - Illich, for instance, saw medicine becoming less and less beneficial and Huxley saw cloning as a way of producing "etas", mindless people who could do the work an upper-class Englishman could not imagine himself doing. Such utopias tend to represent either the desires or the fears of their creators, who seldom take the broad view, but there are so many that a few such as Verne could not help occasionally hitting the jackpot.

The second category was "doomwatchers". These were futurologists whose predictions were based on oversimplified computer models that showed the imminent exhaustion of all kinds of world resources. They have given modelling a bad name, since economists (whom I described as "cheermongers") pointed out, essentially correctly, that price-driven technological innovation could often prevent collapse. This is borne out by the example of oil, where neither the price, nor the "proven world reserves", have changed much since 1975. But the present state of the world's fisheries shows that such Malthusian collapses can happen, especially when aided by both technology and government policy. One of these doomwatchers turned out to be a true prophet, Fred Hirsch, with his little book Social Limits to Growth, which predicted, spot on, the enormous growth in the cost of those goods that are truly not expansible: amenity land (Aspen, Cape Cod, Manhattan), elite education, fine art, antiques, and the like. What appears to be the case is that the consequences of unlimited growth are inevitable and, eventually, disastrous, but not amenable to such simple-minded modelling.

My third category, "extended gadgeteers", is where I place Michio Kaku and his new book, Visions. These futurologists focus on the prediction of technological innovation rather than on modelling or technology assessment. This seems to tempt them into the most incautious predictions.

Contrary to a claim in the introductory chapter of his book, it is not a new idea to attempt to compile a consensus of the "experts" in each field of endeavour: this is precisely the idea of the Delphi scheme, which was popular a couple of decades ago. To my knowledge, the results of Delphi have been no more reliable than any other. It is a common failing for such futurologists to ignore either the social and economic consequences of their predicted technologies, or the likely interactions between them. Thirty-five years ago Herman Kahn, for instance, envisioned a world full of rocket ships with no thought of the environmental consequences and the conflicts of amenity they would lead to.

Kaku is, understandably given the passage of time, much less naive and much more sensitive than Kahn or, for that matter, Denis Gabor, who wrote a book about his selection of the 100 greatest innovations of the future, of which the most memorable was a "technological fix" for slum clearance. Kaku devotes almost a whole chapter to such problems as global warming and overpopulation. But having claimed awareness of them, for him the thought that they involve hard choices and serious political conflicts does not arise.

In the end, what we have here is what is implied by the title: visions of possibilities that lie within the reach of present-day science, as foreseen by consultation with acknowledged "experts" in various technical fields.

Kaku slices this large cake three ways in subject matter and three ways in time: his three subject areas being the computer revolution, the biomolecular revolution, and what he calls the quantum revolution; his three time slices 20, 50 and 100 years. In the first two revolutions, which occupy well over half the book, Kaku has done precisely as advertised: he has gone to a great deal of trouble to consult the acknowledged experts and brought himself well up to speed in these active fields. For his 20-year period, one feels that his kind of linear extrapolation from what is now going on is pretty good. After all, we are in the earlier years of the Age of the Internet and close to halfway through the human genome project, and one can see at least vaguely, or at least imagine, where these are leading us. And for 20 years of the computer revolution, we are to benefit from "Moore's law" (one of the few really accurate predictions ever made) of exponential increase of computing power, to have ever faster and more all-pervasive computerisation of every facet of everyday life.

For the 50- and 100-year time frames, Kaku has consulted a selection of scientists who are working on the creation of machines that really think and really act independently, and the ideas he uncovers - if not the timetable - are fascinating and, indeed, to my knowledge, the best available. From 2050 on, he predicts, we shall begin to have to worry about machine consciousness. I, for one, am flabbergasted by the calm with which he seems to greet that idea, and do not believe that conscious robots can possibly be programmed to remain under the control of, or even remain benevolent to, their creators. Happily, my personal estimate of the requisite time scale is much more extended than the book's.

Next he deals with biomolecular technology. Again, for the first 20 years he can simply list the expected benefits of the human genome project and other ongoing initiatives involving science that is understood in principle: cures for cancer, yes, almost certainly; mitigation of many hereditary diseases, and a massive increase in life expectancy. But, in the next era, up to 2050, in a passage called "Angels in America" which left me aghast, he envisages the generation of human beings without genetic defects.

It was at this point that I began seriously to question what I was reading. In the passages on the computer revolution I had felt certain doubts as to whether the future that Kaku was projecting referred to the multibillionaire (Bill Gates as a prime example) individual or to the ordinary guy like myself. But in this biological reference frame it became quite clear that only the elite could possibly afford to be genetically scrubbed to produce "angelic" offspring. In both his chapters on computers, and his chapters on biology, the implication is that the wonders he envisages are more or less instantly available to all. The world does not work that way, and the serious future problem of allocation will not go away, nor will the political and social chaos that seems its inevitable consequence.

When we got to the quantum revolution I stopped and looked back at the list of scientists who were consulted and interviewed. For his 20-year slice, he discussed only electric cars and the possibility of molecular machines, and up to 2050 his list focused primarily on fusion power and on room temperature superconductors, and on all of these subjects the level of discussion was no match for that in Scientific American or the news columns of Science and Nature (not that these are necessarily authoritative sources). It is a useful rule of thumb to judge a book by those subjects with which one is familiar, and on my recent pet subject of superconductivity the book fails rather badly. (On fusion, incidentally, Kaku's estimate of the time until practical realisation is 35 years, almost exactly the interval that "experts" were projecting 40 years ago. He does not mention the very relevant problem of 13 Mev neutrons.)

When Kaku gets to his century time scale he comes into his own: antimatter engines, space warps, suspended animation, you name it. He is clearly an avid reader of science fiction, a deep believer that the validation of string theory is just around the corner, and an enthusiast for space travel. Kaku may be the kind of string theorist who sidesteps communication with those of his physicist colleagues who work with actual materials or do seriously applicable work. It is interesting that his dismissal of applications does not extend to biomedicine or to the mechanical engineering of robots, or to computer engineering and software.

Physics has become increasingly dichotomous, with one camp, of which string theorists are the epitome, concerned only with the pure subjects of elementary particles, cosmology, and gravitation. This group is increasingly losing touch with the rest of science and technology. The attitude towards the rest of us was once summed up by Murray Gell-Mann in the immortal phrase, "squalid state physicists". Unfortunately for Kaku, this is the part of physics that underlies not only the quantum revolution but his two previous revolutions as well; it has been called "the physics of complexity". In the event, Kaku's list of consultants did not contain a single member of the "other" three-quarters of physics, not a single materials scientist of any kind (chemist, chemical engineer, condensed matter physicist, metallurgist) and no one knowledgeable in the active and fashionable fields of nonlinear mechanics (popularly "chaos"), pattern formation, polymer physics and chemistry, granular materials, and so on.

In fact, what is striking about the list of names of scientists he consulted is the enormous areas of human knowledge that are not included: no geology (though lots of cosmology); no history, though one of the most significant lessons for the prospective futurologist is to know how little we really know about the past; no social science except a smattering of economists; no sociobiology (surely a vital area); no serious archaeologists. An indication of the author's attitude is found very early in the book - a remark casually agreeing with John Horgan that the "end of science" is at hand. To believe this you must restrict your definition of science sufficiently narrowly, as Horgan and Kaku do, to only those subjects about which it is easy to write popular books.

There are two vital facts that a study of some of those subjects might have taught Kaku. First, in human affairs, as in many truly complex dynamical systems such as evolution or tectonic motions, it is normal for change to occur very suddenly, in earthquakes, avalanches, revolutions, bankruptcies, extinctions, rather than gradually. This is one of the things that makes the future particularly hard to predict (as first stated not by Yogi Berra, who is quoted by Kaku, but by Odd Dahl, I believe). The second is the well-known law of unintended consequences. The real result, positive or negative, of any given bit of technology is never exactly what you expect, and can be far from expectations. Who could predict, for instance, that one of the major results of the globalisation of technology would be a worldwide explosion of fundamentalist religion?

Kaku's book is, then, an entertaining job of setting forth a selection of the goodies with which future technology may bless us. It will have an enthusiastic popular audience and will quite properly help generate public support for some aspects, though not necessarily the most useful ones, of science. As a reliable guide to the future - oxymoron is the word that comes to mind - it seems to me to lack depth, scepticism, and, in some areas, the relevant scientific background.

Philip. W. Anderson, Nobel laureate, is professor of physics, Princeton University.

Visions: How Science Will Revolutionise the 21st Century

Author - Michio Kaku
ISBN - 0 19 850086 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £18.99
Pages - 403

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