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The Psychology of Scientific Advancement

A "The Eminents" interview with Michio Kaku

Cristiano Sant´Anna, CC 2.0
Source: Cristiano Sant´Anna, CC 2.0

We’re intrigued by scientific advancement and futures but also scared by them. It’s been said, only half-joking, that the only people who welcome change are wet babies.

So I’m pleased that today’s The Eminents Interview is with Michio Kaku. He is arguably the world’s most famous science popularizer. Although a professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York, he has written three New York Times best sellers, including a #1 bestseller, The Future of the Mind, which the Times' book review called “compelling” and Nature called “fascinating.” He has hosted TV specials for BBC, Discovery Channel, and Science Channel.

Marty Nemko: You’re known for your long-term predictions. Have any shorter ones?

Michio Kaku:  We’re already able to upload some simple memories in mice and soon in primates. Pretty soon, we should be able to do so with Alzheimer’s patients. And perhaps they’ll be able to use a brain pacemaker: a button that a wandering patient can push that will send memories to their brain so they can remember who they are, where they live, and how to get home.

I predict that technology will enable people to transmit their neuronal, actual feelings over the Internet. So on Facebook, teens will send actual emotions of their first dance, first date, first kiss. Today's movie will become obsolete. Instead of having to infer feelings, in tomorrow's movies, we'll be beamed not just the audio and video but the characters' emotions (electrical signals) and thus we'll feel them.

And not that much further out, today’s clunky smart glasses will be replaced by smart contact lenses. We’ll command them by voice, blinking, or even thinking, to interact visually in 3-D with the Internet.

MN: If you had fiat power, what would your first edict be to better prepare the next generation for the science-centric world they’ll inherit?

MK: I’d transform science education: Our science education does a great job of training people for the world of 1950. We’ve done a miserable job of preparing people for today’s world, let alone tomorrow’s. Year in and year out, in science, reading, and math, American students score near dead-bottom among developed nations. We need less memorization—I never memorized the periodic table of the elements—I’ve never used it, and I’m a physicist!  I can look it up. In the future, we’ll blink and we’ll see it in our contact lenses. Forcing students to learn things like the periodic table crushes them

We need more concept-development and active involvement, less tuning forks, pulleys, and friction formulas—students know they’ll never use those. They need more study of outer space and DNA. They need more exciting teaching, more fair-minded encouragement, more career guidance, more mentorship. Both students and teachers need more feedback. It would help if we stopped protecting bad teachers—It’s very difficult to get rid of even sexual perverts let alone just bad teachers.

We also need an enduring, robust theory of education. Now, it seems education careens from one fad to another and often back again. I think that with better education and students willing to put in the 10,000-hours to become expert, we could develop better science professionals, even theoretical physicists.

MN: I attended a panel discussion among five Nobelists who agreed that, moving forward, physics discoveries will be dwarfed by the biological: personalized cures for depression, for cancer, even artificially created human beings. Agree?

MK: I don’t. We’ve had three technological revolutions that have changed the course of human history, all driven by physics. In the first, the industrial revolution, physicists developed Newtonian mechanics and thermodynamics, which gave us the steam engine and machine power. The second technological revolution was the electricity revolution. That gave us radio, television, and telecommunications. Then, physicists developed the laser and the transistor. That gave us the high-tech revolution: computers, the Internet. The fourth revolution will be the molecular one. That will give us advanced artificial intelligence, nanotech and biotech. The basis of all of that is physics. When you work in the DNA molecule, for example, in the attempt to prevent cancer or mental retardation, you need to know all the angles that created the subatomic bondings—that’s physics. I really think we’d be wise to direct more funding to basic physics.

MN: To date, technology advances have created more jobs than they eliminated. But many people worry that in today’s information age and tomorrow’s molecular age, with the rapid progress in robots’ capability, this time will be different. What do you think?

MK:  Until computers and robots make quantum advances, they basically remain  adding machines: capable only of doing things in which all the variables are controlled and predictable. Robots are bad at pattern recognition and certainly at common sense. That’s why computers can beat humans in chess but can’t have even a basic conversation with a six-year-old.

MN: Isn’t that changing rapidly? For example, Pepper the Robot is already used as a hospital receptionist and can “read” whether people are happy, sad, or angry and respond appropriately. I worry that the many jobs that aren’t cognitively complex will be replaced by technology: from robot retail clerks to driverless vehicles to a robot nurse.

MK: Language and emotions are too easily misread. For example, laughing can mean many things: laughing with you or at you. Does that laugh reflect  joy, anger, or that s/he’s about to fire you? Too many jobs require complex feelings, pattern recognition, common sense, and the human touch.

MN: Most people welcome gene editing that would prevent or cure disease. But some people worry about enhancing normal function, for example, allowing parents to elect to ensure their future children’s genome will predispose them to a life of physical and emotional health and of success. What’s your take on the likely feasibility and desirability of that?

MK: It’s inevitable that we’ll have some form of designer children, fueled not just by the science but by parents’ hard-wired desire to give their children every advantage. We give violin lessons even if not necessary. We buy them specific clothing so they’re popular. When we’ve identified gene clusters to improve memory, concentration (no ADD,) reduce excessive thrill-seeking (drug abuse, reckless driving,) we will have a hard time stopping parents from getting that for their kids, even if they have to go to an under-the-radar doctor as people did to get abortions when it was illegal.

Sure, there are potential dangers. For example, we don’t want to so limit people’s aggression that they become docile sheep of the state. And there may be unforeseen consequences. I believe that the best approach will be to have an open conversation now, so that when the technology becomes available, we can make a wise choice on what the government’s role should be: Restrict it? Subsidize it or its availability to the poor? I have faith that a democratic society will, when the time comes, make wise decisions even if they don’t comport with today’s values.

MN: For more than a half-century now, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project has crowd-sourced massive computing power to search the universe for signs of other civilizations. What's the basis of your optimism or pessimism that this effort will bear fruit?

MK: We’ve scanned only an infinitesimal fraction of the stars out there. Worse, we’ve done it using old, old technology: radio waves. With 100 billion galaxies out there and 100 billion stars in each, to assume we’re the only intelligent creatures among the 1x1022 stars is naive. By the next century, I envision we’ll be able to laser-port: put your consciousness (a connectome, which is the complete map of the human brain down to the neuron) onto a laser beam and shoot it into outer space. In just one day, your consciousness will be on Pluto and in four years, you’ll be in the nearest star. With the billions of stars out there, many of which have planets that likely could sustain earthly life, it seems likely that there are sentient civilizations out there more advanced than ours that are laser-porting their consciousness to us right now!  But we’re yet not advanced enough to know how to look for that.

MN: NASA efforts have yielded practical discoveries but, with all the problems we face on earth, isn’t the opportunity cost too great to spend billions to, for example, see if there’s water on Jupiter? Yes, space research is literally awesome but is the price too great?

MK: The public doesn’t realize how much space research and explorations have already improved humankind. For example, satellite weather forecasting enables us to, for example, anticipate earlier where a hurricane will hit. Space research has helped create the Internet, which facilitates commerce, banking, homeland security, maybe even this phone call. Space research has accelerated computers’ miniaturization into, for example, the iPhone, because in a spacecraft, space is at a premium.

Plus, where do jobs come from? Innovation, which usually has its roots in science. The invention merely of one item—the transistor—has created countless jobs. But politicians don’t prioritize that—they’re too responsive to all sorts of special interests. There’s so much waste, fraud, and abuse. If we reallocated even a fraction of that to space research, the world would be better off.

MN: You propose a theory of consciousness. What is it?.

MK:  What differentiates human from lower-animal consciousness is time. You can’t explain the concept of “tomorrow” to your dog. Our consciousness is dominated by time—We’re constantly running simulations of the future. Our brain is a prediction machine. The hallmark of intelligence, indeed of genius, is the number and complexity of the feedback loops we use in predicting the future. For example, when we walk into a room, we’re sizing up whom we should approach, be afraid of, and suck up to. Our consciousness may come to be defined as the number of feedback loops needed to create an accurate model of yourself in space and time.

A related aspect of intelligent consciousness is delay of gratification: the wisdom to accurately predict whether delay rather than acting on impulse will yield greater benefit.

Now let’s look at collective consciousness, which Einstein referred to as “the mind of God.” This is necessarily abstract: String theorists now believe ours is only one of many parallel universes moving in an 11-dimension hyperspace. We believe that “the mind of God” may be cosmic music (electrical signals) resonating through that hyperspace.

MN: What’s next for Michio Kaku?

MK:  On my office wall, there’s a photo of Einstein in front of his unfinished attempts to create a grand unified theory. I may or may not be able to accomplish that but it is that to which I aspire.

Dr. Nemko’s nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at