Physicist and television host sees future for nanotechnology and AI

Foresight Board of Advisors member law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds reviewed Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future, which he describes as “a wide-ranging tour of what to expect from technological progress over the next century or so.” From “Let’s Hope the Robots Are Nice“:

Do not rage against the machine. Embrace the machine.

That is the core message of Michio Kaku’s “Physics of the Future.” …

Nanotechnology will be at first rare and expensive and, by the end of the century, commonplace and cheap, largely fulfilling the predictions of pioneering scientists such as Richard Feynman and Eric Drexler. In a world where programmed molecular assembly powered by sunlight can produce almost anything out of raw materials, material wealth will be widespread. …

Prof. Reynolds agrees with Prof. Kaku’s “largely optimistic view” of nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and the future overall, but points to one disturbing passage that concerns the present—not the future:

The most disturbing passage in “Physics of the Future” doesn’t concern the future; it’s about the present. In that passage, Mr. Kaku recounts a lunchtime conversation with physicist Freeman Dyson at Princeton. Mr. Dyson described growing up in the late days of the British Empire and seeing that most of his smartest classmates were not—as prior generations had been—interested in developing new forms of electrical and chemical plants, but rather in massaging and managing other people’s money. The result was a loss of England’s science and engineering base.

Now, Mr. Dyson said, he was seeing the phenomenon for the second time in his life, in America. Mr. Kaku, summarizing the scientist’s message: “The brightest minds at Princeton were no longer tackling the difficult problems in physics and mathematics but were being drawn into careers like investment banking. Again, he thought, this might be a sign of decay, when the leaders of a society can no longer support the inventions and technology that made their society great.”

The future belongs to those who show up. Mr. Kaku’s description of that future is an appealing one. But will we show up?

Is Prof. Dyson’s assessment an accurate description of the current state of Western civilization in general and the US in particular? My (thoroughly non-scientific and limited) casual observations suggest that it is. The workhorses of the scientific enterprise are postdoctoral research associates (and to a lesser extent, graduate students). When I began my research career in the early 70s most postdocs were American and most of the ones who were not were European. When I (briefly) attempted to get back into research last year nearly all the postdocs I saw were Asian (not Americans of Asian descent, but visitors from Asia). It is wonderful that American universities attract such talented, energetic visitors, but worrisome that we are no longer “growing our own”. Is the US making the necessary effort to “show up” for the future?

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