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Science fiction-style technology will be part of future, Kaku predicts

Michio Kaku discussed in his Distinguished Speakers Series lecture how the proliferation of computing will change our lives. Photo: Enid Bloch


Published September 26, 2013

“Your cell phone today has more computer power than all of NASA in 1969.”
Michio Kaku, Distinguished Speakers Series lecturer

Self-driving cars. Printed heart tissue. Synthetic telepathy. Toilets that read the chemicals in your urine and warn you when your health is out of whack.

These technologies may sound like science fiction, but they will all be a part of our future, said physicist, futurist, best-selling author and TV personality Michio Kaku, who visited UB last night as the inaugural presenter in the 2013-14 Distinguished Speakers Series.

“In the future, your wallpaper will be intelligent,” Kaku predicted.

In the world of tomorrow, he said, homeowners will plaster rooms with computerized smart paper that provides access to digital tools, including “robo-docs” who can answer late-night questions about common ailments. These personal physicians will cut down on calls to human doctors, greatly reducing the cost of health care.

Kaku, who is known in academic circles for his work on string theory, is beloved by the public as a popularizer of science. He has appeared on the Discovery Channel and BBC, hosted his own satellite radio show and—as he mentioned more than once during his lecture—penned two New York Times best-selling books on physics. He is Henry Semat Professor of Theoretical Physics at the City College of New York.

Michio Kaku signs copies of his books. Photo: Enid Bloch

Last night, a huge crowd funneled into Alumni Arena to hear Kaku speak. Special guests in the audience included students from many local schools, including a 10-year-old who asked Kaku what advice he had for a budding physicist-to-be.

Kaku’s response: Visit the planetarium. Buy a telescope. Explore the world, discover how big and glorious it is, and don’t take it too hard when other kids start calling you a nerd. It comes with the territory.

The question-and-answer session followed an hourlong lecture during which Kaku discussed how the proliferation of computing would change our lives.

Past innovations, including books and lightbulbs, made the evolution from coveted community resource to commonplace technology. Books, for instance, were once extremely rare. Scholars often shared a single volume. Then, the printing press and other advances made new copies so easy to create that the average person can now afford a personal library with hundreds of texts.

Computing has undergone a similar evolution. As Kaku noted in his talk, birthday cards that sing have more computing power than all the Allied Forces had in 1945. If Adolf Hitler had the chip in 1940, “we might all be speaking German here today rather than English,” Kaku said.

“In 1969, we put two men on the moon,” he added. “But, according to this chart, NASA had 64K processors in 1969. Your cell phone today has more computer power than all of NASA in 1969.”

“You’re not going to put me in one of those moon rockets,” he joked. “That’s a tin can, backed up by a cell phone!”

Music was the first industry to become digitized, Kaku said. Movies and newspapers are now making the transition. Medicine, education and transportation are next, he predicted.

As computing permeates every facet of our lives, we will move from an era of mass production to a time of mass customization, Kaku said.

Shoppers who see a stunning but ill-fitting dress in a store will be able to order a replica that hugs their body perfectly by paying with a credit card that holds information on their dimensions. Doctors will use 3-D printing to tailor-make hearts for patients who need a new one. Sick kids will send robot surrogates to class.

“You will never play hooky in the future,” Kaku said.

Computing will become so widespread and ingrained in our daily routines that it will be everywhere and nowhere, he said. We won’t think about it or talk about it, but it will be in our cars, in our walls and even directly in our eyes.

High-tech glasses and contact lenses will beam useful information into our retinas. Tourists will be able to resurrect and view ancient ruins, and watch as subtitles flash across their line of sight when someone speaks in another language. At cocktail parties, computerized eyewear will relay the names and backgrounds of people in the room.

This is called augmented reality. You may have seen it in the “Terminator” movies, Kaku said, pulling up a slide of Arnold Schwarzenegger (another former Distinguished Speakers Series presenter) in one of the films.

“This is the former governor of California,” Kaku said.

“When Arnold sees a victim, there’s a biography,” he added.

If this seems wild, maybe it shouldn’t.

Google already has developed a computerized Google Glass. Japanese robots can cook and play the trumpet, Kaku said. Researchers already have grown artificial bladders. Prototypes of driverless cars are already working.

It’s all happening now.