Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Another look at a forward-looking book

kw: updated book review

In an earlier post a few days ago, I reviewed Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku. Looking back, I did not do it justice. I was in a bit of a snit over something unrelated, and let it influence the review much too much.

It is a very well thought-out book, in the tradition of earlier books that made predictions that were reasonable and surprisingly accurate. This is because they took advantage of the vision of numerous researchers who were making these futures come to pass. I expect some of Dr. Kaku's expectations to also come to pass. They are well founded in trends we see today.

For example, it is likely that "room temperature" (or higher) superconductivity will be developed within this century. What would this lead to? Present superconductors work at temperatures as high as 133K (-140°C or -220°F). There are claims of superconductivity a hundred degrees C higher, but these materials require high pressure. If superconductivity that remains in effect under a summer sun can be developed, it will probably be found prior to 2100 AD. If, then, such materials can be produced cheaply, some fascinating possibilities arise.

A shallow bowl made of superconducting material will levitate any magnet, up to some limit of magnetic intensity. The intrusion of a magnetic field causes electric current to flow, which excludes the field. This countervailing force lifts the magnet above the superconductor. If a superconductor is created in a large magnetic field, when the field is removed, a current is set up in the superconductor that replicates the field, making it a strong permanent magnet. This latter effect can be used to make super-efficient electric motors and generators.

The former effect can be exploited to levitate things like automobiles, but this assumes that the superconducting material is as cheap as asphalt. Given that, you could pave the interstate highway system with the stuff, put big superconducting permanent magnets in vehicles, and transport becomes very low-cost. Dr. Kaku says it is "almost free" to move something from L.A. to New York along such a roadway. That depends on speed. Air resistance is proportional to the square of velocity. When you have a tailwind, just put up a sail, and you'll soon be zipping along "as fast as the wind". Of course, a quartering wind would require some means of preventing sideslip; the roadway would need to be cupped, for example. But at least half the time there would be no wind, or a headwind, and you'd need a small jet engine to propel the vehicle.

Then there is nanotechnology. What we might call "minitechnology" has led to the 3D printer, that makes shapes from a special plastic, that can be used as a lost-wax (or lost-polymer) process to form a metal part with a complex shape. More recently, 3D printers have been used to produce such things as a running, wind-up clock, though I don't think it runs very long on a plastic spring. The next step is multi-material printing. Then, as the size of the printing "dot" decreases, we could approach total control of material properties by laying down layers atom-by-atom.

I had a "hold your horses" moment when I read about that. It is one thing to move copper atoms about on a carbon surface using an AFM tip, to do things like spell out IBM. Consider that placing each atom requires about a minute's time. Let's let a version of Moore's Law run on this one, and posit doubling the placement speed every two years for sixty years: 230 = 1.07 billion, so the placement time becomes about sixty nanoseconds per atom. Let's see, a billion Iron atoms (atomic mass 56) weighs 93 femtograms, or about 1/10 picogram. That is a cube 227 nanometers across, laid down in about one minute. If you can make something useful, some kind of nanobot, that is about that size, you really have something. But it isn't a useful way to make an automobile or even a compound microscope. As the author notes, getting the atoms to stay where you put them is the real problem.

Is genuine immortality a possibility? More practically, is it possible to eliminate all causes of death other than boneheadedness or accident? Further, is it possible to eliminate aging, so living a very long life doesn't mean being thrust into centuries of misery? Our descendants will need to tackle some very hard problems for this: repair of mitochondrial breakdown; DNA repair; telomere repair that doesn't trigger cancer. Here's what I want: A health span that equals my life span. If the body is subject to all these breakdowns, I want technologies that stave off the painful symptoms of that breakdown until "it is time to go", then a convenient and painless means of closing out life. I am not afraid of death, just of the process of dying.

The most intriguing predictions relate to mental control of our gadgets. With computer methods of interpreting brain waves, we can learn to think thoughts that direct the actions of any machine with an appropriate interface. Some of the prospects are fascinating: Waking up and directing the house to get my clothes out, cook my breakfast, and set my lunch by the door; or carrying on my work by thought control (though I type at 60 wpm). But I am not sure I want someone to come around the corner packing a thought-triggered 9mm Glock, who happens not to like my looks. There are some technologies we need to refrain from developing until psychology is sufficiently developed to identify and repair those who are a bit too Cave Mannish, and have poor impulse control. I don't just mean teenagers, either. I work in a building that has nobody under the age of 35, and in the men's restroom every day I see evidence of "adults" whose mother didn't train them right. I don't know what the women's restroom is like…

Dr. Kaku writes of the developing planetary civilization. This doesn't mean necessarily a one-world government. But some kind of peaceable federation is required. He also introduces the Kardashev typology of world economies, based on total energy use:
  • Type I represents a planetary civilization that uses energy at the rate sunshine falls on the planet. In Earth's case, that would be about 1017 watts, or about 10,000 times current energy consumption.
  • Type II uses about ten billion (1010) times as much energy, or roughly the total energy output of the sun. In Earth's case, the sun produces 2.2 billion times as much energy as what falls on the planet's surface (or upper atmosphere).
  • A Type III civilization uses energy at a galactic level, another factor of about ten billion. In the case of a large galaxy like the Milky Way, there are 100 billion stars or more, but most of them are smaller than the Sun, so the entire galaxy's energy production might be 20 billion times that of the Sun.
On this scale, we can linearize it by taking the logarithm, and the factor of 10,000 mentioned above means that we are a Type 0.6 civilization. It's a long way to Type 1.0 (Type I).

I could go on; it is a big book, full of fascinating ideas. In a few places, the author predicts this or that word will fall out of use. One is cash. If we can make the transition to a truly abundance-based economy, so that anything (within some reasonable limit) can be had for the asking, money loses its power and its value (except for desires outside the "reasonable limit"). Whether this will lead to a world of slackers is uncertain. I'll leave the philosophizing to others for the nonce. I'm just glad I decided to go back and take another whack at the review.

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