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Visions

How Science will Revolutionize the 21st Century. By Michio Kaku.

Michio Kaku: Visions. How Science will Revolutionize the 21st Century, Anchor Books, Doubleday 1997.

Also available in German: Zukunftsvisionen - Wie Wissenschaft und Technik des 21. Jahrhunderts unser Leben revolutionieren, Lichtenberg Verlag, ISBN 3-7852-8411-X, München 1998.


12.12.1998 · Reviewed by Jürgen Turek


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The Japanese physicist and future researcher Michio Kaku tells us the story of the 21st century. Is this possible in general and, if so, how? He admits that one person can not tell the complete story and he reminds us that future research often failed in the past. He's right, of course. So what has he done? His 'Visions' are the result of ten years' work. During this period, Kaku spoke to 150 important researchers and specialists in the U.S. and discussed intensively with them what is quite within the bounds of probability in the next century. These interviews serve as the basis for his predictions. (This is, by the way, the same method that is used with the Japanese Delphi Reports.) The experts are reckoning with some developments by 2050, with others by 2100. Therefore, Kaku explains, not all expectations and prognoses have the same character. Some of them are more speculative than others and the time frame of 100 hundred years can only be seen as a rough guide.

He identifies three central issues: the recognizable consequences of further digitalization for employment, communication and other aspects of daily life; the radical changes connected with fundamental progress in biotechnology and genetic engineering; the 'quantum revolution' as one of the most important powers that gives the mankind in the future the ability to controle all aspects of matter.

He starts his fascinating journey into the future with a short look back to the basic technological and societal transformation during the last 300 years that fundamentally changed the world. In the time of Isaac Newton, the 18th century, the most people were illiterates who never owned a book or wrote a letter. In the agricultural societies they had to work hard every day. There was little entertainment and after work sleep was neccessary to regain strength for the next day's labor. Most men knew the ache of hunger, and the average life expectancy was only 30 years. The 19th century was a time of extensive scientific explorations. Progress in sciences and medicine led people out of poverty and ignorance. At the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, the industrial revolution changed individual, political and societal life fundamentally.

Now, at the beginning of the 21st centrury, mankind and science have reached the end of an age. The secrets of the atom are known; the molecules of life are explored; the electronic steering of technological and economic processes is routine. These results of the quantum revolution, of the genetic revolution and of the computer revolution have revealed the basic laws of life. Now is the beginning of a new industrial revolution. Mankind will change from an object of nature to its subject. Kaku's main insight is that the time of scientific exploration is going to come to an end and an epoch of technological influence and power is going to start now.

What will be? From now to the year 2020 scientists are predicting an explosion of scientific activities the world has never seen before. On the basis of the results of both key technologies - computerization and biotechnologization - new industries will emerge and others will disappear. By 2020 microprocessors will be as cheap as notebook paper today. Computers and intelligent systems will influence everything in daily life. People will have intelligent buildings, TVs, clothes or cars at their disposals; the internet will embrace the world and will create an "intelligent planet." The growth of biotechnoloy will be similar spectacular. In the year 2020 we will know the genetic code of thousands of different living things and everybody will be able to save his personal DNA-code on a compact disc.

At a rough guess, in 2020 these developments will reach their limits. Conventional computer technology and biotechnology can't grow endlessly. The boundaries of silicium technology will force science to invent new technologies, from optical, molecular and DNA-computers to quantum-computers. By the year 2050, the microprocessor will disappear and quantum physics will be the dominant technology. On this basis, new technologies will conquer new markets all over the world. Robots that are able to think, to speak and to learn by themselves could be possible. The progress of biotechnoloy will cause new problems. Mankind will own all relevant information about millions and millions of genes. Between 2020 and 2050 the question is not to decode the genetic code but asking to the relation between them. Scientists will be able to discover the complex correlations among genes and find methods to heal diseases like cancer or schizophrenia. Additionally, many prognoses assume that it is probable that we will find and influence the genes that steer the ageing process.

Then, at the end of the 21st century, these inventions and innovations will be ripe. Robots will acquire a special kind of awareness. Biotechnological progress will enable people to create new forms of living things and to improve the medicine, health care and nutrition. People will be able to improve genetically the abilities of their children, which will set many ethical questions on the future agenda. For the 22nd century scientists predict a fusion of computerization, biotechnologization and quantum theory.

Is this the way to Huxley's "Brave New World?" Not for Michio Kaku and many others. The pressure of social change on society, politics and economy will be enormous and Kaku's vision is that technological progress will compel the mankind to build up a world society. In the next century technology will set the course to a world that is less and less national and more and more global. He admits that there will be dangers like nuclear wars or environmental disasters. However, at the end he sees real chances that mankind is on the way to a planetary civilization which will create a new age. Will this be? Kaku's visions give us a strong and detailed impression about what can be. Of course, he is right to emphazise the rough character of his estimations, but a lot of developments he describes are foreseeable and knowing the exact time of innovations is not the problem. The challenge is to search for answers to the linked social, ethical, political and economic problems of how we want to live tomorrow.
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