Interview: Dr. Michio Kaku on science, the future and the new space race
Renowned physicist and futurist Dr. Michio Kaku is about to start a speaking tour of New Zealand and Australia, speaking about no less weighty a topic than the future of humanity. We had a chance to speak to him about science, the new space race, AI and the greatest threats to humanity.
New Atlas: As one of the world's greatest science communicators, it seems you need to be ready to answer questions on anything from neural laces to the gut microbiome at the drop of a hat. How do you keep up with a field as big as science?
Well, it all started years ago when I was eight years old. Einstein had just died. Everyone was talking about the fact that he could not finish his greatest theory – the theory of everything.
I was a kid, I didn't know who Einstein was, but I said, "well I wanna try to finish it!" And today, we think we can do it! The theory of everything that Einstein tried to accomplish, that'd allow him to "read the mind of God" is, we think, string theory! And I'm one of the pioneers in this subject.
We think that all the sub-atomic particles can be reduced to vibrations on a tiny string. That's the theory of everything. Which is a Hollywood movie, which won the Oscars, but the movie didn't say what the name of the Theory of Everything is. The name of the theory is String Theory.
But on Saturday mornings, when I was a child, I used to watch cartoons like Flash Gordon. And I was hooked on rocketships. On starships. On ray guns and monsters. I mean, what's not to love in the Flash Gordon series? In fact, huge chunks of Flash Gordon were stolen by George Lucas and it became Star Wars.
Then I began to realize that the two passions of my life were really the same thing. If you understand physics, you understand what's possible, what's impossible and what's plausible in the coming centuries and decades. So in my books, I've interviewed over 300 of the world's top scientists to get the most realistic sense of where the next 20, 50, 100 years will be in terms of jobs, medicine, space travel, artificial intelligence. Because, you know, science is the engine of prosperity. That's where prosperity originally comes from. So if you understand science, you understand the future of the job market, the future of medicine, the future of the economy itself.
That's why I love to write about science and the future. Because at the foundation, it's physics and science.
New Atlas: If somebody wants to make the biggest possible contribution to humanity right now, what fields should they be pursuing?
That's a tall order! Basically, science is the engine of prosperity, so all the tremendous wealth that we see around us comes ultimately from science. If you wanna make a contribution, then make a contribution in science, to understand the world we live in, and to create the inventions which will eventually change everything.
We scientists, for example, created the transistor, which made possible the computer and the computer age. We invented the laser, which makes possible the internet. We wrote the World Wide Web to keep track of subatomic particles. And we also invented the X-Ray machine, television, radio, microwaves, RADAR, MRI scans… All of it came from the mind of a physicist.
And today, we physicists are moving ahead to create the next generation of rockets, of artificially intelligent robots. And we think this is going to enrich society and make the world a better place. The next set of inventions.
New Atlas: Are there particular fields you see as real growth areas right now?
Yeah. When you look at the waves of science, the first wave of prosperity came from the industrial revolution and the steam age. The second wave was Thomas Edison and electricity, the electric age. The third wave was high-tech, with computers and the Internet and the information age.
The fourth wave of prosperity and innovation, which I'll talk about in my upcoming speaking tour, will be led by artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and biotechnology. These will be the engine of the future that I'll talk about.
And of course I'll also talk about the future of humanity itself, when we go into outer space. Because space travel is becoming cheaper and cheaper every year. So I'll give you a sneak preview of what life will look like 20 to 50 years in the future.
New Atlas: Speaking of space travel, the end game might be that humanity might contribute something to the wider universe. Do you have a sense for what we might be able to bring to the table?
Well, first of all, the dinosaurs didn't have a space program, and that's why they're not at the table. It's why they're not here today. When that meteor or comet hit the Yucatan or Mexico 65 million years ago, they were clueless. They didn't know what hit them, and it completely destroyed the dinosaurs.
We, on the other hand, we control our fate. We control our destiny. We're not going to go the way of the dinosaurs, because we do have space travel. We do have a way to shape our destiny.
We will be in a position to contribute to that table once we become a multi-planet species. You know, Carl Sagan, the great astronomer, I had a chance to interview him once. And I asked "what is your goal in life?" And he said that his goal in life was to lay the foundations for a two-planet species.
We need an insurance policy, he said – not that we're gonna move everyone to Mars, that's too expensive. But we need a settlement on Mars, just in case something bad happens here on planet Earth. We need to be a two planet species.
And now, Elon Musk, a self-made billionaire, is making his own moon rockets! His own moon rockets, financed with his own personal checkbook. It's amazing. He's created the Falcon Heavy, a privately funded rocket, which can put astronauts on the moon, and eventually on Mars. He envisages one day having a settlement of maybe one day a million people living on Mars.
Then there's Jeff Bezos, the richest man on Earth, the founder of Amazon. He's creating his own personal space port, with his own private launch pad in Texas. He's going to launch reusable rockets for tourism, and eventually to send up an Amazon to the moon. Can you imagine being on the moon, and being able to order books through Amazon?
So yeah, real visionaries are opening up their checkbooks. They can't wait for NASA. They're funding it themselves because they want to open up the heavens for human exploration.
New Atlas: Yeah. I think everyone's pretty excited about this new space race that's going on. I just wonder, what pros and cons do you see about the fact that this is now a billionaires' hobby? There's a bit of ego getting involved, it's almost like the latest thing to get the guy who's got everything is to get him a space program. What pros and cons do you see about this being private, as opposed to a race between governments now?
Well, governments are very slow, very cautious, and cost isn't so important, so the budget just goes out of control, and the taxpayers eventually sour on the idea. In 1966, at the height of the Apollo space program, the Apollo program took up 5 percent of the entire US budget. That's unsustainable. That's incredible. 5 percent of every dollar you take in taxes went to the moon mission. It was unsustainable.
Now, prices have dropped, precisely because all these billionaires are beginning to bankroll these projects by themselves.
You know the move The Martian, starring Matt Damon? That move cost 100 million dollars. The Indians put a probe on Mars for just 70 million dollars. You realize that a Hollywood movie about going to Mars cost more than actually going to Mars! That's how much the cost of space travel has dropped.
And because we have these giant egos in Silicon Valley, they want to outdo each other. They want to compete to make the cheapest rocket that can fly to the moon. And that's why Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are working on reusable rockets.
It's just like a used car. The used car market revolutionized car ownership across the world. Teenagers can buy cars! Same thing with rockets. We'll have reusable rockets, made possible by egos in Silicon Valley, and that's gonna drop down the cost of space travel to the point where Mom and Dad could eventually go into outer space.
New Atlas: Are there any risks inherent in it, though? It seems to be driven by the passions of a few individuals – Musk, Bezos, Richard Branson has his own Virgin Galactic thing going – what happens if something happens to those guys?
Well, that's one of the defects of relying on private funding. But every funding supply has problems. The US federal government, for example, was funding this albatross of a Space Shuttle, which became so expensive that it was costing a billion dollars per launch. That's why the taxpayers, and president Barack Obama, pulled the plug on the Space Shuttle - prices were going out of control.
That's where private enterprise comes in. Private enterprise has no interest in paying huge sums of money for toilets and faucets made out of gold. They want things to be practical, efficient and on time.
NASA's moon rocket is called the SLS Booster Rocket. It'll cost 1 billion dollars per mission to go back to the moon, starting next year. Elon Musk said "no! I can do it at a fraction of the cost of the SLS, and instead of flying once a year, my rockets are reusable, they can fly several times a year."
That's going to revolutionize space travel. A little bit of competition is a good thing, because it keeps you on your toes, makes you create efficient rockets that are safe, and reliable, and eventually they'll pave the way toward space tourism.
I predict that in the future, one day people will honeymoon on the moon. It won't be such a remote target, because costs are dropping like a rock. It costs US$10,000 to put a pound of anything into orbit around the Earth. For you to go to the ISS, that costs your weight in gold! In the future, we'll do it for maybe 10 percent of that cost.
New Atlas: Have you got your hand up for a seat on the first space tourism flights?
No. I'm a scientist. I'm the guy who likes to theorize these things, design these things, work through all the potential problems. I'll leave it for the Air Force pilots to be the first to create a settlement and a colony on Mars!
You've gotta be pretty brave! It takes three days to go to the moon. It takes nine months to make it to Mars! The first people to go to Mars will be very brave. But by 2030, we think we'll have the first settlements on Mars, and by late 21st century, we could have a permanent Mars base on the Red Planet.
New Atlas: Obviously, the idea of becoming a multi-planet species is predicated on the fear that something might happen here on Earth. What are your top three biggest threats to humanity?
Let's be frank. Here on Earth – forget about space for a moment – we're facing some pretty big local problems. We have to solve them on the Earth.
First is global warming. The Earth is definitely heating up, and we have to find ways to reduce the cost of solar power. One way to do it is to create the super battery. We forget that solar cells are not that efficient, and we've pretty much squeezed most of what we can out of solar cells.
But its the battery that's the bottleneck for the solar age. And now, because there's so much interest in batteries thanks to all the lithium cells in your laptops and cellphones, inventors are creating the super-battery.
In fact, Elon Musk from Tesla Motors has said that Tesla will create a super-battery that can make utilities generate power even in peak summer and peak winter. So it's the batteries that'll allow us to enter the solar age.
The next thing we need to worry about is bio-warfare – germs that are weaponized and that might escape from the laboratory.
And the last is about nuclear proliferation. The bomb is proliferating in to some of the most dangerous places on planet Earth – the Middle East, for example. The Korean peninsula. These are very unstable areas, and the bomb is proliferating exactly where it should not be. These are real dangers that we humans need to solve on the Earth, even as we look into outer space.
New Atlas: It's almost like the same problems we've had for the last 30, 40 years – they just haven't gone away.
No! The Cold War is over, thank goodness, so we don't have to worry about a superpower exchange between Russia and the United States, but you could have a war between India and Pakistan, which is a very volatile area of the world. Not to mention, the North Koreans now have a small arsenal of nuclear weapons.
And look at the Middle East: Israel has nuclear weapons, and Iran! Even with the Iran treaty, Iran will have the nuclear bomb after the treaty expires. The treaty only talks about keeping the bomb away from Iran during the time of the treaty. When the treaty is over in 15 years, the Iranians could be one screw away from assembling a nuclear weapon. That's why we really need to consider nuclear proliferation to be a big problem.
New Atlas: You mentioned Artificial Intelligence. There's some folks that consider AI to be an existential threat to humanity. Where do you stand on that?
Well, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook says "bah humbug! AI is gonna generate jobs, prosperity, economic activity, it's gonna be great." And then Elon Musk says "ha! It's an existential threat, one day the robots could take over."
My attitude is that in the short term, the next several decades out to the end of the century, Zuckerberg is right. Artificial Intelligence is going to make life easier, better, cheaper, it'll create new jobs … I think the AI industry will be bigger than the car industry, because your car's gonna become a robot. You'll talk to your car. You'll argue with your car!
Now, in the long term, I think Elon Musk is correct. By the end of the century, AI could become as smart as a monkey. And monkeys are self-aware. So we should make sure we put some sort of chip in their brain to shut them off if they start having, say, murderous thoughts.
New Atlas: Obviously, the next question is, what about when they get smarter than us?
Well, let's talk about the 22nd century now, in that century they might find a way to get around all these failsafe systems we put into them. They won't be stupid, they'll figure it out eventually.
At that point, which I think will be in the 22nd century, we should think about merging with them. Why not become superman or superwoman? Why not have a robotic body that's immortal, that's perfect? Why not become perfection?
I think ultimately that's where it's leading, that we may merge with our creations. And we'll become beautiful, and super strong, capable of living on the moon, living on Mars, without a space suit, because we're superhuman.
And if one day, aliens land on the White House lawn and announce their existence, don't be surprised if we find that the aliens are part organic, and part cybernetic.
New Atlas: The question is, what do we offer to the machines after they've surpassed us in intelligence? Why would they want to merge with us?
That's probably the reason the aliens have left us alone, why they've never announced their existence. I mean, when you go to the forest, do you talk to the deer? Do you talk to the squirrels in the forest? Well initially, yeah, but after a while, you get bored, they have nothing to say to you. So you leave them alone. Same with the aliens. Maybe at some point they've made contact, but they've realized that we have nothing to offer them. So they leave us alone in the forest.
New Atlas: Give us a few million years to evolve, and maybe we'll come up with some original ideas?
We can speculate until we're blue in the face, because we have yet to meet an alien, but I think they're out there. There are so many planets out there that we've discovered already, billions of them. It's foolish to believe that we're the only game in town.
So the next time you're looking up at the night sky, realize that there could be somebody up there looking back at you wondering if there's life on Earth.
Remember, in my books I talk about the future. Not science fiction, I'm not a fiction writer, I'm a physicist. But I've had a chance to pick the brains of 300 of the world's top scientists about their work. Because they're inventing the future in their laboratories.
A list of Dr. Michio Kaku's upcoming tour dates can be found at his Facebook page. You can check out his many best-selling books at his website, mkaku.org