The future? You’re living in it, baby!

Visions, by Michio Kaku
Can you believe that this book is over a decade old?

Non-fiction books, especially science ones, have a terrible tendency to become dated very quickly, as the march of progress continues at an ever-increasing pace. Now consider that Visions, by Michio Kaku, was published in 1998 – over a decade ago. In that time, computers have gone from megabytes to gigabytes (and fast approaching terabytes), and we’ve gone from chunky mobile phones like the old brick of a thing that I used to own (an Ericsson GA628) to svelt smart-phones like the Apple iPhone that I’m now using – which is to say that things have changed. A lot.

This book is about the future, itself 10 years in the making as Kaku went around interviewing over 150 scientists from various disciplines. In other words some of the knowledge contained within this volume is probably over 20 years old! So the question is: does this book read like a misguided relic of the past, an accurate roadmap of our current journey, or the wild and crazy imaginings of a crack-pot? I’ll get to that presently, but first a quote:

By 2020, microprocessors will likely be as cheap and plentiful as scrap paper, scattered by the millions into the environment, allowing us to place intelligent systems everywhere. […] Scientists also expect the Internet will wire up the entire planet and evolve into a membrane consisting of millions of computer networks, creating an “intelligent planet”.

If you work for IBM or are familiar with their recent advertising, then this will probably sound very familiar – it’s essentially the message of Smarter Planet. Launched in 2008 almost exactly a decade after this book, Big Blue’s current corporate mission of creating a world that is intelligent, instrumented and interconnected* is described with almost uncanny accuracy in the early chapters of Visions. Subsequent chapters are equally prescient, if at times a little US-centric, as when one scientist predicts that “by 2010 the number of electric cars could balloon to the millions, especially as foreign competitors begin to market their version of the electric/hybrid”. Sorry Americans, but you weren’t first no matter where in history you care to look.

Something else that I found fascinating about this book is how it put scientific progress into historical perspective. Since 1998 we’ve experienced two globally significant events: September 11, 2001 and the Global Financial Crisis (2008), both of which caused great socio-economic upheaval, which would have greatly impacted many institutions’ abilities to obtain funding. Reading about the state of science at the end of the 20th Century and comparing it to where we are now, it’s both saddening and maddening to think about the negative impact that these stumbling blocks have had on progress. From the treatment of genetic diseases to the technologies that help address the world’s energy needs, so much could have been, but fortunately it is only delayed, not destroyed.

I always enjoy taking a peek at what’s going on behind the intellectual curtain, getting glimpses through places such as New Scientist magazine, Space.com or the odd TED video. Kaku not only peels back the cloth, but gives you the whole backstage tour. He has a wonderful ability to communicate complex subjects in a palatable way, without resorting to contortions of language and metaphor. I promise this won’t be the last time I cover Kaku on GeekReads, although hopefully I’ll get to his most recent book – Physics of the Impossible (published in 2008) – a bit quicker than I got onto this one!

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* Disclosure: I work for IBM, which is why I’m so well versed in this. But the thoughts and opinions expressed here on GeekReads are entirely my own, not IBM’s. They’re not paying me to plug their message – if only!

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