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November 16, 2012

Michio Kaku Sketches Technological Wonderland of the Future at SC12

Ian Armas Foster

Imagine a world where a computer chip costs just a penny. They could be embedded anywhere and everywhere, including the wallpaper of your house. Instead of sitting home alone on a Friday night drinking oneself into a stupor, one could simply go to his wall and look up others who are alone looking at their wall on a Friday night in order to find a companion for the night.

Dr. Michio Kaku, celebrity physicist who has written New York Times Bestselling books, Physics of the Impossible and Physics of the Future, talked about the implications of this smart wall and much more in his much-anticipated keynote address at Supercomputing 2012 (SC12) this week in Salt Lake City, where he discussed the huge role that high performance computing will play in the year 2100.

Since the 18th century, science and technology have been key to attaining wealth in this world, Kaku observed. When physicists figured out the laws of thermodynamics and were thus able to calculate the amount of energy and power one could derive from manipulating steam, the Industrial Revolution ensued. The steel mills and railroads that followed generated tremendous revenue, but after too much of that wealth was invested in railroads on the London Stock Exchange, the system ground to a halt in 1850.

Incidentally, in 1850 the Industrial Revolution was just getting underway in the United States. While part of that had to do with the relative youth of the country, an amusing part (in a historical sense anyway) had to do with Britain’s flat refusal to let so much as a blueprint leave their country. It wasn’t until Francis Cabot Lowell returned to America with the technical specifications in his photographic memory that the revolution took off in the US.

Either way, by the time Maxwell’s light equations and Faraday’s force field lines began paving the way for physicists harnessing the power of electricity and magnetism, the United States had clearly made up their deficit from the Industrial Revolution delay. But once again, an unsustainable portion of the ensuing wealth was poured into one thing, in this case the utilities. As a result, the New York Stock Exchange crash of 1929 plunged the US into the Great Depression, Kaku noted.

Physicists, as Kaku continued setting the historical scene, then further manipulated the laws of electricity and magnetism to create machines that could add large numbers together by simply flipping little magnets. These machines were called computers. The led to a third expansion of wealth, a third improper allocation of investments (this time in the housing market), and a third economic collapse.

This is an intriguing and relevant history for one paramount reason: the people in the audience listening to Dr. Kaku talk about the results of the first three technological revolutions will be the people responsible for the fourth. Kaku calls the upcoming 80 years an “era of high technology.” Some may call it the Information Revolution. Whatever the new era happens to be called, advances in supercomputing will drive it.

The benefits as Dr. Kaku predicts them are vast and can be best described in terms of vocabulary that will become obsolete. Cars will be able to drive themselves, essentially eliminating the 30,000 auto accident deaths a year in the United States. As Kaku puts it, the term “car accident” will become passé. In fifty years, the word “traffic” may refer more to the 1960’s musical group than a bottleneck of automobiles.

Like the word “polio,” the word “tumor” could be relegated to a reminder of unpleasant times past, as smart toilets equipped with computer chips hooked up to a supercomputing network analyze DNA for signs of cancerous cells. Destroying those cancerous cells individually through nanotechnology, instead of through brute force chemotherapy could become possible. Perhaps most impressively, MRIs could literally be conducted from a Star Trek-like Tricorder, as chips extend magnetic fields from supercomputers such that they envelop a person like a natural MRI machine.

Further, like society simply accepts running water and electricity as facts of life that need not be mentioned, computers are likely to be accepted a similar fact of life. As computer chips are imprinted onto almost everything, from walls to paper, to clothing, to contact lenses, the entire world becomes, in essence, one large, networked computer.
How will this all happen? Through a system of mass producing computer chips where each chip costs about a penny. While Kaku leaves it somewhat unclear how exactly that will happen (he’s a string theory physicist after all), it is clear that the path is not through silicon. Moore’s Law, the physical constraint which allows chip size to halve every 18 months or so, is slowing down.

That notion led to possibly the most harrowing possibility Kaku brought up: Silicon Valley becoming somewhat of a rust belt in the next 20 to 25 years. However, this should not be news to those in the know. As with previous technological advancements, businesses will have to adapt or be left by the wayside.

Maybe carbon nanotubes will take silicon’s place. Maybe that job falls to quanta. Either way, according to Kaku, the cheapening of these computing resources will lead to a much more automated the needs of society.

Of course, with increased automation comes an anxiety that the automation will replace humans. To a certain extent they will, says Kaku, but not to the extent that many may fear. It is important to remember that computers at their core are highly intricate adding machines. So only those with jobs that are highly iterative and repetitive, accountants for example, may need to worry, he argues.

The marketplace as Kaku sees it is shifting from a commodity-based system to one based in intelligence and creativity. For example, computer hardware can be mass-produced without much human intervention. Software cannot. It requires common sense, intuition, and creativity to produce software. Jobs that require those skills will persist. For the most part, those jobs will require a fair amount of higher education. Those which don’t require common sense, intuition, and creativity—the most boring of desk jobs—will  cease to exist according to Kaku.

An audience member brought up an interesting point during the Q and A session: if we know that this upcoming information revolution will come to a head in 80 years or so, how do we avoid the bubble bursting once again? According to Kaku, the answer lies in changing investment rules to control reckless speculation.

Interestingly, the nature of the oncoming information revolution might actually be able to prevent such unsustainable growth. Today’s predictive analytics are far superior to those of four years ago and may have been able to warn investors when markets become over-heated.

As SC12 wraps up, it is important to remember how key the HPC industry will be in advancing society throughout the next 80 years. Dr. Kaku was preaching to the choir here in his keynote speech, but those songs resonate with scientific and societal reality.

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