If you were on fire and Michio Kaku walked by and, instead of calling for help or putting you out, sat down next to you with a smile and said, “you know, there’s a really interesting thing that happens to your body at this temperature,” and expounded on that thought for the remainder of your life, your last thought would be, “wow, that was fascinating. I would thank him for his time if my tongue hadn’t melted into my jaw.”
I dearly hope to be in Michio Kaku’s company when the world ends, so I can get an educational play by play of the destruction. He’s basically a sexier Carl Sagan, and has done nearly as much for the popularization of science, and far be it from me to criticize a man who built a particle accelerator in high school.
Oh, not that far, actually. It was right at the bottom of my wine glass. Off we go.
A couple of months ago I picked up Physics of the Future. The intro is a readable if slightly self-aggrandizing ramble where Kaku compares himself to Jules Verne and Leonardo da Vinci.1 I won’t fault him for that until I build a few particle accelerators of my own. The bulk of the book is an intensely researched and mind-bending exploration of current technology and where the people developing it think it might go in the next hundred years. I cannot recommend pages 19 through 3522 strongly enough.
Then comes chapter 9, titled A Day in the Life in 2100.
First of all, it’s written in the second person. The only extended second person narrative that I’ve ever seen pulled off was Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, and frankly it was one of Tom Robbins weaker works, but Tom Robbins can get away with almost3 anything because he never explicitly admits how many drugs are involved in his stories and we’re all waiting for that. Second person is always jarring, and even if you get the reader into it, the reader’s going to have some personal reactions to what they’re being told they are thinking and doing. For instance:
Suddenly your wall screen lights up. A friendly, familiar face appears on the screen. It’s Molly, the software program you bought recently. Molly announces cheerily, “John, wake up. You are needed at the office. In person. It’s important.”
“Now wait a minute, Molly! You’ve got to be kidding,” you grumble. “It’s New Year’s Day, and I have a hangover. What could possibly be so important anyway?”
Dialogue not so good, but I’ve read worse. However, my name’s not John. The next couple of pages is John-me’s morning ritual, which is pretty cool. I-John controls most of his apartment with his mind. Eventually, he gets to work.
The conference room is nearly empty, with only a few coworkers sitting around the table. But then, in your contact lens, the 3-D imaged of the participants begin to rapidly materialize around the table. those who cannot come to the office are here holographically.
… yet I had to crawl out of bed for this …
You glance around the room. Your contact lens identifies all the people sitting at the table, displaying their biographies and backgrounds. Quite a few big shots here, you notice. You make a mental note of the important people attending.
The mental note seems superfluous, since most of the rest of this vignette is about how these tasks are automatic in the future. It also seems like a superfluous sentence because it’s a superfluous sentence. The meeting plods along for a page and a half; apparently I-John works as an engineer for a robotics company that builds the robots that maintain the dams around New York City, because global warming fucked us hard and often in the future. One of these dams has been damaged.
Finally, you summon the nerve to interrupt your boss. “Sir, I hate to say this, but looking at the leak in the dike, the crack looks suspiciously like a mark left by one of our own robots.
Aloud murmur immediately fills the room. You can hear the rising chorus of objections: “Our own robot? Impossible. Preposterous. It’s never happened before,” people protest.
If I’m ever a robotics engineer designing the most important robots in New York City and I have to call my boss sir, I’m putting out my resume. More importantly, for a room full of people running a robotics company, their objections suggest a disturbing lack of statistics education. Turns out one of the robots went nuts, past evidence notwithstanding, because past evidence never withstands.
“Our robots have had a perfect record.” your boss insists. “Absolutely spotless. Not a single robot has caused any harm, ever. Their fail-safe mechanism have proven effective again and again. We stand by that record. But as you know, our latest generation of advanced robots use quantum computers, which are the most powerful available, even approaching human intelligence. Yes, human intelligence. And in the quantum theory, there is always a small but definite probability that something wrong will happen. In this case, go berserk.”
Okay, I would assume that the emergency response team for this company would know what quantum computers are and what they do, and—wait, what? You put unpredictable quantum computers with no fail-safes into the brains of the robots THAT KEEP THE ATLANTIC OCEAN FROM DROWNING THE WHOLE FUCKING CITY?
I can’t wait to be at the next shareholder’s meeting.
I-John get/s home. There’s some more filler about the bathroom automatically checking DNA and doing the equivalent of an annual physical while I-John washes up. Eventually the doctor calls and informs John-me that we almost had cancer.
“Yes, today we can spot cancer years before a tumor forms, says Dr. Brown.
“Tumor? What’s that?”
“Oh, that’s an old-fashioned word for a type of advanced cancer. It’s pretty much disappeared from the language. We never see them anymore,” adds Dr. Brown.
Is everybody in the future stupid? It’s true that kids these days don’t know what a CD player is, but I’m thirty-one, and I know enough about the past to make bar conversation without sounding like I’ve been living in a cave my whole life. And I-John is seventy-two. I dearly hope that by that age I’ll have learned some basic history, especially if I’m in a technical field and still physically thirty. If the price of near-eternal youth is acting like a college sophomore for all time, I’m having doubts.4
I-John goes on to set up an internet date and buy some gifts for his nephew or something.
The mall suddenly appears on the wall screen. You wave your arms and fingers, and the image on the wall screen traces a path through the mall. You take a virtual your until you arrive at the image of the toy store. Yes, they have exactly the for robot pets you want. You telepathically order the car to take you to the mall. (You could have ordered the toy online. Or you could have had the blueprints e-mailed to you, and then had your fabricator materialize the toy at home from scratch using programmable matter. But it’s always good to get out of the apartment and shop once in a while.)
I understand it will be harder to get people out of the house in the future. I can work from home as effectively as I work at the office today, so I eschew commuting whenever it makes sense. But … to the mall? That’s the excuse the citizens of the future will need to get out of the house?
“Yes, I want to buy a robot dog.”
You look over the latest robot dogs. Amazing what these pet robots can do, you say to yourself. The can play, run, fetch, do anything a dog can do. Everything but pee on the carpet. Maybe that’s why parents buy them for their kids, you muse.
No fucking way, Holmes. Also, this is a missed opportunity, since the other things robot dogs can’t do is die or be the sole specimen of their genome, and that has far more interesting psychological consequences than the inability to destroy carpeting.
Then you ask the robot clerk, “I’m buying a robot pet for my six-year-old nephew. He’s a very intelligent, hands-on type of kid. But he’s also sometimes shy and quiet. What kind of dog might help bring him out of his shell?”
The robot replies, “I am sorry, sir. That is outside my programming. Perhaps I can interest you in a space toy?”
You forgot that robots, no matter how versatile, have a long way to go before they understand human behavior.
When I program my service industry robots, they will be programed for this question, and they will reply, “Thank Christ you don’t have kids of your own, because you have less understanding of human nature than my shiny metal ass. Want a dog to cure ADD too? It’s over their in the dumbass aisle, next to the bridges.” Also, if this was a teenager, I could understand wondering why robots can’t answer questions about emotions, but this is a seventy-two-year-old guy who designs robots for a living.
Then you go to the men’s department store. Time to replace that ratty old outfit of yours if you want to impress your date. You put on some designer suits. They all look stylish, but they are all the wrong size. You are disappointed. But then you take our your credit card, which contains all your precise 3-D measurements. Your data is fed into the computer, and then a new suit is being cut at a factory and will soon be delivered to your door. A perfect fit every time.
My primary criticism here is that I-John runs around this world he’s seen develop around him for seven decades and has emotional reactions to it closer to those of someone from 1980 who was thawed out a month ago.
We eventually get to the date.
You grab some flowers along the way, and finally pick up your date. You are pleasantly surprised. you hit it off right away. Something is clicking.
Another missed opportunity. This is essentially an internet date, full of all the intimacy issues we’re sorting out in beginning of this century. There are all kinds of interpersonal issues at hand in a future where virtual is ubiquitous and all but indistinguishable from reality. “Something is clicking” doesn’t really cover them.5 Eventually, since I-John is a robot engineer and his date is a web designer, he muses on the possibility that her creativity will be programmable in the near future. She takes umbrage.
“I may be old-fashioned, but in my field, we use robots only to make copies or do clerical work,” she says proudly. “I would like to see the day when robots can do something really original, like tell a joke, write a novel, or compose a symphony.”
That hasn’t happened yet, but it might, you think to yourself.
Her point is another whole essay;6 I just want to say that I’ve held my tongue on first dates in the past, figuring not voicing certain opinions would give me a better chance of getting me laid. I’ve since learned that that’s stupid, and you should get right in the thick of it early on, since if the person you’re on a date with can’t take your opinions or hold their own in an argument, you shouldn’t fuck them. Apparently in the future, seventy-two years isn’t enough time to learn this.
Apparently, the date was so good, I-John is having existential worries about what to do with himself. Naturally, he calls his doctor.
“Doc,” you say, “how long do you think I’ll live?”
“You mean what is your life expectancy? Well, we don’t really know. You records say you are seventy-two years old, but biologically your organs are more like thirty years old. You were part of the generation to be genetically reprogrammed to live longer. You chose to stop aging at around thirty. Not enough of your generation has died yet, so we have no data to work with. So we no way of knowing how long you will live.”
HOW DID JOHN NOT KNOW THIS. I mean, really. This is the first generation to be genetically reprogrammed to live longer, he’s been at it for seventy-two years, and this never came up? He wasn’t, say, part of the generation that rebuffed 10,000 years of the nature of being human? He really has to get this from his doctor?
I almost don’t want to be in the generation of people who lengthen their non-genetically-but-artificially-lengthened lives because the future generations seem unbearably stupid.
But they still seem to date with impunity. I-John and his iDate make it through the next few months, and eventually she mentions this, in reference to her career:
“And you know something? I’m proud to say I never used a robot. No robot can be a personal tour guide, win a case in court, or produce beautiful artwork.”
Time will tell, you think to yourself.
Okay. On the first date, keeping my opinions to myself was just a tactic. But this is months into the relationship. And I’m condescendingly dismissing my girlfriend’s opinions without even telling her. On top of that, I didn’t know she never used a robot, which means I don’t listen. Now I’m just a dick.7
There’s more. So much more. You can read it yourself, and you should, because pages 19 through 3528 are a fabulous ride illuminating the nearly-realized potential of the human race to transcend itself. I have no objection to the science of this last chapter, but no part of the science in this chapter wasn’t better described in the journalistic style of the rest of the book. This was, you know, for kids, and the tone ends up, not intentionally, as condescending for someone who read the rest of the book.
This was a superfluous and mildly insulting chapter. The worlds my own imagination built on the science described were far more interesting, and personal, and populated by smarter people who treat their girlfriends with more respect. I didn’t need this fictional second-person culmination of a possible future.
Michio Kaku is doubtlessly vying for smartest person in the world without even trying, and were he to set himself to fiction writing he’d be pounding out novels with the best of them. Given our soon to be extremely long lives, I hope, he doubtlessly will. But his mission right now, from what I can tell, is to bring the fascination with and understanding of science to people like me who don’t know shit from electrons, and spark a bit of hope that the world will be a better and more rational place in our lifetimes. He best achieves this when he’s explaining things as they are, as a scientist in love with his knowledge and work, and we can see that love and be infected by it.
The fiction here is awkwardly forcing that love into a machine he doesn’t know, for the benefit of the writer over the reader. Drop it.
1 Oh for the days when “da Vinci” was redundant.
2 Doubleday, hardcover, 1st edition.
3 I read Villa Incognito. That’s four hours of my life not even flushed down the toilet, but festering in a Porta-Potty at an ICP concert.
4 Not really. If I could act like a college sophomore for fifty years, I’d say society had truly peaked.
5 Admittedly, I more than most consider internet dating a ripe topic for comment, but still, it’s 2100. There should be some commentary.
7 And never bought her a vibrator.
8 Doubleday, hardcover, 1st edition.