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Physicist and television host sees future for nanotechnology and AI

Foresight Board of Advisors member law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds reviewed Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future, which he describes as “a wide-ranging tour of what to expect from technological progress over the next century or so.” From “Let’s Hope the Robots Are Nice“:

Do not rage against the machine. Embrace the machine.

That is the core message of Michio Kaku’s “Physics of the Future.” …

Nanotechnology will be at first rare and expensive and, by the end of the century, commonplace and cheap, largely fulfilling the predictions of pioneering scientists such as Richard Feynman and Eric Drexler. In a world where programmed molecular assembly powered by sunlight can produce almost anything out of raw materials, material wealth will be widespread. …

Prof. Reynolds agrees with Prof. Kaku’s “largely optimistic view” of nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and the future overall, but points to one disturbing passage that concerns the present—not the future:

The most disturbing passage in “Physics of the Future” doesn’t concern the future; it’s about the present. In that passage, Mr. Kaku recounts a lunchtime conversation with physicist Freeman Dyson at Princeton. Mr. Dyson described growing up in the late days of the British Empire and seeing that most of his smartest classmates were not—as prior generations had been—interested in developing new forms of electrical and chemical plants, but rather in massaging and managing other people’s money. The result was a loss of England’s science and engineering base.

Now, Mr. Dyson said, he was seeing the phenomenon for the second time in his life, in America. Mr. Kaku, summarizing the scientist’s message: “The brightest minds at Princeton were no longer tackling the difficult problems in physics and mathematics but were being drawn into careers like investment banking. Again, he thought, this might be a sign of decay, when the leaders of a society can no longer support the inventions and technology that made their society great.”

The future belongs to those who show up. Mr. Kaku’s description of that future is an appealing one. But will we show up?

Is Prof. Dyson’s assessment an accurate description of the current state of Western civilization in general and the US in particular? My (thoroughly non-scientific and limited) casual observations suggest that it is. The workhorses of the scientific enterprise are postdoctoral research associates (and to a lesser extent, graduate students). When I began my research career in the early 70s most postdocs were American and most of the ones who were not were European. When I (briefly) attempted to get back into research last year nearly all the postdocs I saw were Asian (not Americans of Asian descent, but visitors from Asia). It is wonderful that American universities attract such talented, energetic visitors, but worrisome that we are no longer “growing our own”. Is the US making the necessary effort to “show up” for the future?

16 Responses to “Physicist and television host sees future for nanotechnology and AI”

  1. dr zeus Says:

    The financial incentives for managing money outweigh the financial risks of publish or perish postdoc science work. Everyone has to pay bills; why starve on a postdoc stipend when you can make six figures playing with Excel?

    Not to mention the almost-made-it grad and doc students now laden with student loans they can’t get out off and a degree with limited marketability.

    If we want to prioritize science then we have to change the financial incentives.

  2. Jim Lewis Says:

    I agree completely that we cannot criticize those who want to earn a decent living, especially considering the often dismal financial prospects of a career in science and technology in the US. I strongly favor changing the financial incentives as you suggest. How to do that in the current financial climate, however, is not easy to see.

  3. flashgordon Says:

    At first I was going to just show you the exact section of this episode that shows British Quakers who were denied the high money life and had little choice other than to educate their children and go into science and technology. But, the buildup to why those Quakers found themselves in their social situation is kind of the point. It reminds me of how a star burns its fuel; it starts with small atoms, burns them, makes shells of higher elements, and depending on whether it is big enough to burn those higher elements, it either blows up or just kind of flickers out. This is much the same story of agricultural/industrial(industrial civilization is just mechanized agriculturalism) since its beginnings; revolutions are the ‘little people’, what the big people call terrorists, rebelling because well, they’ve developed and decided they deserve more than they’re getting. No society is immune to this from ten thousand years to today. Nanomanufacturing can change this by allowing everybody to have their own mnt; but, Chris Phoenix and Co don’t want that to happen. I’ve been trying to point out stuff like what your pointing out and much else to them for years now. Well, enjoy the video!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PojOwGnrcEY

  4. flashgordon Says:

    Jacob Bronowski relates I think in episode/chapter 10 of his “Ascent of Man”, “why should I care if the scientific spirit moves to another color skin?” I think he was refering to the Asians as becoming more scientific than all the caucasians from Europe to American.

  5. Mike Says:

    A recent article by the Economist has called for research into the phenomenon of ‘the disposable academic’. As Dyson indicated it is indeed a worrying state of affairs. Here is the link to the article. http://www.economist.com/node/17723223

  6. flashgordon Says:

    Well, here’s some more! Ever notice there’s no pretty girls in libraries? Much less anything scientific? That’s right; because they’re pretty, they get that in there head and they don’t care about science; then, thety vote you and your science right out. They all go to religion to make themselves respectable. This is what’s going to happen to your lifeboat.org world; 99% of the population hating science because it’s a social grace.

  7. NanoMan Says:

    Interesting comments you all make, thanks. First of all, I want to say, that I often feel frustrated on this because here we have nanotechnology and the possible potential to create Self-Replicating Factories for all humankind….and yet so many of the “everyday citizens” who I try to communicate this idea to…just don’t care! They are either apathetic or else they want to spend their free time wasting it on the latest celebrity scandal and the rest. Why is this? I have even given nanotechnology presentations to the people, and yes, I do get interested persons who I give links like the Foresight website link to, to find out more information, but, on the whole, most seem either disinterested or have the “Tell me when I can go and buy an Assembler system at Walmart. Until then, I don’t care.”

    Secondly, regarding the Kaku book, I have his latest book and I have read his stuff for a long time. I like the book and his views overall on this, but, what disappoints me is that, unlike people like say the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, he seems to think serious assembler based nano factories will not be developed until the late 21st century, if I read him correctly, and beyond. I think an at least primitive assembler system is doable in the next 10-20 years or so.

    IF invested in and orchestrated correctly!

  8. Tom Billings Says:

    Not only does the future belong to those who show up, but to those who show up where the money is *inside* academia, as well as outside. Here in Oregon, the flows of money have been distorted for decades *within* academia. Half or more of the “science” courses in Oregon Public Schools preoccupy their students with “environmental” concerns, even when the course is ostensibly physics or chemistry. We now have 3 excellent young Ph.D. candidates in Nuclear Engineering being driven from OSU, because their academic father dares to continue challenging in elections a major political figure here, Rep. Peter De Fazio, who just happens to have provided $27 million in earmarks for that institution last year. The head of the faculty Senate may be driven out for trying to protect them as well.

    It is no oddity that people do not go into science and engineering in an environment where they are vulnerable, and there is so much real hostility to “the technical fix” by the academic/political community. Major political groups are in the habit of accepting *only* the results of science and technology that fit into their previous world-view, by which they intend to gain, whether money or power or both. The most active at the moment are the Deep Ecology wing of the environmental movement here in Oregon, but there are others as well.

    As an example, between 1979 and 2004 the entrepreneurs who were prominent in trying to commercialize spaceflight found their financial backers evaporating once they came to the attention of groups inside NASA. It was no accident. As early as 1979, Max Hunter (head of the “Thor” missile project in the 1950s, and in many other aerospace programs till his death) has told me, he was buttonholed by leading people who were then still in NASA about Space Services Inc. who were, according to his persuaders, “rank amateurs who’ll destroy confidence in spaceflight”, who “must be shut down”. After he dismissed them, his job prospects dwindled. A number of similar instances occurred till the Columbia disaster, and the retirement of some NASA control freaks, when private commercial space groups began to get at least formal WH approval, but now have electoral politicians to fight.

    Politicians, whether electoral or bureaucratic, have long sought levers to steer the directions of technical endeavor, and have found enough that they are beginning to distort it badly enough that even those not in it for the money are beginning to look elsewhere for fulfilling work. We should not be surprised. Till we are able to break open the political community’s oligopsony/monopsony on science and technology funding that has developed in the US, we will have worse and worse problems with this.

  9. NanoMan Says:

    You are so right, Tom. One of the most powerful modern lobbies, sadly, is the Deep Ecology movement. I have even seen them post here and elsewhere on nanotech boards. You would think that a logical person who wants to clean the enviroment would embrace nanotechnology and energy systems that could replace old systems, and which would bring the maximum benefit to mankind. Wrong! Most of the Deep Ecology/Radical enviromentalist types want to see most of the human race die off. They make quotable statements like the desire to see a virus that would kill millions or billions of people. This is disgusting. They do not want clean, decentralized, abundant replicators and fusion energy and other things, because, in their eyes, this would encourage humans to produce more humans, and to want to consume more resources and space. Foresight and others have shown the universe is a huge place and there is abundant energy and matter and space for all. But look at the writings of people, as far back as Rachel Carson and her propaganda “Silent Spring”.

  10. DRB Says:

    Nuclear Absurdity in the Face of Alternatives

    I think we are being forced to show up to the Green / Energy Crises now and often and I believe it will Take a nanotechnology to do it.

    In the face of the often cheaper, better, more efficient and cleaner Alternatives, many still turn to nuclear power generation, even with the risks and downfalls associated with it.

    We must understand the alternative that is Hydrogen and the nanoextraction of it from water sources. Already many developments have been achieved in this feild and many more to come. With investment and research many synergies also come about, such as the production of clean fresh water and oxygen, liquid or gas. The Hydrogen Synergy Future is upon us and we must act to make it so.

    NGen WA

    No man undertakes a trade he has not learned, even the meanest; yet everyone thinks himself sufficiently qualified for the hardest of all trades, that of government.
    Socrates

    Your theory is crazy, but it’s not crazy enough to be true.
    Niels Bohr

    MIT’s Belcher uses engineered virus to split water

    By Christine Peterson, on April 16th, 2010

    Angela Belcher and team at MIT have tweaked a bacterial virus to serve as a scaffolding to:

    attract and bind with molecules of a catalyst (the team used iridium oxide) and a biological pigment (zinc porphyrins). The viruses became wire-like devices that could very efficiently split the oxygen from water molecules.
    Belcher says that

    within two years she expects to have a prototype device that can carry out the whole process of splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen, using a self-sustaining and durable system.
    This is just a very early taste of what we can expect someday from more extensively designed molecular machine systems.

    -Chris Peterson

    http://www.foresight.org/nanodot/?p=3868

    Green Energy is Blue; Hydrogen Nanoextraction from Water Sources for the production of Clean Water and Energy

    Fresh Water And Energy Service
    by ~Automutt

    Fresh Water Production By-Product of Hydrogen Nanoextraction Techniques

    The ability to produce clean fresh water as a leading by-product of the nanoextraction of hydrogen from sea water via reverse engineering and associated practices is a goal of many involved in this exciting field of science. The confluence of providing energy and water for our growing cities and towns available to us at the initial engineering of our nanoextraction facilities, ground up infrastructure investments at energy / water establishments shall provide profound synergies for the full production of hydrogen for energy and clean fresh water for all. So far an Australian, American and Japanese research project is underway to prove the viability of such techniques and synergies available to us. The production of Oxygen and LOX or liquid oxygen is also of interest to us available as a synergy. Further discussion and research must take place to bring about the hydrogen synergy plans of our future.

    DRB @ NGen

    Nano catalysts, and the death of Coal

    With the advent of Nano-catalysts and Viral Scaffolds the extraction of hydrogen has became much cheaper and more efficient. According to Gridshift, cheaper than gasoline. Surely a new appreciation for this resource will come about and new technologies utilising hydrogen should now be evaluated.

    http://www.grid-shift.com/white_papers/

    Fuel for Cars, Energy for Homes,

    With the advent of nano-extraction techniques, the extraction of
    hydrogen from sea water for the use of power generation and fueling
    of cars is a step closer. NGEN’s proposed conversion of coal and gas
    fired power stations to hydrogen and the supply of hydrogen for cars
    will revolutionise the worlds energy sector.

    Due to developments in the nanoextraction of hydrogen from sea water, the hydrogenerator has been revised with this cheaper and more efficient system.

  11. Vader Says:

    I think someone just loudly announced that the shoe fits.

  12. Instapundit » Blog Archive » A GRIM FUTURE? Is Prof. Dyson’s assessment an accurate description of the current state of West… Says:

    [...] A GRIM FUTURE? [...]

  13. Dr. Kenneth Noisewater Says:

    I gotta say, being able to make enough money to retire in less than 10 years would be an EXTREMELY attractive option, especially if that meant you could then pursue your passion either as an employed researcher or independent tinkerer/entrepreneur.. Quants on Wall St. can easily bank that much that quickly, and would be fools not to. OTOH, that leaves more room for the truly passionate researchers, though they will likely work longer and earn less unless they have some market application for their work that they have ownership of..

  14. Wacky Hermit Says:

    It doesn’t surprise me that fewer and fewer science postdocs are domestic. Math has been imploding this way for quite some time. Several years ago I heard the astonishing statistic that something on the order of 50% of secondary level math classes are being taught “out of subject,” i.e. by someone who lacks a major, minor, or certificate in math– the proverbial gym teacher, on a large scale. No good can come of having half the classes taught by people who don’t know what they’re doing for an extended period of time, and indeed no good has come of it. We are now at the point where even if we drafted every non-foreign person graduating with a Bachelor’s in math into teaching high school, we could not fill all the classrooms with teachers. The actual math content of courses has been watered down, to the point where students taking courses called “calculus” and “trigonometry” can’t solve basic linear equations even when you offer them candy. Entire swaths of mathematics have been eliminated from the curriculum for so long that the people currently teaching math don’t even know they’ve been missing. We are actually, actively, losing knowledge of mathematics.

    With math in this pathetic state, it doesn’t surprise me that science, to which it is handmaiden, is suffering too.

  15. sealionii Says:

    Well, let’s see: my lab is a biology lab at a world-class university; we have two graduate students (both American) and four postdocs, American (me), Estonian, French and Chinese. The lab next to ours has an Indian, an Israeli, a Ukrainian, a Frenchman, a Taiwanese, a Korean, and six Americans; next to us on the other side, three Americans.

    It is possible, even likely, that this university is cherry-picking American citizens, who are easier to fund; my university is located in a major urban metropolis, making it more cosmopolitan and possibly more attractive to top European scientists. My undergraduate university (still very good, but not as good) had a graduate program in chemistry which seemed to consist of about equal parts Indian, East European, and American students.

    So, as long as we’re comparing anecdotes, mine is much less worrisome on this front than yours. I think.

  16. Grave Regards Says:

    “In this revolution, research has become central, it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

    Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

    The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.

    Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite. ”
    — President Eisenhower

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