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ESC keynoter takes audience back to the future

Posted: 30 Apr 2010 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:molecular computing? Moore's Law? quantum computing?

Bestselling science author and professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York, Michio Kaku treated a keynote at the Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) to a blitzkrieg of futurism that included molecular computing, teleportation, and toilets that will be way too smart for your own good.

Kaku dwelt but briefly on the past, recalling his childhood in a Silicon Valley that was still "orchards and alfalfa fields," where a couple of kids named Hewlett and Packard went door-to-door selling stock in some dubious backyard technology venture. Kaku, for his part, built an atom-smasher in his family garage that blew out every fuse and circuit breaker in the house but it got me into Harvard.

From that beginning emerged a passionate futurist who predicted, for his ESC audience, a host of developments that range from the thrilling to the ambiguous to the outright scary.

Invisibility, for example, is developing under the leadership of Prof. David Smith at Duke University, said Kaku. The Duke team has created artificial "meta-materials" that bend infra-red light in ways that render certain objects invisible. When this technology advances to a point where it can "cloak" larger surfaces, said Kaku, "the first applications are likely to be military. But it won't stop there."

As if future visions of see-through tanks and invisible Klingon warships weren't frightening enough, Kaku forecast that by 2020, Moore's Lawthe inevitable doubling of computer power every 18 monthswill be repealed. He said that the excessive heat generated from ever-smaller and more powerful computing devices, combined with uncontrollable electron leakage, will finally stem the progress of computing power and speed.

"Silicon Valley could become a rust belt," he said. Beyond silicon, Kaku added, molecular computingcomputers literally the size of moleculesand quantum computing are the next possible phase. But these technologies are embryonic and not yet predictable.

Kaku said, however, that a lot of other cool developments are predictable. He talked, for instance, about the development of cell phones with flexible intelligent screens that will grow to the point where they become wallpaper, as envisioned, for example, in the films Fahrenheit 451 and Back to the Future II. The constant connectedness and universality of this technology will render an ambiguous result.

"In the future," said Kaku, "you will never be alone." This is even more true, he said, in the future of medical technology. Diagnosis of illness, for instance, will be as simple and unavoidable as breathing on a "smart" bathroom mirror, which would automatically send data to a remote laboratory for instant analysis, or using a "smart" toilet that allows nothing to be flushed before it's poked, sampled, stained, examined and e-mailed to Marcus Welby. (Not to mention insurance companies that will be able to remotely access your body every three days for a mandatory physical.)

Kaku said that among other medical developments are "smart pills" that explore the human body like the "spaceship" in the film "Fantastic Voyage," eliminating, for example, the dread prospect of colonoscopies and other invasive procedures. Kaku was especially optimistic about medical nanoparticles, molecule-size bullets that can be targeted at incipient carcinomas "to deliver poisons to cancer" without damaging surrounding tissue. "The word 'tumor,'" said Kaku, "could disappear from the English language."

Kaku also predicted that seriously injured people will, in the future, be treated by emergency medical technicians pumping ice-cold fluids into their bodies, placing them in suspended animation or "reversible death," until surgeons can intervene to repair damage that would otherwise be fatal. Also handy in this respect, said Kaku, would be laser-printable replacement organs such as hearts, kidneys, bones etc.

Kaku's topics also included mental telepathy, achievable by at least three methods, and teleportation, a technology that has already succeeded on a limited scale at the Institute for Experimental Physics in Vienna.

There, physicists have been transporting photons as far as 600m, much like U.S.S. Enterprise's transporter "beamed" Captain Kirk hither and yon. The hitch in this technology, Kaku explained, is that the photon is not really moved. It is actually drained of all its "information," which is then teleported, allowing an exact replica to emerge at the remote site.

If this technology advances to the point where a dog, a cat or a human can be "beamed," what are the implications, asked Kaku. Anton Zeilinger, University of Vienna professor interviewed by Kaku, said that, if the chance to be teleported were offered, many people " even after understanding the processwould volunteer as guinea pigs.

"But who is it that ends up over there," Kaku wondered, "if you are destroyed in the process of teleportation?"

To those in the ESC audience who found predictions such as these far-fetched and fantastic, Kaku offered the words of science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

- David Benjamin
EE Times

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