No Flying Car, But How About An Invisibility Cloak?

Originally published on July 14, 2011 9:02 pm

Picture this: You wake up bleary-eyed on New Year's Day. Last night was wild, and you're not feeling so hot.

It's the first day of 2100, and here's how your morning might unfold: You stumble into the bathroom to wash your face and brush your teeth. Tiny microchips in your toothbrush and your toilet instantly analyze your health. You wrap a few wires around your head and mentally cue up soothing music and fried eggs for breakfast. When you're ready, you issue another mental command to your magnetic car, and it leaves the garage and cruises up to your front door.

Sound crazy? According to physicist Michio Kaku, all these technologies are not only possible, they're already in development.

Kaku has written a new book, Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100. He tells Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz that one of the most fascinating inventions coming our way is Internet-enabled contact lenses.

"Think of what you can do," Kaku says. "When you meet somebody, your contact lens will identify who that person is, print out their biography next to that person's image, and then translate, from Chinese into English or whatever." He compares it to the technology Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator character used to identify his opponents.

Stealth bombers will get a makeover in the future, Kaku says, when true invisibility technology becomes widespread. "I teach optics," he says, "and for years I used to teach the kids that invisibility was not possible. Well, I was wrong."

Scientists have discovered a new substance called "metamaterials," that allows light to bend around an object and re-form on the other side, like a stream around a boulder. "This is the real McCoy," Kaku says. "This is the Harry Potter invisibility cloak."

Some people might not be all that excited about these new technologies, Kaku admits. They might be frightened. But he points to the example of electricity — when it was first introduced, people found it intrusive and dangerous. And the dangers were real; electricity does cause frequent deaths and fires. "And you know something? We love it," Kaku says. "You get used to it. And later you say to yourself, how could I have lived without it?"

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Imagine waking up on New Year's Day at 6:15 a.m. The night before was pretty wild; you're not feeling so great. So you hobble into the bathroom to wash your face and brush your teeth. The year is 2100, and this is how your morning might unfold.

Professor MICHIO KAKU (Physics, City University of New York; Author, "Physics of the Future"): (Reading) Leaving the bathroom, you have some wires around your head, which allow you to telepathically control your home. You mentally raise the temperature of the apartment, turn on some soothing music, tell the robotic cook in your kitchen to make breakfast and brew some coffee. And you also order your magnetic car to leave the garage and be ready to pick you up. As you enter the kitchen, you see the mechanical arms of the robotic cook preparing eggs just the way you like them.

RAZ: According to physicist Michio Kaku - that's his voice you just heard - all the technology for that scenario exists - it exists now. And he's written about it his new book that lays out what to expect over the next hundred years. It's called "Physics of the Future." And he says brace yourself for everything from telepathically fried eggs to invisibility cloaks, to a doubling of your life span to contact lenses that will enable us to...

Prof. KAKU: ...have the Internet in our eyeball. We're talking about blinking, and you are online.

So it would be like inserting a colored contact lens, except it's going to be the Internet in that contact lens.

Prof. KAKU: And think of what you can do. When you meet somebody, your contact lens will identify who that person is; print out their biography, next to that person's image; and then translate from Chinese into English - or whatever - as the person is speaking.

RAZ: And that printer will - the printed material will come out from our ears or...

Prof. KAKU: No. It'll be right in your contact lens.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Oh, I see.

Prof. KAKU: Remember the movie "Terminator," where Arnold Schwarzenegger sees a person; immediately, you see the description who that person is? Well, in the future, you will have it. You will know exactly who you are talking to, what they are saying in any language, as they are saying it. And we have prototypes of this today. This is not science fiction.

RAZ: This is something that people are really working on - the scientist is really working on it.

Prof. KAKU: People are really working on it. The Pentagon is working on it. They have a version of it where your contact lens lays out the whole battlefield.

RAZ: You're a physicist; you're a bona fide physicist. You're a well-respected physicist. People know who you are. Explain to me how somebody will be able to invent an invisibility cloak - which you write about in the book. Doesn't that defy the laws of physics?

Prof. KAKU: I teach optics at the university and for years, I used to teach the kids that invisibility was not possible.

RAZ: Yeah.

Prof. KAKU: Well, I was wrong, and so is every single physics textbook on the planet Earth; wrong. When light hits you, light cannot wrap around your body and re-form at the other end. Light cannot do that.

RAZ: Right.

Prof. KAKU: But scientists discovered a new substance, called metamaterials, which allows that very fact. Light then wraps around your body, re-forms at the other end as if you don't exist.

Now, remember that the Pentagon has spent hundreds of millions of dollars perfecting stealth technology.

RAZ: Right.

Prof. KAKU: And these airplanes are visible; it's that under radar, it's hard to see. It has the image of a large bird. So this is the real McCoy. This is the Harry Potter invisibility cloak. Now, we're not going to have it for several decades, but the basic principles have been proven in the laboratory. Every physics textbook on the planet Earth is now being rewritten.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Michio Kaku. He's the author of the new book called "Physics of the Future." He's also a professor of physics at the City University of New York, and the host of the "Sci Fi Science" program on the Science Channel.

Michio Kaku, you write that within a hundred years, we will view chemotherapy as a treatment for cancer similarly to the way we view leeches of the last centuries.

Prof. KAKU: That's right. What killed George Washington? You might be shocked to realize that George Washington was bled to death.

RAZ: Right. Yes.

Prof. KAKU: That's how he died because back in those days, that was medicine -leeches and bloodletting. In the future, we'll view chemotherapy the same way because we will create smart bombs that knock out cancer cells individually. And believe it or not, we have them already.

In trial tests, up to 90 percent of cancer cells can be zapped by nanoparticles. This is going to be big, real big.

Take a molecule, for example...

RAZ: Right.

Prof. KAKU: ...very tiny. And cancer cells have large holes - pores in their surface; raggedy, large holes. Ordinary cells have smaller, round holes; not these raggedy holes. Let's say you create a molecule that's in between the two.


Prof. KAKU: That means it cannot get into a normal cell, but it slips right into a cancer cell.

RAZ: Wow.

Prof. KAKU: This is going to change everything. And how will you detect cancer? By going to the bathroom and using your toilet.

RAZ: Hmm.

Prof. KAKU: We have things called DNA chips that are so accurate. Using tiny, transistor-like things, we can pick up individual cancer cells - one out of a billion. In fact, Mass General Hospital in Boston, in three years' time, may begin to market these things on the market.

RAZ: They already exist?

Prof. KAKU: They - everything in the book already exists. I am not a science fiction writer. I am a physicist. And we already have nanoparticles that can zero in on the cancer cells. They've been tested and proven.

RAZ: Now, I know you're a physicist, and you're not an ethicist. I'm not saying you're not an ethical guy, because I know you are. I've talked to you before. But if there are microchips, or chips, embedded in our toilets and in the mirrors of our homes and in our bodies, what about our privacy? What about our ability to be individuals? I mean, it seems - and I hesitate to use it - but it seems Big Brother-ish.

Prof. KAKU: Well, you know, when the Internet was first created, it really might have become a Big Brother. But in 1989, something happened which changed world history. With the breakup of the Soviet bloc, the National Science Foundation decided to give the Internet away for free. That changed human history because it meant that a force of democracy was given to the peoples of the world.

And also, when faced with new inventions like this, people are a little bit afraid. But just remember that when electricity was first harnessed by Thomas Edison, people were very afraid of electricity. They thought it was intrusive -it's going to right into your living room - people will be electrocuted; and houses will burn down. That's what the critics said. Well, you know something? The critics were absolutely right on every single point.

Houses burn down every day because of electricity. Yes, people get electrocuted in their living rooms every day. Yes, electricity is everywhere. And you know something? We love it.

So many of the inventions that I talk about in this book, some people may feel, ooh - I mean, that's a little scary, right? But hey, you get used to it. And then later, you say to yourself: How could I have lived without it?

RAZ: That's Michio Kaku. He's a professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York. His new book is called "Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny in our Daily Lives by the Year 2100."

Michio Kaku, thank you so much.

Mr. KAKU: Been a real pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.