I count myself fortunate for being able to finish ‘irrelevant books’ while studying psychology. Earlier in the year I managed to finish Physics of the Future, and two days ago–The Future of the Mind, both by Michio Kaku (probably the single most vocal proponent of String Theory and a famed science educator). The former about the possibilities and limitations of human technology in the near and far future, the latter about the most pressing breakthroughs in cognitive sciecne and neuroscience and their possibilities, informed with the laws of physics. Both are exciting.
Physics of the Future was published in 2011, and The Future of The Mind three years later. Both books seem distinct by title-indeed, how is theoretical physics at all related to neuroscience? How are they even going to be connected in a single review? Actually Kaku’s position in this book is less of a physicist, but more of a futurist and a science communicator. His focus in both books are connected with an informed vision of the future through his extensive interdisciplinary network of the most cutting edge scientists, industry leaders, and high profile academics across the world, along with his penchant for describing scientific models and theories in a simple yet meaningful manner. In general, a large part of The Future of The Mind has been described to some detail in Physics of the Future. However, Kaku did take extensive steps to formulate his thoughts further in former book.
Michio Kaku embodies the boring Asian science professor archetype….except that he is a rather interesting fellow. He started out as a theoretical physicist and co-founded string field theory, but made his name as a futurist and a popular science writer. He is currently one of the most high profile science writers in the world due to his capabilities of evoking excitement in his lay readers when approaching complicated scientific models and theories.
For me, both Physics of the Future and The Future of the Mind are good in different ways. The first book is an exhaustive review of all the most cutting edge technology in various industries and attempts to give informed estimates of how these technologies can come to fruition, while taking the socioeconomical context and philosophical issues into account. The second book actually lays beyond his expertise, but he still manages to be adequately informed by a large network of neuroscientists, computer scientists, engineers, and psychologists, where he tries to understand the meaning of consciousness and mind through the lens of a physicist. One underlying theme of both books is his attempt to use physics to understand as much as possible. As the saying goes ‘when you use a hammer long enough, everything in the world starts to look like nails’, this is especially true of Kaku’s thinking habit: being an authority of the most fundamental level of scientific phenomena (physics), he has the luxury of being able to attempt to reduce everything into fundamental physical processes. This habit can prove to make his writings occasionally unnecessarily lengthy and meaningless (same reason why we don’t use biology to explain a range of social psychological processes, or chemistry to explain biological evolution), but all this is done without losing the steam of excitement and anticipation.
All in all, both books cover a impressive range, if not one of the widest ranges of scientific phenomena I have seen, with his visions of the future as the context. He discusses nanotechnology, quantum mechanics, molecular medicine, artificial intelligence, space travel and energy production in Physics of the Future, and various aspects of neuroscience and cognitive science along with some basic discussion of the philosophy of the mind in The Future of the Mind. He has manage to touch everything ranging from quantum physics to bits of sociology and behavioral science in both books. Most importantly, he manages to constantly see similarities between the fundamental physical forces of the universe and the complexity of the mind, for instance how both Copernican Principle and Antrophic Principle can be applied to both physical and brain science.
His visions can be overly optimistic (he can write a rather sound piece of science fiction if he put more effort into the plot) and quite sadly predictable as you follow his line of thought, but are still reasonable and not outright prophetical. For readers venturing into futurism for the first time, both books are great to start with.
Kaku’s writings are not without flaws. First and foremost, while his initiative to explore disciplines outside his expertise (artificial intelligence, neuroscience, biomedical engineering etc) is commendable, he often spends too much time discussing them–which can be quite misleading to some readers who may take his words for truth (he is a world renowned scientist after all). In my opinion, while his diverse viewpoints backed by a network of experts and optimistic outlook on the future makes a good combination, he should not stray too far from the scholarly work he is familiar with. His constant casual citations (I met this scientist from xxx over lunch and he says this and that) can get quite tedious to read through. Also, in The Future of the Mind, his lack of knowledge in neuroscience is quite apparent as the theories he brings out are actually nothing new (even to a psychology student) and can be quite outdated compared to other neuroscience works. He even attempts to create his own model of consciousness (not backed with scholarly work) in a couple of paragraphs. Admittedly the model is rather convincing (and actually scientifically testable, just no one bothered to do it yet) but it lacks any sort of practical purpose aside to compare differences in various ‘conscious beings’.
Secondly, some of his explanations and claims are rooted in science fiction rather than scholarly works. His constant mentions of science fiction and oversimplification of the current and future problems can prove to make his credibility questionable. For someone who is not a student of physics beyond high school, it can be quite tedious if one has to critically evaluate every claim. Naturally, the other option is to accept without thinking too much, with the hope that not much damage is done with this misinformation. Again, there is arguably no serious pseudoscience in both of his works, but Kaku should really refrain from oversimplification considering that he is a high esteemed scientist that takes pride in it.
-exhaustive coverage of emerging technology
-sound projection of the future that is backed with current cutting edge science
-exciting writing tone
-actually have sound opinions (albeit too short to be useful) on economics and society, despite not being his expertise
-coherent claims and elegant justifications
-very good conclusions
-physicist’s account of neuroscience and psychology is actually rather unique and fascinating
-drawing of parralels between fundamental physics and the human mind
-forays too much into fields he is not familiar with, can lose trust of more educated readers
-oversimplification of varying obstacles faced by science and technology (‘swallow a pill to achieve this’ ‘press a button to do that’ )
-predictable pattern of future projection due to repitative descriptions
-underwhelming when it comes to neuroscience, cognitive science, philosophy and computing
To some, these two books are a testament of a single person trying his very best to be an expert on multiple fields. After all, there is only so little things one can be a proper expert of in a single lifetime. To others, they are great starting points to make projections about the future. All in all, both books give readers a sense of appreciation of the times we live in. They offer some optimistic accounts on the potential of humanity. Perhaps the goal this time isn’t to educate, but to excite the readers and encourage us to stand by the benefit of the human species in whatever challenges that may befall us. Our attitude towards the future and emerging technology allows us to glimpse and envision the life that is beyond our time, and that may just be the answer that some of our present existential problems needs to live into.
From other reviews and my personal reflections, I think both books requires one to be an outsider to appreciate. For me, Physics of the Future has been quite exciting to read, while I skip pages and lines rather frequently in The Future of the Mind due to my background. Generally I would recommend Physics of the Future to younger readers (just finished high school) along with other lay readers and The Future of the Mind to those who have not explored the sciences of the mind.
For other psychology or social science students, try reading a bit of both. I think it is rather important to be aware of emerging technological advances as our learning equips us to address the issues that come with it. The Future of the Mind also offers some interesting insights that are actually directly relevant to our field in some of his discussions, despite most of his examples being covered in a large number of introduction to psychology classes.
As a whole, I would give it a 8/10, but individually I think Physics of the Future is slightly better (8/10) compared to The Future of the Mind (7.5/10). Again both books are masterpieces when it comes to being an archive of futurology information for laypeople. It is just that one’s enjoyment may differ based on expertise along with a number of overlapping information, which makes me a bit less keen to recommend both together.