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I'm a big fan of Michio, so I'm even more disappointed by this book
on March 19, 2011
First, I'm a big fan of Michio, which is why I purchased the book. But I've noticed a frustrating pattern with his books over the years, he dumbs down the concepts he writes about more and more with each book. Okay, I get it, speaking to the lowest common denominator is important to get your message across. But remember, Michio, you need to speak to the lowest common denominator of people who read books about physics. Unfortunately, this seems to be lost on Michio. This book barely even covers any physics until the second half of the book, and even then the book is mostly about implementations of technology. I estimate that 80% the first 2/5 of the book covers medicine, genetics and other life sciences concepts.
But what is perhaps most disappointing about this book, is Michio's fantastic underestimation of how fast our technology will progress in the coming years. (In order to avoid spoilers I will try to speak in generalities for the most part) In the introduction to the book, Michio clearly explains that "prototypes of all the technologies mentioned...already exist". Fine, it's great that Michio had the best intentions by making predictions based on "real" and "tangible" examples. Unfortunately what ends up happening is that Michio predicts with awe and reverence how, for example, 30 to 70 years from now "augmented reality" will be accessible to everyone, and the examples he gives for how augmented reality will change our lives are just, well, boring, trite, and seriously underestimate the power of this concept. How do I know? Because I (along with many thousands of other iphone and android users) have been using augmented reality apps on my phone for the last couple of years that are far more interesting and powerful in how they impact my life than what Michio predicts will occur in 30 to 70 years. I was reading his predictions thinking, "wow, has Michio even researched what's happening in augmented reality TODAY?" I'm sure some people who have read the book will disagree with my point here, but keep in mind that he focused the entire section of the book on the impact of augmented reality in the next 30 to 70 years, but augmented reality is happening today. The only thing that hasn't is the methods of delivery he describes (I don't want to be specific to avoid spoilers).
Another thing that frustrates me lately about Michio is his increasing trend towards predicting the limitations of certain technologies; but with poor logic. For instance, he likes to pontificate about the "death of Moore's law" and the "limitations of aritificial intelligence", but seems to repeatedly underestimate the power of compounding, exponential growth of technology and information, and creative solutions that even he might not be aware of. For instance, when considering artificial intelligence, Michio seems to only consider the "innate" local intelligence of computers (or even robots), and doesn't tip his hat to the fact that 1) we already live in a completely networked society, so the intelligence computers are NOT capped by power of their local transistors, but by the intelligence of ALL computers everywhere, collectively. I'm not a supporter of "spontaneous" intelligence arising from connected machines, but I do think that it's relevant to consider the growth of networked computers when considering the limitations of computing power; 2) unlike *people* who, when they die, leave all of their accumulated knowledge behind, computers will pass their aggregate memes, learning experiences, nuances and vast store of memories from one generation of machines to the next. It seems that Michio's idea of robots and computers is similar to the AI from the movies in the 1950s through 1990s: when a robot dies, their memories die with them... That hasn't been the case since computers have existed, and it's silly to think that as progress is made with AI that each successive generation of artificial intelligence will have to start all over again on the learning curve. Clearly, they will have the ability to pick up right where the last generation left off without any information lost. and 3) the rapidly convergence of technologies is already negating the importance of Moore's law which predicts the rate at which transistors can be sqeezed onto integrated circuits, and how price will decrease accordingly. He places waaaay too much importance on the death of Moore's law. It really doesn't matter if Moore's law doesn't continue to hold true after the year 2020 because we can continue to receive exponential benefits from technology and information from an infinite number of other technological advancements. Software today is so inefficient that the potential benefits from software improvements alone are staggering. From Michio's perspective, however, Moore's prediction about the efficiency and price-performance of transistors will limit are technological progress after the year 2020. Predicting the death of this linear growth without considering how other converging technologies will make Moore's law irrelevant is incredibly short-sighted. Let's assume Moore's law does break down in 2020. Scientists (and big business) will look to other areas to pick up the slack: improved software, massively parallel processing, cloud computing, grid computing, solid state hard drives, quantum computing, etc. the sum total impact of all of these things trumps linear advancements in raw (local) computing power from shrinking transistors.
I'm disappointed because there were so many other things Michio could have focused on besides medicine and genetic engineering. Those topics are interesting, but they didn't get the treatment they deserved in a book called "Physics of the Future", written by a physicist. I couldn't believe how much Michio focused on biology, all the while missing a perfect opportunity to discuss synthetic biology and the convergence of nanotech with biology. He barely skimmed this topic, and spent chapters on genetic engineering. Interesting, but not physics.
As for his predictions on the impact of technology on capitalism, I think he should stick to physics. Our concepts about the "enterprise" and how individuals provide value in exchange for compensation are already starting to change, and this will only accelerate and compound in the years to come.
I don't want to sound like sour grapes because I actually really like Michio and I (usually) enjoy reading his books, but I have to say I'm disappointed with the simple-speak in this book. Michio spent way too much time talking about commercial technologies that have nothing to do with physics, and not enough time talking about many other interesting and speculative areas pf physics that might bring completely new technologies to fruition in the next 100 years. For that reason among others, I have a hard time recommending this book.