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Physicist Michio Kaku: 'We can uncover the secrets of the universe' | science and nature books

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hHave you been feeling anxious about technology lately? If yes, then you are in good company. the United Nations has to plead All governments should implement a set of rules designed to rein in artificial intelligence. One open letter, signed by luminaries such as Yuval Noah Harari and Elon Musk, called for a halt to research into the most advanced AI and measures to be taken to ensure that it remained “safe … trustworthy and loyal”. These troubles followed last year’s launch of ChatGPT, a chatbot that can write you an essay on Milton as easily as it can generate a recipe for whatever’s in your cupboard that evening.

But what if the computers used to develop AI were replaced with computers capable of computing not millions, but trillions of times faster? What if tasks that would take thousands of years on today’s devices could be accomplished in seconds? Well, that’s exactly the future that physicist Michio Kaku is predicting. He believes that we are about to leave the digital age behind for a quantum age that will bring about unimaginable scientific and social changes. Computers would no longer use transistors to perform calculations, but subatomic particles, providing incredible processing power. Another physicist compared it to “putting a rocket engine in your car”. How are you feeling now?

Kaku seems quite relaxed about it all – some might say boosterish. He talks to me via Zoom from his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Seventy-six and retired from research, he still teaches at the City University of New York where he is Professor of Theoretical Physics and he gets to do fun things. A fan of Isaac Asimov, he tells me that he is currently teaching a course on the physics of science fiction. “I talk about what’s known and not known about time travel, space warfare, the multiverse, everything you see in Marvel Comics, I break it down.” His website describes him as a “futurist and popularizer of science” and his new book, Quantum Supremacy, shows all the promise of quantum computing and very little of the downside. Although he has the long white hair of the stereotypical mad scientist, it is elegantly slicked back. He speaks at the pace of a seasoned lecturer, with occasional outbursts of mild amusement that make his voice sound a bit high-pitched.

This is the universal law of technology – that it can be used for good or for evil.

Kaku has a simple explanation for the doom spewing around ChatGPT: “Journalists are hyperventilating about chatbots … because they see their jobs are on the line. Historically many jobs have been on the line, but In fact, no one said much about him. Now journalists are the target.” This is a somewhat partial view – a report by Goldman Sachs recently estimated 300m Jobs There is a danger of automation as a result of AI. Kaku acknowledges that we may see “sentient machines” emerging from the labs, but believes it could take another hundred years. Meanwhile, he thinks there’s a lot to feel good about.

The rocket engine of quantum computing will completely transform research in chemistry, biology and physics, with all kinds of knock-on effects, says Kaku. Among other things, this would enable us to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and convert it into fuel, with the waste products being captured and used again – so-called carbon recycling. This would help us extract nitrogen from the air without high temperatures and pressures, meaning fertilizer production accounts for 2% of the energy currently used on Earth, leading to a new green revolution. This would allow us to build super-efficient batteries to help propel renewable energy even further (today’s lithium-ion batteries only take about 1% of the energy stored in gasoline). It would solve the design and engineering challenges currently preventing us from generating cheap, abundant electricity through nuclear fusion. And it will pave the way for fundamentally effective treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, as well as many other diseases.

President Joe Biden inspects a quantum computer at an IBM facility in New York State in October 2022. Photograph: Andrew Harnick / AP

How? The main thing to understand is that quantum computers can perform calculations much faster than digital ones. They do this using qubits, the quantum equivalent of bits – the zeros and ones that carry information in a conventional computer. While bits are stored as electrical charges in transistors etched on silicon chips, cubits are represented by properties of particles, for example, the angular momentum of an electron. Qubits’ superior firepower comes because the laws of classical physics do not apply in the strange subatomic world, allowing them to take on any value between zero and one, and enabling a mysterious process called quantum entanglement. is what Einstein famously called spukhafte fernwirkung or “spooky action at a distance”. Kaku makes a valiant effort to explain these mechanisms in his book, but it is essentially impossible for the layman to fully understand. As science communicator Sabine Hosenfelder explains in one of her hugely popular YouTube videos on the subject: “When we write about quantum mechanics, we are faced with the task of translating mathematical expressions into language. And regardless of what language we use, English, German, Chinese or whatever, our language has not evolved to describe quantum behavior.

We have analogies of varying helpfulness, for example toy trains with compasses on them and rats in a maze that invoke cuckoos to explain complex ideas such as superposition and path integrals. Beyond these, there is an important takeaway: reality is quantum, and so quantum computers can simulate it in a way that digital ones struggle with. “Mother Nature doesn’t compute digitally,” he tells me. need a quantum computer [be able to] Unravel the secrets of life, the secrets of the universe, the secrets of matter, because the language of nature is quantum theory. If you want to know exactly how photosynthesis works (still a mystery to modern science), or how one protein interacts with another in the human body, you need to model it accurately. Will be able to use the “virtual lab” of quantum computers. It may be much easier to design drugs to inhibit biological processes, such as the proliferation of cancer cells or the misfolding of proteins in Alzheimer’s disease. Kaku even believes that the puzzle of aging will be solved so that we can arrest it – a chapter in his book is simply called “Immortality”.

At this stage, it is worth introducing an important caveat. Building a quantum computer is a very difficult task. Because they rely on tiny particles that are extremely sensitive to any kind of disturbance, most can only operate at temperatures close to absolute zero, where everything slows down and there is minimal environmental “noise”. That is, as you would expect, it is quite difficult to organize. So far, the most advanced quantum computer in the world, IBM’s Osprey, has 433 qubits. It may not sound like much, but as the company tells “The number of classical bits required to represent a state on an Osprey processor exceeds the total number of atoms in the known universe”. What they don’t say is that it only works for about 70 to 80 millionth of a second before being overwhelmed by the noise. Not only that, but the calculations it can perform have very limited applications. As Kaku himself noted: “A practical quantum computer that can solve real-world problems is still many years in the future.” Some physicists, such as Mikhail Dyakonov at the University of Montpellier, believe Technical challenges mean possibility of quantum computer “that could compete with your laptop” Sometimes There are too many voids being built.

Kaku avoids this. He points to the billions of dollars being poured into quantum research – “the gold rush is on” he says – and the way intelligence agencies have been warning about the need to be quantum-ready. It’s hardly proof positive that they’ll live up to expectations – it could be tulip mania rather than a gold rush. He shrugs: “Life is a gamble.”

Silicon Valley could become a rust belt… a junkyard for chips that no one uses anymore because they’re too primitive

However, he is far from the only true believer. Corporations such as IBM, Google, Microsoft and Intel are investing heavily in the technology, as is the Chinese government, which has developed a computer called the 113 qubit. Jiuzhang, So, for a moment quantum dreams become a reality: is it responsible for amplifying positivity, as Kaku does? What about the potential for getting sick from these huge capacities?

“Well, it’s a universal law of technology, that [it] Can be used for good or bad. When humans discovered the bow and arrow, we could use it to bring down game and feed the people in our tribe. But of course, the bow and arrow can also be used against our enemies.

Advances in physics in particular have always raised the possibility of newer and more terrifying weapons. But you can’t stop researching as a result: you do the research, then you deal with the results. “That’s why we regulate nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are a relatively simple result of Einstein e = mc2, And they have to be regulated, because ‘I‘ would be enough to destroy humanity on planet Earth. At some point, we are going to reach the limits of this technology, where it negatively impacts society. Right now, I’m seeing a lot of benefits.”

However, for Kaku, knowledge is power. It’s part of the reason he’s moved from the lab to TV, radio and books. “The whole purpose of writing books for the public is that [they] Can make educated, reasonable, intelligent decisions about the future of technology. Once the technology becomes so complex that the average person cannot understand it, there is big trouble, because then people with no moral direction will be in charge of the direction of that technology.

There are other reasons as well. From an early age, Kaku was surprisingly a science fiction nut. But he was not satisfied with simply swallowing down the stories, and wanted to know whether they were really possible, whether the laws of physics could verify or contradict them. “And in science class, there was nothing, absolutely nothing. And I was [also] Fascinated by Einstein’s theory of everything, the dream of a unified field theory. Then I could not find a single book on Einstein’s great dream. And I said to myself, when I grow up, and I become a theoretical physicist, I want to write a paper on this topic. But I also want to write for myself as a kid, going to the library and being so frustrated that there was nothing for me to read. And that’s what I do.

Kaku’s parents were American citizens of Japanese descent who were interned during World War II despite being born in the country. Like his father, he was raised in Palo Alto, California, “ground zero” of the technological revolution. The irony is not lost on that. “I’ve seen Silicon Valley grow from scratch. When I was a kid, it was all alfalfa fields, apple orchards. I used to play in apple orchards that are now called apples,” he laughs. If his predictions about the quantum revolution turn out to be correct, it may soon be changed again. “Silicon Valley could become a rust belt…a junkyard for chips that no one uses anymore because they’re so primitive.” Or, more likely, a gleaming new hub of quantum computation, as today’s tech giants scramble to redeploy their vast intellectual and financial capital. Whether Kaku’s quantum revolution lives up to the hype remains to be seen. But if he’s right and everything digital turns to dust, we’re in for one hell of a ride.

Quantum Supremacy by Michio Kaku Will be published by Alan Lane on 2 May. Order your copy here to support the Guardian and Observer guardianbookshop.com