Archive for April, 2013

Book Review: Physics of the Future

I finished reading Michio Kaku’s book, Physics of the Future, a few days ago, and I thought I’d make a few comments on it here.  Dr. Kaku, a theoretical physicist by trade and a futurist author (see also Physics of the Impossible and Visions) likes to look into the future and describe what he sees.  Granted, his idea of the future may be different from that of others, including you and me, but what he has to say is instructive.  In this book, he takes a look at computers and artificial intelligence, medicine, energy, and space travel, even looking briefly at wealth and humanity, estimating how they will change in the next 100 years.  There isn’t room here to comment on all the major topics in the book, but I would like to make a few observations.

Most of us, especially when we look at computers and other scientific instruments, probably feel we can predict what’s likely to come.  I’m not so sure.  Dr. Kaku takes a logical approach to this predictive effort.  He’s interviewed many people in the computer and information industries and makes his predictions based on what he’s learned.  Computers will be miniaturized substantially, and eventually your computer will be small enough to be visible on a contact lens.  The universal translator of Star Trek will be a reality, and instant translation of any language will appear at the bottom of your lens or glasses immediately.  So, if you travel to, say, Russia, you won’t have to suffer through several years of study to learn the language.  And so on and so forth–other mind-bending spectacular things lie in store for us in the next 100 years.

But what I like most about Dr. Kaku’s book is the fact that he takes a sober approach to prediction.  He’s not predicting all sorts of wild ideas about how life will be.  This isn’t Star Wars and the intelligent robots that populated it.  His caution is most evident in looking at artificial intelligence.  We all seem to feel that by the year 2100, computers will be able to have an intelligent conversation with us, and we’ll be able to talk to them as fluently as we do among ourselves now.  That’s not likely, however.

Back in 1968, when the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey came out, many people I talked to felt that the computer HAL would be a reality by 2001.  It’s just a matter of time, they said, because computers are progressing rapidly.  I disagreed.  I couldn’t see a computer that smart by 2001, and it’s still a long way off.  Dr. Kaku explains that by examining the computer and comparing it to the human brain.  Computers do only what they are told, and they can’t get away from their programming.  The human brain by contrast is a growing and evolving organism.  It can store information and make new connections within itself all the time.  This is called learning.  The brain has common sense; a computer has none.  Even the computer that beat humans on Jeopardy! could do no more than look up answers faster than a human (two humans, actually).  It didn’t think; it merely responded.  A long time past 2100 will elapse before we have computers as sophisticated as HAL, or C-3PO, or Data on Star Trek.

In short, I highly recommend the book.  Dr. Kaku’s view of the future is realistic and recognizable.  The one aspect he fails in, though, is in talking about the elimination of poverty, which he says little about.  It’s not likely poverty will be erased by 2100 unless we humans, and without our computers, decide we are going to do something about it.  Poverty has been around for millennia.  It has survived wars, famine, plague and death, and it won’t go away just because we have faster and smaller computers.  It’s a human problem and only we humans can conquer it.

There, I’ve had my say.  Comments?

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It’s Still the Story

I’m reading a memoir right now.  I don’t normally read memoir or biography anymore, at least not in the past thirty years or so.  But the book I’m reading is a memoir about life in New Mexico, and I decided to try it as a diversion from the scientific and science fiction books I usually read.  So far I like what I’ve read.  Mostly.

The writing is well done, and I’ve gotten into the feel of the book.  The author is a poet by profession, not a writer of prose, but does a good job with the story line.  It’s true, poets frequently make good writers of prose.  Yet, several chapters are nothing but backstory as the author dips into her and her husband’s earlier life before they came to New Mexico.  That’s important to a memoir, no doubt, but it interferes with the story.  I have to read fifteen or twenty pages to wade through earlier facets of a person’s  life, holding off the important story line for just a few more pages.  I want to get to the action–what were they doing in New Mexico?  I don’t mind a few backstory facts, perhaps two or three pages, but whole chapters are a distraction.  I go back to this point time and time again: it’s the story line i.e., the plot, which is the important thing.  Don’t worry about the damn writing, worry about the plot.

I’ve had to learn this the hard way.  Too many of my works have been saturated with backstory, and I’ve had to rip up several short stories because they were filled with too much of earlier events.  This has been perhaps the hardest thing to learn about the craft of writing: don’t overload the reader with the character’s previous life history.  Drop it in at small points here and there.  That’s particularly hard to do in science fiction where the main character’s earlier life may have been on a different planet, and the author has to familiarize the reader not only with the character’s early history, but also that of the planet and of his/her civilization’s history too.  But it can be done, and I’ve done it (hopefully) a couple of times.  We’ll see.

Keep that story line going.

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