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Physics of the Future_ How Science Will Shape Human Destiny... Part 22

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Then you put in your contact lenses and connect to the Internet. Blinking, you see the Internet as it shines onto the retina of your eye. While drinking hot coffee, you start scanning the headlines that flash in your contact lenses.

*The outpost on Mars is requesting more supplies. Winter on Mars is fast approaching. If the settlers are going to complete the next stage in colonization, they need more resources from earth to handle the freezing-cold weather. The plan is to start the first phase of terraforming Mars by raising its surface temperature.

*The first starships are ready for launch. Millions of nan.o.bots, each about the size of a pinhead, will be fired from the moon base, whip around Jupiter using its magnetic field, and head off to a nearby star. It will take years, however, before a handful of these nan.o.bots reach their destination in another star system.

*Yet another extinct animal is going to join the local zoo. This time, it's a rare saber-toothed tiger, brought back via DNA found frozen in the tundra. Because the earth has been heating up, DNA from more and more extinct animals has been recovered and then cloned to fill zoos around the world.

*The s.p.a.ce elevator, after years of hauling freight into s.p.a.ce, is now allowing a limited number of tourists into outer s.p.a.ce. The cost of s.p.a.ce travel has already plummeted in recent years by a factor of 50 since the s.p.a.ce elevator opened.

*The oldest fusion plants are now almost fifty years old. The time is coming to begin decommissioning some of them and building new ones.

*Scientists are carefully monitoring a new lethal virus that suddenly sprang out of the Amazon. So far, it seems confined to a small area, but there is no known cure. Teams of scientists are frantically sequencing its genes to learn its weak spots and how to fight it.

Suddenly, one item catches your eye: *A large leak has unexpectedly been detected in the dikes surrounding Manhattan. Unless the dikes are repaired, the entire city could be submerged, like scores of other cities in the past.

"Uh-oh," you say to yourself. "So that's why the office called and woke me up."

You skip breakfast, dress, and dash out the door. Your car, which drove itself out of the garage, is waiting for you outside. You telepathically order the car to take you to your office as quickly as possible. The magnetic car instantly accesses the Internet, the GPS, and billions of chips hidden in the road that constantly monitor traffic.

Your magnetic car takes off silently, floating on a cushion of magnetism created by the superconducting pavement. Molly's face suddenly appears on the windshield of your car. "John, the latest message from your office says for you to meet everyone in the conference room. Also, you have a video message from your sister."

With the car driving itself, you have time to scan the video mail left by your sister. Her image appears in your wrist.w.a.tch and says, "John, remember this weekend we have a birthday party for Kevin, who is now six. You promised to buy him the latest robot dog. And, by the way, are you seeing anyone? I was playing bridge on the Internet, and met someone you might like."

"Uh-oh," you say to yourself.

You love cruising in your magnetic car. There are no b.u.mps or potholes to worry about, since it's hovering over the road. Best of all, you rarely need to fuel it up, since there is almost no friction to slow it down. (It's hard to believe, you muse to yourself, that there was an energy crisis in the early part of the century. You shake your head, realizing that most of that energy was wasted in overcoming friction.) You remember when the superconducting highway first opened. The media lamented that the familiar age of electricity was coming to a close, ushering in the new age of magnetism. Actually, you don't miss the age of electricity one bit. Glancing outside, seeing sleek cars, trucks, and trains whizzing past you in the air, you realize that magnetism is the way to go, and saves money in the process.

Your magnetic car now cruises past the city dump. You see that most of the junk is computer and robot parts. With chips costing almost nothing, even less than water, obsolete ones are piling up in city dumps around the world. There is talk about using chips as landfill.

THE OFFICE.

Finally, you reach your office building, the headquarters of a major construction company. As you enter, you hardly notice that a laser is silently checking your iris and identifying your face. No more need for plastic security cards. Your ident.i.ty is your body.

The conference room is nearly empty, with only a few coworkers sitting around the table. But then, in your contact lens, the 3-D images of the partic.i.p.ants begin to rapidly materialize around the table. Those who cannot come to the office are here holographically.

You glance around the room. Your contact lens identifies all the people sitting at the table, displaying their biographies and backgrounds. Quite a few big shots here, you notice. You make a mental note of the important people attending.

The image of your boss suddenly materializes in his chair. "Gentlemen," he announces, "as you've probably heard, the dikes around Manhattan have suddenly begun to leak. It's serious, but we caught it in time, so there is no danger of collapse. Yet, unfortunately, the robots we have sent down to repair the dikes have failed."

Instantly, the lights dim, and you are completely surrounded by the 3-D image of the underwater dike. You are completely immersed in the water, the image of the dike with a huge crack staring you in the face.

As the image rotates, you can see precisely where the leak has occurred. You can see a large, strange gash in the dike that catches your attention. "Robots are not enough," your boss continues. "This is a type of leak that is not part of their programming. We need to send experienced people down there who can size up the situation and improvise. I don't have to remind you that if we fail, New York could suffer the same fate as other great cities, some now underwater."

A shudder goes through the group. Everyone knows the names of the great cities that had to be abandoned as sea levels rose. Although renewable technologies and fusion power displaced fossil fuels many decades ago as the main source of the planet's energy, people are still suffering from the carbon dioxide that was already released into the atmosphere in the first part of the last century.

After much discussion, it is decided to send the human-controlled robot repair crew. This is where you come in. You helped to design these robots. Trained human workers are placed in pods, where electrodes are fitted around their heads. Their brain signals allow them to make telepathic contact with robots. From their pods, the workers can see and feel everything that the robots see and feel. It's just like being there in person, except in a new superhuman body.

You are justifiably proud of your work. These telepathically controlled robots have proven their worth many times over. The moon base is largely controlled by human workers, who lie comfortably and safely in their pods on earth. But since it takes about a second for a radio signal to reach the moon, it also means that these workers have to be trained to adjust for this time delay.

(You would have loved to put your robots on the Mars base, too. But since it takes up to twenty minutes for a signal to reach Mars and twenty minutes to come back, communicating with robots on Mars would be too difficult, it was decided. Alas, for all our progress, there is one thing you cannot adjust: the speed of light.) But something is still bothering you at the meeting.

Finally, you summon the nerve to interrupt your boss. "Sir, I hate to say this, but looking at the leak in the dike, the crack looks suspiciously like a mark left by one of our own robots."

A loud murmur immediately fills the room. You can hear the rising chorus of objections: "Our own robot? Impossible. Preposterous. It's never happened before," people protest.

Then your boss quiets the room and responds solemnly. "I was afraid someone would raise this issue, so let me say that this is a matter of great importance, which has to be kept strictly confidential. This information must not leave this room, until we issue our own press release. Yes, the leak was caused by one of own robots that suddenly went out of control."

Pandemonium breaks out in the meeting. People are shaking their heads. How can this be?

"Our robots have had a perfect record," your boss insists. "Absolutely spotless. Not a single robot has caused any harm, ever. Their fail-safe mechanisms have proven effective again and again. We stand by that record. But as you know, our latest generation of advanced robots use quantum computers, which are the most powerful available, even approaching human intelligence. Yes, human intelligence. And in the quantum theory, there is always a small but definite probability that something wrong will happen. In this case, go berserk."

You slump back into your chair, overwhelmed by the news.

HOME AGAIN.

It has been a very long day, first organizing the robot repair crew to fix the leak, and then helping to deactivate all experimental robots that use quantum computers, at least until this issue is finally resolved. You finally arrive back home again. You are exhausted. Just as you sink comfortably into your sofa, Molly appears on the wall screen. "John, you have an important message from Dr. Brown."

Dr. Brown? What does your robot doctor have to say?

"Put him on screen," you say to Molly. Your doctor appears on the wall screen. "Dr. Brown" is so realistic that you sometimes forget that he is just a software program.

"Sorry to bother you, John, but there is something I have to bring to your attention. Remember your skiing accident last year, the one that almost killed you?"

How could you forget? You still cringe when you remember how you plowed into a tree while skiing in what is left of the Alps. Since most of the Alpine snow has already melted, you had to choose an unfamiliar resort at a very high alt.i.tude. Unaccustomed to the terrain, you accidentally tumbled down the slope and slammed into a bunch of trees at forty miles per hour. Ouch!

Dr. Brown continues, "My records show that you were knocked unconscious, suffering a concussion and ma.s.sive internal injuries, but your clothes saved your life."

Although you were unconscious, your clothes automatically called for an ambulance, uploaded your medical history, and located your precise coordinates. Then at the hospital robots performed microsurgery to stop the bleeding, sew up tiny ruptured blood vessels, and patch up other damage.

"Your stomach, liver, and intestines were damaged beyond repair," Dr. Brown reminds you. "Luckily, we could grow a new set of organs for you just in time."

Suddenly, you feel a little bit like a robot yourself, with so much of your body made from organs grown in a tissue factory.

"You know, John, my records also show that you could have replaced your shattered arm with a fully mechanical one. The latest robot arm would have increased the strength in your arm by a factor of five. But you declined."

"Yes," you reply, "I guess I'm still an old-fashioned guy. I'll take flesh over steel any day," you say.

"John, we have to do a periodic checkup on your new organs. Pick up your MRI scanner and slowly pa.s.s it over your stomach area."

You go to the bathroom and pick up a small device, about the size of cell phone, and slowly pa.s.s it over your organs. Immediately on the wall screen, you can see the 3-D image of your internal organs lighting up.

"John, we are going to a.n.a.lyze these images to see how your body is healing. By the way, this morning the DNA sensors in your bathroom detected cancer growing in your pancreas."

"Cancer?" You suddenly straighten up. You are puzzled. "But I thought cancer was cured years ago. No one even talks about it much anymore. How can I have cancer?"

"Actually, scientists never cured cancer. Let's just say that we are in a truce with cancer, a stalemate. There are too many kinds of cancer. Like the common cold. We never cured that, either. We simply keep it at bay. I've ordered some nanoparticles to zap those cancer cells. There are only a few hundred of them. Just routine. But without this intervention, you would probably die in about seven years," he deadpans.

"Oh, that's a relief," you say to yourself.

"Yes, today we can spot cancer years before a tumor forms," says Dr. Brown.

"Tumor? What's that?"

"Oh, that's an old-fashioned word for a type of advanced cancer. It's pretty much disappeared from the langauge. We never see them anymore," adds Dr. Brown.

Then you realize that in all this excitement, you forgot that your sister threatened to set you up with someone. You call up Molly again.

"Molly, I am not doing anything this weekend, so can you find a date for me? You know the kind of person I like."

"Yes, your preferences are programmed in my memory. Wait a minute while I scan the Internet." After a minute, Molly displays the profiles of promising candidates who are also sitting in front of their wall screens, asking the same question.

After scanning the candidates, you finally select one who appeals to you. This person, called Karen, somehow looks special, you think to yourself. "Molly, send Karen a polite message, asking her if she is available this weekend. There's a new restaurant that just opened that I want to try."

Molly then sends Karen your profile in a video mail.

That night, you relax by having some of your coworkers come over for beer and to watch some football. Your friends could have watched the game by appearing in your living room via holographic images, but somehow, cheering for the home team is more enjoyable with your friends joining in the excitement in person. You smile, imagining that this is probably how it was thousands of years ago, when cavemen had to bond with one another.

Suddenly, the entire living room is illuminated, and it appears as if you are right on the football field, at the 50-yard line. As the quarterback makes a forward pa.s.s, you stand right next to him. The game is being played all around you.

During halftime, you and your friends begin sizing up the players. Over beer and popcorn, you hotly debate who trains the most, practices the hardest, has the best coaches, and has the best gene therapist. Your home team, you all agree, has the best geneticist in the league, with the best genes that money can buy.

After your friends have left, you still are too excited to go to sleep. So you decide to play a quick game of poker before turning in.

"Molly," you ask, "it's late, but I want to set up a game of poker. I'm feeling lucky. Someone must be awake in England, China, India, or Russia who might want to play a few hands right now."

"No problem," says Molly. A number of promising faces appear on the screen. As the 3-D images of each player materialize in your living room, you relish the idea of seeing who can bluff the best. It's funny, you say to yourself, that you are more familiar with people in distant countries, thousands of miles away, than with your next-door neighbors. National boundaries don't mean much these days.

Finally, just before you finally turn in, Molly interrupts you again, appearing in the bathroom mirror.

"John, Karen accepted your invitation. Everything is set for this weekend. I will make a reservation at that new restaurant. Do you want to see the profile that she wrote about herself? Do you want me to scan the Internet to verify the accuracy of her profile? People have been known to...ah...lie about their profiles."

"No," you say. "Let's keep it a surprise for the weekend." After that poker game, you feel lucky again.

THE WEEKEND.

It's the weekend now, and time to go shopping and buy a present for Kevin. "Molly, put the mall on the screen."

The mall suddenly appears on the wall screen. You wave your arms and fingers, and the image on the wall screen traces a path through the mall. You take a virtual tour until you arrive at the image of the toy store. Yes, they have exactly the toy robot pets you want. You telepathically order the car to take you to the mall. (You could have ordered the toy online. Or you could have had the blueprints e-mailed to you, and then had your fabricator materialize the toy at home from scratch using programmable matter. But it's always good to get out of the apartment and shop once in a while.) Cruising in your magnetic car, you look outside and see people taking a walk. It's such a nice day. You also see robots of all sorts. Robots to walk the dog. Robot clerks, cooks, receptionists, and pets. It seems that every task that is dangerous, repet.i.tive, or requires only the simplest human interaction is being duplicated by robots. In fact, robots are now big business. All around you, you see ads for anyone who can repair, service, upgrade, or build robots. Anyone in the field of robotics has a bright future. The robot business is bigger than the automobile industry of the last century. And most of the robots, you realize, are hidden from view, silently repairing the city's infrastructure and maintaining essential services.

When you reach the toy store, a robot clerk greets you at the entrance. "Can I help you," it says.

"Yes, I want to buy a robot dog."

You look over the latest robot dogs. Amazing what these pet robots can do, you say to yourself. They can play, run, fetch, do anything a dog can do. Everything but pee on the carpet. Maybe that's why parents buy them for their kids, you muse.

Then you say to the robot clerk, "I'm buying a robot pet for my six-year-old nephew. He's a very intelligent, hands-on type of kid. But he's also sometimes shy and quiet. What kind of dog might help bring him out of his sh.e.l.l?"

The robot replies, "I am sorry, sir. That is outside my programming. Perhaps I can interest you in a s.p.a.ce toy?"

You forgot that robots, no matter how versatile, have a long way to go before they understand human behavior.

Then you go to the men's department store. Time to replace that ratty old outfit of yours if you want to impress your date. You put on some designer suits. They all look stylish, but they are all the wrong size. You are disappointed. But then you take out your credit card, which contains all your precise 3-D measurements. Your data is fed into the computer, and then a new suit is being cut at a factory and will soon be delivered to your door. A perfect fit every time.

Last, you go to the supermarket. You scan all the chips hidden in each plastic item in the market, and then in your contact lenses you compare prices to see which store in the city has the cheapest, best products. No more guesswork about who has the lowest prices.

THE DATE.

You have been looking forward to this date all week. Preparing to meet Karen, you are surprised that you feel like a schoolboy again. You decide that if you are going to invite her to your apartment after dinner, you will have to do some serious remodeling of your worn-out furniture. Fortunately, most of the kitchen counters and living room furniture is made of programmable matter.

"Molly," you say, "can you show me the catalog of new kitchen counters and furniture offered by the manufacturer? I want to reprogram the furniture. It looks so old."

Soon, the pictures of the latest furniture designs flash on the screen.

"Molly, please download the blueprints for this kitchen counter, that sofa, and this table, and then install them, please."

While you are getting ready for your date, Molly downloads and installs the blueprints. Instantly, the kitchen countertop, living room sofa, and table begin to dissolve, turn into something that looks like putty, and then gradually re-form into the new shapes. In an hour, your apartment looks brand-new. (Recently, you were scanning the real estate section on the Internet, and noticed that houses made of programmable matter were becoming quite fashionable. In fact, at your engineering company, there are ambitious plans to create an entire city in the desert totally out of programmable matter. Push a b.u.t.ton, and-poof!-an instant city.) Your apartment still looks a bit drab, you decide. You wave your hand, and the pattern and color of the wallpaper change immediately. Having intelligent wallpaper certainly beats having to repaint the walls, you say to yourself.

You grab some flowers along the way, and finally pick up your date. You are pleasantly surprised. You hit it off right away. Something is clicking.

Over dinner, you find out that Karen is an artist. Normally, she jokes, she might be penniless, starving, and selling paintings along the sidewalk for a pittance. Instead, she is a very successful Web designer. In fact, she has her own company. Everyone, it seems, wants the very latest designs for the Web. There is such a huge demand for creative art.

She draws some circles in the air with her fingers, and some of her animations appear in thin air. "Here are some of my latest creations," she says proudly.

You comment, "You know, as an engineer, I work with robots all day long. Some are pretty advanced, but they can also act pretty stupid at times. What about your field? Are robots making inroads?"

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Physics of the Future_ How Science Will Shape Human Destiny... Part 22 summary

You're reading Physics of the Future_ How Science Will Shape Human Destiny.... This manga has been translated by Updating. Author(s): Michio Kaku. Already has 635 views.

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