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Last Updated: Monday, 5 November 2007, 10:33 GMT
The reality of our science future
Dr Michio Kaku
Professor of theoretical physics, City University of New York

Michio Kaku and robot (BBC)
These scientists are at the forefront of the Age of Mastery, manipulating genes, inserting chips everywhere in our environment, and manipulating individual atoms as well
Most of the predictions of the future have been done by science fiction writers, Hollywood screen writers, and social critics, who either paint a blissful, gee-whiz future when obedient robot maids and butlers cater to our every whim, or a gruesome, dark dystopia when the machines take over and humanity is enslaved.

But what do the scientists themselves say? What are the views of the people who are actually doing the yeoman's work of inventing the future in their laboratory?

Their voices are rarely heard.

To get the most authentic, authoritative view of the future, I spent several months travelling with a BBC film crew to visit the labs of the most influential scientists in the world.

We began by flying down to North Carolina to drive the computerised "driverless car" that can actually travel on the highway without anyone behind the wheel.

The cloned farm

We flew to Tokyo and visited Asimo, one of the world's most advanced robots.

We travelled to Silicon Valley, and met the gurus of the computer revolution, who envision a future with three-dimensional TV, fantastic virtual worlds, and the internet in our glasses.

Future car (BBC)
Driverless cars: Some science fiction will soon become everyday fact
We visited the laboratory in Vienna where physicists are "teleporting" photons and atoms, like in science fiction. We travelled to Dallas, Texas, and met with ranchers who routinely create herds of cloned cattle.

We went to Boston University and saw the "smart mice" which are genetically engineered to have better memory. This could help in the care of patients with Alzheimer's.

But one highlight of the trip was a visit to Dr Anthony Atala's lab in Wake Forest University, North Carolina, where he is unleashing a revolution in medicine: growing entire organs of the body from your own cells.

In the future, we might very well have a "human body shop" that can replace ageing and diseased organs at will.

Pick and plug

Dr Atala first creates a plastic sponge-like mould of the organ. Then he inserts cells from our own body into the mould, which are then treated so they grow into the scaffolding.

After the organ is fully grown, the plastic scaffolding dissolves, leaving a perfect organ. Already, skin, cartilage, bone, blood vessels, wind pipes, heart valves, ears, and noses have been grown.

Dr Anthony Atala; Tissue engineering a bladder (BBC)
Tissue engineering promises "off the shelf" organs
His lab made headlines last year when he grew the first human bladder, which was inserted into seven patients suffering from deformed bladders.

Dr Atala told me: "What we can foresee in the future is having a ready-made supply of human organs off the shelf that you can simply plug in, as needed."

Walking down his laboratory, one almost felt like visiting the laboratory of Dr Frankenstein. On the shelves were large jars containing living human skin, bone, and bladders.

In one jar, you could actually see a heart valve rhythmically opening and closing, just as if it were inside a living human heart.

The next target is the human liver and later the pancreas, heart, and kidney.

Control and responsibility

This has potentially profound implications for medicine. First, there are thousands of people desperately waiting in line for organ transplants that never come. Second, tens of millions of ageing baby boomers are hitting 60 and have to worry about diabetes, heart disease, and a host of illnesses related to ageing.

Growing human organs also means extending the human lifespan, since ageing organs can be replaced. But scientists also envision a time when the genes for the ageing process itself are finally unravelled.

Asimo robot (BBC)
Will we have the wisdom to go with the control?
We visited the scientists at MIT that have isolated many of the key genes, called sirtuins, involved in one form of ageing.

When interviewing these top scientists, several things became clear.

First, we are leaving the Age of Discovery in science. Instead of simply observing nature, these scientists are at the forefront of the Age of Mastery, manipulating genes, inserting chips everywhere in our environment, and manipulating individual atoms as well.

Second, eventually this will give us the power of a Greek god, i.e. the ability of create life in our image and animate the inanimate. But with this god-like power, the question remains: will we also have the wisdom of Solomon to control this power?

Perhaps the first step in attaining this wisdom is to learn about these exciting technologies, and then begin a vigorous democratic debate over their profound impact.

This is the goal of our BBC programme: to help stimulate this crucial debate.

Visions of the Future is broadcast on BBC Four at 2100 GMT on Monday, 5 November. The series is roughly based on Michio Kaku's earlier book, Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century, Oxford University Press, which contained interviews with 150 of the world's top scientists

Robot cars race around California
05 Nov 07 |  Technology
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19 Oct 07 |  Science/Nature


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