published Friday, January 24th, 2014

Futurist Michio Kaku visits Chattanooga State

  • photo
    An aerial shot of Chattanooga State Community College.
    Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Michio Kaku says technology waits for no one.

A renowned theoretical physicist, futurist and author, Kaku spent Thursday getting the Chatttanooga State campus up to speed on what he sees coming in the technology, economic and higher education systems of the future.

Kaku contends that most colleges are training their students for jobs of the past.

"There is no 1950 anymore," he said, "but our college system is still not up to speed."

The current college system is largely stuck preparing students for an economy based on "commodity" capital consisting of tangible products and services, Kaku said. Instead, he said, universities should ponder how they can prepare students for a world based on intellectual capital.

"I've interviewed 300 of the world's top scientists to get the best understanding of the future, and they tell me that, 'Hey, we're training a lot of people to graduate into the unemployment line,'" Kaku said. "The message I tell young people is that first of all, science is the engine of prosperity."

At Brown University and Duke University, specifically, Kaku has noticed an embrace of the continued pairing of technology with the human mind that he forsees as prevalent in the future.

"We put a chip in people's brain and connect them to a laptop and they can type, surf the Web, control their wheelchair, write emails, do crossword puzzles, and they're totally paralyzed," he said.

But regardless of the continued growth of online college course work, Kaku subscribes to the notion that human interaction will remain crucial in the higher education system of the future, perhaps just in reinvented roles.

"It will be very important, because we are human and we want human contact to give us mentoring advice and so forth," Kaku said. "But we use computers to accelerate that process and give us access to the best professors in the world, but the e-interaction will only go so far. You have to have the human in the loop."

The same goes for the workforce, where robots lacking common sense and social skills cannot totally replace humans.

"Jobs are going to flourish in the future," Kaku said, "but they're not going to be what they are now."

Kaku arrived in Chattanooga on Wednesday night and spent the day at Chattanooga State, capping it with an evening public presentation titled, "The Future of the Mind and Beyond."

He spoke highly of what he saw in Chattanooga.

"When I come here, I see that things are changing," Kaku said. "Volkswagen is here, and it's an industry-friendly environment, which is good because the old economy is gone. The old jobs, they're all in China, Vietnam. They're not here anymore."

For Mary Knaff, Chattanooga State's director of multicultural and international student services, bringing in Kaku meant an opportunity to stress the importance of STEM education by putting things in perspective through a well-known figure.

"I have students say to me all the time, 'Why would Dr. Kaku come here?'" Knaff said. "And I say to them, 'Why wouldn't Dr. Kaku come here?'"

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.

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