Michio Kaku on “perfect capitalism” and the future of commerce

An interview with the renowned futurist and theoretical physicist on how advancements in AI, VR and AR will change everything from shopping and advertising to capitalism and human memory.

What does the future hold? Not many people can answer that question. Dr. Michio Kaku — a bestselling author and celebrated futurist who co-founded String Theory — might know a thing or two. In advance of his keynote at Retail’s Digital Summit, we asked Kaku to share his thoughts about the next 20 years of technology, commerce and, ultimately, human destiny.

Michio Kaku

You’ve said virtual reality is the next big thing. What does it mean for the retail industry?

Virtual reality and augmented reality will change the way we shop. With VR, we will be able to “walk” through a mall, without all the busy shoppers and noise, and check out the merchandise from our living room. With AR, we will have the Internet in our contact lenses, so we will scan all the merchandise and immediately tell which product is the cheapest and has the best reviews. Information will be everywhere and nowhere, invisible yet always at our beck and call. By blinking, we will have any piece of information about any product, anytime.

“Information will be everywhere and nowhere, invisible yet always at our beck and call.”

How will we shop 20 years from now?

We will also have artificial intelligence, so that we can “talk” to an advisor who tells us who is cheating us, what the profit margin is on any product, whether a product is a fake or not and what people are saying about a product. And when we want to buy a product, we will simply blink in our Internet contact lenses, and we will pay for it. All the “friction” of the buying process will be eliminated.

What is all this leading to?

All this is leading to something I call “perfect capitalism.” Capitalism is private ownership, with prices determined by supply and demand. However, this is imperfect today, since we don’t really know how much it takes to make a product. With all these AR, VR and AI devices, we will know exactly who has the best and cheapest product. Furthermore, the retailers will know exactly who the buyers are and their preferences. Using targeted marketing, they will know precisely how to reach the customers. So supply and demand will be perfect.

Who benefits under perfect capitalism? Everyone. The consumer gets better products at a cheaper price. The retailer gets to know the customer and reach out to them via data mining, big data and targeted marketing. And society benefits because of increased efficiency and lower prices.

In your view, what are the most interesting opportunities for retailers right now?

In the near future, chips will cost a penny. So intelligence will be everywhere. Retailers must therefore be like surfers, always looking for the next wave and willing to ride it. If you resist the wave, you might wipe out. Better to ride the wave to riches. This means constantly being on top of new trends, since computer power doubles every 18 months.

“Retailers must therefore be like surfers, always looking for the next wave and willing to ride it. If you resist the wave, you might wipe out.”

Is there a tech trend you think is overhyped or one that’s not getting enough attention?

AI is certainly one of the waves of the future, and should be watched carefully, but there are kinks along the way. Robotic devices (e.g., AI vacuum cleaners) are still rather primitive. So robotic hardware is not ready for prime time yet. But AI software is advancing at a good rate. Within 5–10 years, we will have robotic doctors, lawyers and engineers — software programs which will answer all specialized medical, legal or technical questions almost for free, anytime and any place. These “expert AI systems” will be in our wrist watch, in our intelligent wallpaper and in our Internet contact lenses, always available to answer any technical question.

MIchio Kaku says AI of the future may take the form of robot advisors in our smart watches, intelligent wallpaper or Internet contact lenses.

What’s something you learned recently that blew your mind?

The next frontier is the human mind. Scientists at MIT and elsewhere can now record simple memories in animals and then upload them into the brain. In the future, the Internet might become a “brain net” where we send memories, feelings and sensations. This will revolutionize entertainment (replacing movies and TV, which are devoid of emotions and feelings) and retailing (so that shoppers can experience the excitement of new products and what others are feeling). Before we buy a product, we may want to upload the memory of using that product, so we have an intimate understanding even before we buy it. Or we will be able to feel the sensation of excitement concerning the next hot item, Or we will be able to see if a product is as useful and practical as the advertisement says. And advertisements will all be revolutionized, as ads contain the feelings of satisfied customers.

I examine all these revolutionary developments in my New York Times bestseller, “The Future of the Mind.”