Michio Kaku:
"The Future of the Mind" (Doubleday, 2014)

(Copyright © 2015 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
Kaku, a theoretical physicist, has written many popular-science books, notably "Hyperspace" (Oxford University Press, 1994). Here he writes about progress in medicine, computer science and genetics that might extend the power of the human brain. He begins by explaining the new devices that have allowed to understand more of the brain's structure and working. He gives a definition of consciousness that is hardly plausible or sensible, but, for what it is worth: " Consciousness is a process of creating a model of the world using multiple feedback loops in various parameters (spacetime, temperature, pressure and in relation to others) in order to accomplish a goal (e.g. find friends, food, shelter) But the value of this definition is that he is then able to consider levels of consciousness, instead of a zero-one kind of consciousness. He classifies four kinds of consciousness based on the number and complexity of feedback loops required to create that model of the world. Level 0 consciousness is the non-consciousness of plants: no nervous system, only a mechanical response to heat, light and pressure. Level-1 consciousness is the consciousness of reptiles, whose central nervous system is only the brain stem and reacts only in space but not time. Level-2 consciousness is the consciousness of mammalians: the nervous system also contains a limbic system, and is capable of creating social relationships. Level-3 consciousness is human consciousness. Feedback loops evaluate the past and simulate the future. His "consciousness" is not what most of us call "consciousness" but simply a kind of intelligence. Later he defines self-awareness as the ability of creating a model of the world and simulating the future in which you appear. These four kinds of consciousness correspond to the classic triune brain model of Maclean (plus plants). The human brain is the only brain that can imagine things that don't exist, such as things that will happen in the future. We are the only animal with a sense of humor because we are the only ones who can understand the contradiction inherent in a joke, which can be understood only if you can simulate the future.

The second part of the book begins the speculation about the future of mind in our era that future generations will view as the prehistory of brain-machine interfaces. We'll soon have machines capable of reading our thoughts, or, better, the ability to send our thoughts to a machine. As MRIs become smaller, Kaku imagines that some day we could be wearing an MRI helmet that can pick up our thoughts nonstop and allow us to interact with the world not with our hands with our mind. Telekinesis is already possible thanks to neuroprosthetics such as the devices of Miguel Nicolelis. Once we master the way to harness an individual's thoughts, it won't be difficult to merge all those thoughts into a global network and create some kind of collective consciousness. The same tools would allow the imagination of an individual to be turned into an architectural design or a sculpture. If minds can control objects, they will eventually control really big objects. Kaku envisions a construction worker who builds a building by simply directing the machines with his mind, a mind encapsulated in an EEG or MRI helmet. Kaku mentions several experiments aimed at increasing intelligence: in 1999 Joseph Tsien added NR2B genes to mice to improve their ability in learning and memory; in 2011 Matti Mintz replaced a rat's cerebellum with a computerized cerebellum. Kaku is optimistic about the possibility of downloading one's memory onto a computer, and envisions a future in which people will routinely store their memories for future generations to reenact those experiences. A combination of electromagnetic, genetic and drug therapies will make telepathy, telekinesis, and memory downloads possible.

The section on alternate states of mind (alternate forms of consciousness) is the least informative but still a good read. The chapter on dreams is disappointingly outdated. The chapter on controlling the mind begins with Delgado's historical experiments of controlling animals with neural implants, and then mentions the CIA's Mkultra project that experimented with drugs. He skips the history of artificial intelligence and focuses on robots of the 21st century. He readily admits that currently a robot is even less intelligent than an insect. He mentions that Murphy's Law won't last forever, i.e. that the acceleration of processor speed will start slowing down, but doesn't quite state that most of the progress in artificial intelligence has been due not to conceptual breakthroughs but to the dramatic progress in miniaturization (smaller and cheaper computers). See my book Intelligence is not Artificial. His survey of contemporary robots is missing a few, especially the Japanese ones, but he is probably more interested in the consequences of creating intelligent robots and even self-aware robots. Unfortunately, many of the claims coming from the robotic world need to be carefully analyzed before being taken at face value. Kaku mentions feats that are actually still dreams, like Justin Hart's robot Nico that is meant to recognize itself in the mirror, something that only humans and a few other mammals can do. As far as i know, in 2015 Nico is still far from being able to do that. Kaku instead writes that it "passed the mirror test". The Yale press release went out in 2012, and artificial intelligence is very good at public relationships, but it was, at best, premature news. If you read Justin Hart's current website or his Yale page, you will find no mention of self-aware robots. Kaku interviewed many of the protagonists, including Rodney Brooks, and he quotes Ray Kurzweil here and there. Many of them believe that the time when robots become smarter than humans is coming soon. Kaku then surveys research in reverse engineering the brain, starting with Dharmendra Modha's neuromorphic processors at IBM that have already simulated the brain of a mouse and of a cat. Again, these statements need to be taken with a grain of salt. Neither is literally true. Those simulations are just tentative and not verified empirically. Otherwise we wouldn't need the project that comes next in the book, Henry Markram's Human Brain Project, funded by the European Union to computer-simulate the human brain. Many of the theories of immortality rely on the postulate that the mind does not depend on the brain, and therefore place hope in phenomena such as "out-of-body-experience" and "near-death-experience". Olaf Blanke is one of the neuroscientists who has an explanation that demystifies this field. Then Kaku reviews the state of cloning, crediting serial entrepreneur Robert Lanza, also a researcher at Wake Forest University's School of Medicine, with cloning (in 2003) a dead animal (a wild ox that had died 23 years earlier). Kaku asks the correct questions that nobody asks: is the clone the same as the original? It comes with no memories. If we clone you, we get a being that has all the genetic predispositions that you have, but not your life's story. Are you just your genes or are you your life's story?

Kaku, which is a professional physicist, speculates on how some day the human mind can visit the rest of the universe by getting rid of the limitations of its body. It is theoretically possible to transmit information over laser beams that travel at the speed of light, and the amount of information is virtually infinite. Assuming that we will soon be able to store all the information about our brain (the "connectome") in digital format, we should be able to beam it to any place in the universe. The catch is that at the other end there must be some kind of station that receives the laser beam and reassembles our minds, not to mention some kind of surrogate bodies that our minds can "ride" into the alien environment without dying right away. Kaku does not explain how those stations would be built in a reasonable amount of time: it still takes millions of years to send equipment to a distant star. He then speculates about travel through wormholes connecting, exploiting the math first devised by Kip Thorne in 1988 that requires a lot of negative energy. The traveler, of course, would not be a body but that laser beam containing your connectome. The final chapters are all speculations of this kind, and probably the best that i have read in recent times. The "Fermi paradox" is a paradox of the SETI crowd: if math shows that there should be millions of alien civilizations, where are they? Kaku believes that aliens will be benevolent (despite the overwhelming evidence that life, first and foremost, tends to eat life).

Kaku emphasizes that mind is a rare and unlikely event in the history of the universe and warns that there have already been several times when intelligent life almost went extinct on this planet and that natural events such as plagues, volcano eruptions and meteorite crashes still constitute a threat to our fragile minds, not to mention the possibility of self-destruction by a nuclear war or by some kind of collective religious martyrdom in the name of some grotesque "prophet" (i.e. by the stupidity of our "intelligent" minds).

Kaku only briefly comments on what humans should do in the future with their expanded intelligence. My experience, having been born and raised with the Internet, is that most likely humans will use that expanded intelligence to create more sophisticated forms of advertising and little else.

The book is a great read, and it is difficult to find downsides. Kaku, clearly a fan of science fiction, makes a lot of references to bad Hollywood movies and, in particular, he cannot resist everybody's favorite fake, "The Matrix", unaware that it is a remake of a German masterpiece from the 1970s. For a book written by a scientist, it is a bit shameful that it uses the ancient imperial system of miles, pounds and gallons, which limits its audience to the USA (the only country in the world to still use that archaic system). No wonder that at one point Kaku mentions "234 countries": people who don't use the metric system usually don't know much about geography (there aren't 234 countries, only 196).

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