The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku

the future of the mindScience, sci-fi or fantasy?

😀 😀 😀 🙂

As a theoretical physicist, Michio Kaku may not be the obvious choice to tackle the subject of the science of the brain, but he undoubtedly has a gift for writing about complex subjects in an accessible way. In this book he looks at the history of neuroscience, where we are now, and then spends a huge chunk of the book speculating about where the scientists may take us in the future.

He starts by describing the physical properties of the brain, explaining how over the last century or so scientists have discovered how the various parts interact with each other. He speculates in an informed way as to why the human brain should have evolved as it has, and defines the main difference between humans and other species as our ability to consider possible futures as a way to inform our decisions.

I call this the “space-time theory of consciousness,” because it emphasizes the idea that animals create a model of the world mainly in relation to space, and to one another, while humans go beyond and create a model of the world in relation to time, both forward and backward.

He then looks at some of the experimentation that is currently taking place, with major pushes from both the EU and the US to discover possible treatments for the growing problem of dementia caused by our ageing populations, together with other kinds of mental illness, which he suggests quite firmly are in the main caused by physical factors.

diagram-of-the-human-brain-parts--8

So far, so good. His writing style and enthusiasm for the subject make for an interesting and informative read, though his descriptions of much of the animal experimentation that is going on also left me feeling uncomfortable and conflicted. Although he continually emphasises the aim of treatment for illnesses and brings up the subject of ethics repeatedly, it seemed fairly clear that many of the scientists, Kaku included, are really interested in knowledge for knowledge sake, and don’t always have strong personal ethical constraints in how they pursue it. Frankenstein, it appears, is alive and well, and is being heavily subsidised by our governments. Let us hope he is also being subjected to close scrutiny…although, as Kaku makes clear, much of the research is going on in the name of ‘defence’ – never a field noted for its sensitivity and humanity.

frankenstein's monster

Dr Nicolelis starts by connecting the motor cortex of rhesus monkeys to mechanical arms. These mechanical arms have sensors on them, which then send signals back to the brain by electrodes connected to the somatosensory cortex (which registers the sense of touch). The monkeys were given a reward after every successful trial; they learned how to use the apparatus within four to nine trials.

locutis

But what Kaku seems really interested in is the future, and here he goes into so much wild speculation that I found my credulity creaking at the seams. For a start, every speculation he comes up with seems to have its roots in an episode of Star Trek, which he mentions repeatedly throughout. Like him, I have a love for the series – unlike him, I don’t believe it’s a blueprint for the future. He moves rapidly through the remotely possible – creating a human-like robot such as, for instance, Commander Data – to inserting technology in our brains to allow us to read minds and act as one unit – à la the Borg – and on to one day uploading our consciousness into computers and living a disembodied and eternal life, possibly with holodeck-type avatars acting on our behalf. Uh-huh! (I’m guessing he’s read Frederik Pohl too.) At the point where he speculated that one day we will be able to send our consciousness out into space travelling on laser-beams and with the ability to assemble our own avatars on arrival, I was frankly chuckling. But in a horrified kind of way, because I think he actually means it. Fortunately, given that they’ve been working on robots for over half a century and so far have only achieved a not particularly effective vacuum cleaner, I feel I’m unlikely to live long enough to be forced to live forever as a computer programme. Phew!

data

More worrying than these far-distant speculations is the near-future idea that scientists will soon be able to ‘enhance’ our intelligence. Kaku’s rather casual view of this is that it’ll be OK if those with power and wealth are the first to have their brains enhanced, since a) they probably won’t misuse the advantage this confers (uh-huh! Though the idea of intelligent politicians is a novel and rather appealing idea, I admit…); and b) eventually, as with all things, the technology will soon become available to everyone. He bases this on things like medicine and computers gradually becoming available to all – I wondered if he was unaware or just didn’t care that, in fact, at least a fifth of the world’s population is still living at extreme poverty level without access to adequate health care and education – even in the rich US people still die for want of drugs that are available to the well-off. It all gave the impression that science is recklessly headed on a path without full consideration of where it may lead.

If skills can be implanted into the brain, it would have an immediate impact on the world economic system, since we wouldn’t have to waste so much human capital. (To some degree, the value of a certain skill may be devalued if memories can be uploaded into anyone, but this is compensated for by the fact that the number and quality of skilled workers vastly increase.)

Michio Kaku
Michio Kaku

Overall, I found the first half of the book interesting in knowing where the science stands at present, and in reminding me of the need to ensure that scientists are kept firmly under control. The speculative second-half was enjoyable but failed to convince me that most of it was more than the fantasy of sci-fi scriptwriters. And I’m rather glad about that, since it seems that Kaku and his fellow scientists are much more willing to consider the benefits of creating monsters than I am. An entertaining read, but not a wholly convincing one.
.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books.

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43 thoughts on “The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku

  1. FictionFan – I’ve read a few of his things and seen him interviewed. As you say, he has a very accessible style and that’s all to the good. But like you, I’m concerned about his view of how we acquire knowledge, especially knowledge from and about humans. I do wonder where neuroscientific development will take us, but I hope we don’t forget humanity in the process.

    • Yes, he was very casual about some of the things that are being done and I felt he was quite often using the possibility of treating illness as an excuse for experimentation for its own sake. Science sometimes seems to live in a world of its own and we, the public, are maybe too happy to reap the benefits without considering the possible costs…

  2. *laughing* FEF, this is a stellar review! A bit of a ripio, and very funny! The professor was laughing throughout.

    I was intrigued by the brain drawing. The professor learned all about that stuff. Neurology is coolio.

    The professor likes Kaku–and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because he’s funny?

    • Yay! I got a stellar!! Thanks, C-W-W. *big smile*

      Hmm…maybe you should add this one to your TBR then…*chuckles evilly*

      Yes, I always like him when he appears on TV. He makes things sound nice and simple for the scientifically-challenged amongst us – but I suspect he may be nuts really. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if he goes to Star Trek conventions dressed as a Klingon. Still quite good fun though…

  3. LOL, the not-so-effective-vacuum cleaner! Yes, very familiar with that piece of science. 😀

    I had this book on reserve at my local library, since I wasn’t sure I wanted to buy it. There are 70 people on the wait list ahead of me. I speculate that by the time I get the book, it will be out of date—except for all that speculation. Perhaps I should take this one off my list.

    • Yes, I’m so disappointed in the Roomba – I really expected by this stage to have a proper android in the cupboard under the stairs who could tackle not just the housework but also all those pesky little plumbing jobs that spring up from time to time… 😉

      Hmm…I quite enjoyed it but don’t think I’d have missed out on much by not reading it, so not a very enthusiastic recommendation on this one. Which should make you very happy…

  4. Not for me – I’ve heard him interviewed a few times, and I watched a series he did for American TV, which appeared on some obscure channel in the middle of the night (well, what do you do when you can’t sleep?) and I ended up a) thoroughly terrified and b) very glad I won’t have to live in his brave new world – Huxley’s was bad enough. Enjoyed you review though, probably more than I would enjoy the book. Maybe we should try to persuade the universities to reinstate Moral Philosophy as a compulsory subject.

    • In comparison to Kaku’s, Huxley’s world seems pretty attractive really. I think they should make the scientists carry out all the experiments on themselves first – that should slow the progress! But yes – I’d like to think that somebody was casting an ethical eye over things – and preferably not the Pentagon!

  5. Hiya, so strange have just put this on my wishlist before reading your review (excellent by the way). The sci-fi bits where he seems to go off on one sound quite entertaining? 🙂

    • Definitely entertaining! I always enjoy him on TV and his style is just as approachable in wirting. I think he may well be nuts but that doesn’t stop it being enjoyable… 😉

      Hope you have fun with it – I think it’s still available on NetGalley, by the way.

  6. Interesting book and a wonderful review, FictionFan. Looking at sci-fi novels and movies it is tempting to believe that one day soon it would be possible to make a chip or a computer which works like the human brain, but as you have rightly pointed out after 50 years of research, we have only a vacuum cleaner. It is all nice to speculate though. Roger Penrose wrote a book in 1989 called ‘The Emperor’s New Mind’ in which he talks about why it may not be possible to create a computer which thinks or impersonates the human mind. I find his thoughts more plausible and closer to reality. And looking at the fact that though the book was published a quarter century back most of its conclusions are still valid and nothing much has happened in the Artificial Intelligence front to prove that things are otherwise, Michio Kaku’s book seems more an exercise in speculation rather than on actual happenings. I studied psychology at the university for a year and in the basic psychology course we had to study how the human brain worked. One of the things that I learnt that day was that we didn’t know anything for certain on how the human brain worked. Most of the conclusions in the book used qualifying words like ‘maybe’, ‘probably’, ‘possibly’, ‘it depends’, ‘both the possibilities, eventhough they are opposites, could be true depending on the situation and the way we look at it.’ It didn’t inspire much confidence in me. I can’t remember a single, simple affirmative sentence in the book on the working of the brain. I came away with the conclusion that we know less about the brain than what scientists and doctors would have us believe.

    Have you read Penrose’s ‘The Emperor’s New Mind’? I would recommend that for an alternate point of view, though it has many equations and is a challenging read in many parts.

    • Thanks, Vishy! Yes, I’m afraid although Kaku was giving the impression that scientists have pretty much worked out how the brain works, I found large parts of it unconvincing…and not just the future speculation. I especially doubted the suggestion that most of not all mental illness is a result of physical problems within the brain – I think that’s far too simplistic and might be looking at cause and effect the wrong way round. It was an entertaining book overall, and I did get quite a lot from reading it, but I felt he’d allowed his enthusiasm and imagination to run away with him too much. But if an intelligent robot knocks at my door any time soon, I’ll admit he was right and I’m wrong… 😉

      No, haven’t read that one – sounds interesting, but as a non-scientist with very limited grasp of maths and physics, it might be too difficult a read for me, I think. I’m very much a ‘popular’ science reader – I need the scientists to be able to write in simple terms I can follow easily.

  7. […] One of the ‘Big Three’ of sci-fi writers of the mid-to-late twentieth century (with Robert A Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke), Isaac Asimov was not just incredibly prolific but also hugely influential – on actual science as well as on later sci-fi authors. He also happens to be my favourite sci-fi author of all time and the one I’ve read most extensively, though mostly long, long ago. Most of his stuff is ‘hard sci-fi’ – roughly speaking, possible human futures based on realistic science – and he’s arguably best known for his robot stories. Pretty much all the later robots and androids of our acquaintance are direct descendants of Asimov’s characters and he was, as far as I know, the first to really speculate in any depth about where the dividing line is between ‘machine’ and ‘life’. Anyone who watched Commander Data of Star Trek fame struggle to become ‘human’ was in fact watching an Asimov-inspired creation – a credit the Star Trek team were glad to give. The ‘positronic’ brain and the ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ have not just become a sci-fi standard, but also something that real robotocists (another Asimov term) still use as a goal – as is evident from Michio Kaku’s recent book on The Future of the Mind. […]

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