😀 😀 😀 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.)
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.