The Future of the Mind

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Michio Kaku's first book, Hyperspace. Since then, the personable (his many media appearances testify to his charm), verbally gifted, enthusiastic, science-proselytizing physicist has shared his own feelings of awe at the universe and the humans who inhabit it. Reading one of his books is like hijacking Kaku's oversized intelligence and enthusiasms to stoke your own sense of wonder. His latest is no exception.

This time around, Kaku is going to focus on inner space, not outer space. Proclaiming in his introduction that the universe and the human mind are the parallel and paramount subjects we must understand, Kaku intends to step us through the past couple of decades of neuro-discoveries, a period during which more has been learned about the human brain than in all prior history. And having grounded us, he will then extrapolate these findings to new heights.

It takes only a succinct and stimulating forty pages or so -- the first chapter -- for Dr. Kaku to summarize the state of our knowledge about the brain up to the revolutionary moment when the MRI and other high-tech tools appeared. He delivers a concise portrait of what we knew in those Dark Ages about the brain's enigmatic organization, cellular operations, and overall functionality, as determined by crude dissections and black-box experimentation. Then, before venturing to outline our current and more sophisticated understanding, he gives us in Chapter 2 a "space-time theory of consciousness," defining just what the intelligent brain does, in instances from bacteria on up to humanity. Now he and the reader are fully prepared to approach and appreciate the avant-garde findings, and so ends Book I, "The Mind and Consciousness."

In Book II, "Mind over Matter," Dr. Kaku delves into four main areas: telepathy, telekinesis, memories, and genius. He ushers us into laboratories he has personally visited -- the list of scientists interviewed for this opus stretches to seven pages of close-set names -- and shows us how the ability to detect, record, and interpret the signals of the brain during its daily operations leads naturally to such developments as brain-to-brain and brain-to-machine interfaces. Different modes of intelligence and intelligence amplification get a once-over, although prospects for baseline tinkering with the reasoning powers of the brain are less sanguine: "There are also indications from the laws of physics that we have reached the maximum natural limit of intelligence, so that any enhancement of our intelligence would have to come from external means." Get ready for Monty Python's strap-on brains.

Two observations about the book up to this point in the text. While many of the individual findings Kaku presents might ring a bell in the mind of the reader as having been spotted in past headlines, it's the grand accumulation of them all in one visionary presentation, and the syncretic drawing of connections among them, that is Kaku's unique contribution. Also of note: much of the discussion is illuminated by Kaku's frequent references to science fiction films and books. Outing himself up front as an SF fan from childhood, he has lots of fun with his citations, which convey in familiar layman's scenarios the speculations which he is discussing with greater accuracy and precision.

Book III is titled "Altered Consciousness," and while it exhibits a definite progression and scheme, it is something of a grab bag of topics, and I wonder if some themes should have been broken out under separate headers.

We begin still firmly rooted in the human realm, with a look at dreaming, mind control techniques, and such freakish states as out-of-body experiences. Dr. Kaku also extends his "space-time" formulation to cover mental illness as well. Here, as before, our guide devotes time to the many societal implications of the new sciences, affirming that any potential technologies do not exist in a vacuum.

Then, in Chapter 10, we shift to artificial intelligence, a somewhat big leap, although a little retroactive attention to the book's title reminds us that the discussion was never going to be limited to purely organic minds. We look at reverse-engineering the brain into some artificial substrate, then uploading it. Encoding the mind in pure energy is next, followed by some speculations on what a truly alien intelligence would look like, ending with some hopeful concluding remarks.

I found a few omissions of interesting folks: Howard Gardner, on the topic of multiple kinds of intelligence; Patricia Churchland, on issues of free will; and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, on that creative state he has dubbed "flow." I would have liked to learn about any advances in these realms. But such quibbles are moot in the face of Michio Kaku's wide-ranging, optimistic, and lively survey of the miracles contained in three pounds of gray matter -- and its silicon and alien equivalents -- that we all possess.

 


 

The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo's column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.

 

 

 

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

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