on 31 March 2014
In The Future of the Mind, Michio Kaku (author of the hugely impressive Physics of the Future and Physics of the Impossible amongst other popular science titles) provides an always interesting and frequently astounding insight into the work of the scientists around the world who are revolutionising the way we think about the human brain and thus, in turn, the way we think about ourselves.
The first third of The Future of the Mind is a highly philosophical section examining the mind itself and the concept of consciousness. Kaku states that the two greatest mysteries in all of nature are the mind and the universe and that their incomprehensibility is not the only link between the two. There are apparently 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, roughly the same as the number of neurons in the human brain. Kaku suggests that you may well have to travel twenty-four trillion miles, to the first star outside our solar system, to find an object as complex as the brain. For this reason, it should come as no surprise that developing an actual scientific understanding of the nature, purpose and functioning of the brain has proved just as difficult and time-consuming as journeying into space.
Kaku discusses the development of the various technologies (from MRI to PET, ECOG, DTI and other acronyms along the way) that slowly opened up the world of the mind and allowed for the gradual mapping of mind/body function and thought processes. The explanations of these technologies are necessarily quite complex but Kaku breaks the detail down well and uses clear illustrations to aid understanding. He also offers a physicist’s perspective on consciousness and creates an interesting layered definition of the concept that includes plants and the animal kingdom as well as humans.
While Kaku’s explanation of how scientific knowledge of the brain and the thought processes of the mind has developed as well as his philosophical discussion of the evolving nature of consciousness are thought-provoking and generally accessible, The Future of the Mind really takes off when he moves on to discuss the more science fiction-like work than real scientists are currently undertaking to better master and utilise the human brain.
In the middle third of the book, Kaku moves on to examining the new and experimental technologies which are making the previously outlandish ideas of mind reading, videotaping dreams, memory expanding pills and telekinesis startlingly possible. The development of science in these science fiction-like areas is frankly amazing but, then again, given what Kaku shows to have already been achieved, who’s to say that the researchers will not meet their goals. The one criticism that could be raised about Kaku’s explanations in areas like mind reading is that, while he clearly presents what has been achieved and what is likely to be discovered in the future, he does not discuss in detail the problems associated with the discoveries and the likely difficulties that human trials/implementation would encounter. He is excellent at highlighting the wonder of scientific discoveries but perhaps shies away from exposing some of the more morally troubling issues (impact of testing on animals, dangers to human volunteers, etc).
The final section of The Future of the Mind considers alternate forms of consciousness from dreams, drugs and mental illness to robots and the potential inner-workings of aliens. The discussion of non-human consciousness is particularly interesting and thought-provoking – just how far can robots develop? And what obligations would we have to them if/when consciousness could be proved? Kaku then goes on to discuss how an understanding of these differing forms of consciousness can be developed and used to potentially control and manipulate the brain to manage debilitating diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. For all its apparent mundanity, this research into the medical potential of cutting-edge research into the brain and consciousness is arguably the most important development in real terms that Kaku discusses.
The Future of the Mind is another excellent book from Michio Kaku. His own mind is truly amazing (just consider all of the scientific projects that he undertook and succeeded with while still in high school) and he has a true gift for explanation. The nature and workings of the brain as well as the nature of consciousness are incredibly complex and divisive issues but Kaku breaks down the difficult theories, technologies and experiments in such a way as to make them enlightening and entertaining. Kaku masterfully mixes hard science with film, book and pop culture references in order to explain and clarify the topics that he covers. The Future of the Mind is a fascinating book and offers a gateway to better understanding the brain and what lies in store in the future for human consciousness and thought.
on 1 April 2015
I always have mixed feelings about Michio Kaku. On the one hand, I read and enjoy his books - and on the other hand, I tend to quite quickly forget them, as if, despite his brilliance and learning and academic contacts and credentials, this is equivalent to watching some intellectual candy floss on the Discovery Channel, or one of those "Horizon" programmes that sound so promising and are then such a let-down. This book is far too littered with pop-culture references, to a wild mixture of concepts from movies, books and TV, some of which are worth it, some of which are just too ridiculous to bring up in the first place. It also includes some great information and fascinating speculation (as well as some speculation from the intellectually or philosophically questionable). On balance, I feel that Mr Kaku is a force for good in the world - not just for knowledge but also for enthusiasm and progress and human potential. We need more people like him rather than fewer!
Physicist Michio Kaku, an expert in string theory, might not seem the obvious person to take us on a tour of what the subtitle describes as ‘the scientific quest to understand, enhance and empower the mind.’ But Kaku is a very experienced science communicator and though I didn’t feel the same deep connection with, and love for, his subject as comes across in his physics-based books, there is certainly a lot to ponder in this reasonably chunky bit of scientific futurology.
Of all the great science popularisers – and I don’t hesitate to put him in that bracket – Kaku is the most deeply immersed in the science fiction tradition. For every example of a scientific idea he has a story to put it into context, which if you like SF, as I do, is a great asset. The only slight problem this makes for is that when Kaku extrapolates a piece of current technology into the future he tends to oversimplify the problems and goes far too far. So, for instance, an experiment where monkeys are led to feel the sense of touch from a remote sensor leads us to Kaku prompting an interviewee to say ‘I think this is the first demonstration that something like the [Star Trek, the Next Generation] holodeck will be possible in the near future.’ This is almost the definition of hyperbole. My suspicion is that physicists make better science fiction writers than futurologists.
Throughout the book we visit different aspects of the brain and the mind and how they might in the future be enhanced. This often involves finding out more about current brain conditions and injuries, as these have frequently resulted in discovering more about the workings of this most remarkable organ. Kaku quotes a mind-boggling example of a patient with a split brain. Without the usual connection of the corpus callosum, the left and right sides of the brain can hold different opinions and have different feelings. We hear of a patient whose left brain was atheist and right brain was a religious believer – a quite remarkable state of affairs. The ‘learning through damage and illness’ bit is necessary, but after a while, hearing about all these failings of the brain does get a little wearing.
Along the way we experience mind-to-mind communication, mind controlling machines, intelligence enhancement (though strangely with hardly any overlap with Smarter), artificial intelligence, disembodied minds and more. There’s a lot of good material here, but somehow I found reading it a little too much like hard work, rather than the feast of ideas we often get in one of Kaku’s books. Interesting, but not one of his best.
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. 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.
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.
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. 3½ stars for me so rounded up.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books.
on 13 March 2014
‘The Future of the Mind’ written by popular physicist Michio Kaku is a great vision about the human future, which unlike usually encountered, is not at all dark, but offers some unimagined and exciting opportunities that already seem almost at our fingertips.
Inside his book this charming scientist whose style makes science so interesting and tempting, provides reader with latest neuroscience research whose discoveries are still considered as a scientific fiction and something that most people with suspicion would consider impossible. Kaku speaks about recording our memories to be stored for future generations to enjoy, telepathy that would help communication problems disappear, taping our dreams that would allow enjoying fantastic worlds even we are awake, mind control of various devices around us, telekinesis and many others extraordinary things that are commonly thought could only be performed by magicians for naive people.
The idea that one day, possible very soon, humans will be able to control things with their mind, that we will be able to upload our memories and knowledge to the super computers or send our emotions and thoughts are things that will not only help people on Earth, but certainly will help further technology research that would allow the spread of the human species throughout the universe. And all these things found inside truly sound amazing, especially when reader on its pages learns many details of the research carried out extremely long and with great successes in laboratories around the world.
Kaku that except for his books became known to public by many appearances in various scientific TV series manages to discuss this subject in very professional, understandable and interesting manner, explaining where human mind is leading our society and species in the years to come. And though the author is theoretical physicist, because of his long interest in neuroscience and human biology he succeeds to write his work with accuracy though at the same time managing to present well the subject to the people who are not specialists in this area, which is characteristic of only a small number of scientists who usually write their books for their colleagues, and not for the general public.
Kaku for the purpose of writing his book much discussed with world leading neurobiologists. Therefore is not surprising that the result is a great popular science book whose main characteristic is competence. But just because it was written by this author, ‘The Future of the Mind’ can be recommended to all those who do not know anything about this interesting topic because thanks to Kaku’s style and skill, in front of us is a book that will for a long time intrigue the general public worldwide.
Until things he wrote about will become normal, daily seen....
on 13 April 2014
This is something of a ragbag ranging far and wide over neuroscience, consciousness, intelligence, mental illness, mind control, dreams, NDE, robotics/artificial intelligence, aliens and a good deal of futurology. Any one of these topics might have justified a book from this author, but what we get here is mainly a series of superficial commentaries.
As far as any persistent themes can be detected, these seem to revolve round consciousness and the development of robotics/artificial intelligence. The theory of consciousness suggested here is really only half a theory, giving consciousness the function of providing models of the future, without explaining either why such models require consciousness, or how consciousness might arise in the first place.
The exploration of robotics and artificial intelligence is similarly unsatisfactory. The lack of any progress to date in producing properly autonomous robots is detailed. It is noted how the much-hyped Watson computer appears to lack any capacity for appreciating its own sucess, or socialising with the humans around it. Nevertheless, after describing all this, the author still follows the party line of projecting forward to the triumph of AI/robotics without much suggestion of why the future will be more successful than the past.
Perhaps these shortcomings are at least partly redeemed by an insight at the very beginning of the book, where it is suggested that the introduction of brain scanning since the 1990s is as significant as the invention of the telescope for the scientific understanding of our world.
on 5 March 2014
*A full executive summary of this book is available newbooksinbrief dot com.
The main argument: Up until 15 to 20 years ago the instruments and methods used to study the brain were still somewhat primitive. Since this time, however, advances in brain-scanning and brain-probing technology have gone into overdrive--as have the computers needed to make sense of the data from these new technologies. The deluge began in the early to mid 1990's with the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine, and it's more powerful cousin the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, and it hasn't stopped there. In addition to the MRI and fMRI, we now have a host of advanced sensing and probing technologies from the positron emission topography (PET) scan, to magnetoencephalography (MEG), to near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), to optogenetics, to the Clarity technique, to the transcranial electromagnetic scanner (TES), to deep brain stimulation (DBS) and more. In addition to these new scanning and probing technologies we have also advanced greatly in understanding how genes are expressed in the brain.
The result of these new advances is that we have learned more about the brain and how it works in the past 15 years than in all of history put together. And we are beginning to see real-world applications of this new understanding. For example, in the past decade we have learned to read the brain's functioning to the point where we can now create rough images and video footage of thoughts and even dreams and imaginings; use the brain to directly control computers, and anything computers can control--including prosthetics (and even have these prosthetics send sensations back to the brain); implant and remove simple memories in the brain; create primitive versions of artificial brain structures; and also unravel at least some of the mysteries of mental illness and disease.
And this is just the beginning. Scientists continue to refine the scanners and probes that have recently been invented. What's more, governments are beginning to put up real money to fund major projects designed to help solve the remaining mysteries of the mind. For example, in 2013 both the United States and the European Union announced significant funding for two ambitious projects whose ultimate goal is to give a full map, model and even simulation of the human brain.
Specifically, the American government contributed over $3 billion to the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (or BRAIN) Initiative, while the European powers contributed over $1.5 billion for the Human Brain Project.
What this means is that we can look forward to a time when some of the early advancements we've made in understanding and manipulating the brain will reach full maturity. A time when we will interact with computers directly with our thoughts (and paraplegics will power exoskeletons directly with theirs); a time when we can share our thoughts, memories, dreams, and imaginings directly with others; a time when we can upload knowledge and skills directly into our brains; a time when we will have a full understanding of mental illness and disease--and the power to cure them.
And not only does the future of neuroscience promise these great feats, it also promises to help us develop the coping stone of all technologies: artificial intelligence. Indeed, while artificial intelligence has progressed in leaps and bound in recent years, it still remains fairly limited. A big part of this has to do with the fact that we have modeled our artificial intelligence machines based on how we think the mind should work, rather than on how it actually works. With our new knowledge of how the mind does work, however, the prospect of creating AI machines with human-level intelligence becomes ever more real.
The high point of the book is that Kaku gives a very nice overview of the latest developments in neuroscience, as well as where the field is headed next. The weak point of the book is that Kaku occasionally veers way of topic, and occasionally gets carried away on wild flights of speculative fancy (to give just one example, I wasn't expecting, and didn't appreciate, a full chapter of speculation about what alien intelligence--if it exists--might look like). Still, the book certainly contains a lot of very interesting and valuable information about the latest in brain science, and it definitely gets the imagination going. A full summary of the book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com
on 1 November 2015
Check out Dr Kaku's videos on Youtube, he really isa great teacher. I like this book as it is on a subject I am currently researching on Singularity for.
We are at a place where the future of our lives is going to be determined one way or another by robotics, perhaps leading to a situation where replicants of humans will be a part of our society.
However, we are sleepwalking into a possible distopia because no one is really asking the important questions or discussing the ethics of this situation. It will either go well for us or be the end of us.
This book goes someway to exploring how we can use artificial intelligence to benefit our lives. This is a fascinating work. Also check out Jeff Hawkins, he invented the Palm Pilot, he is looking at how we can learn from the way a human brain works and how this can be applied to robotics.
Even paris Hilton has this book!
on 4 May 2015
A valuable description of some science about recent advances and future progress on the horizon. Elegantly described and accessibly written. This book informed and made me think more around the subject. This book is a delight, and my enjoyment has encouraged me to give the book as a gift and recommend it widely.
on 15 March 2014
It was very insightful. Would definatley recomend it to others. Not as good as his others but still very much worth reading.