Michio Kaku

Michio Kaku/Photo © Andrea Brizzi

Professor Michio Kaku is one of the world’s most thoughtful theoretical physicists. A cofounder of string field theory -- a unique blend of string theory and the advanced-algebra topic called fields -- he has also proved adept at explaining his work to the rest of us, via highly readable science books. His latest work, The Future of the Mind, uses his brand of theoretical physics -- a beguiling mix of quantumness and consciousness -- to push past the current frontiers of neuroscience. Biographile spoke with this bravely unusual mind about where today’s most daring scientific research is taking our brains. Our sit-down adventure included storied science notions like telekinesis, implantable knowledge, memory erasure, and even sentient robots.

Biographile: In your introduction you stress that you are a physicist, not a neuroscientist. What are some of the things a physicist adds to the world of neuroscience?

Michio Kaku: Within the past two decades, more has been learned about the brain than in all of human history, largely due to advances in physics. An avalanche of brain scanners, such as EEG, fMRI, PET, CAT, DBS, TES, TCM, etc. have, for the first time in history, revealed the intimate details of our thoughts. So physicists have created the instruments that have allowed neuroscientists to probe the thoughts of the living brain. Moreover, advances in physics can blaze entirely new trails for the next generation of neuroscientists to follow. For example, MRI machines were invented by physicists, and hence they know how to make them even more powerful. Physicists can now make MRI machines the size of a briefcase. The smallest MRI possible, using the laws of physics, is the size of a cell phone, which is like the “tricorder” in Star Trek. Pocket-size brain scanners could revolutionize the field. Also, physicists have a different way of viewing the question of “consciousness,” one of the most difficult questions in science. Using a physicist’s perspective, I even give an entirely new definition of consciousness in my book.

BIOG: The future you present here is an exciting one, filled with mind-reading, telekinesis, implanted memories, and altered states of consciousness. What do you think are the biggest advantages to such research?

MK: The most immediate advantage of these technologies is to relieve human suffering. Already, people who are totally paralyzed, who are living souls trapped inside a vegetable of a body, are now being given the gift of movement. Chips connected to their brains allow them to manipulate mechanical arms, surf the web, write e-mails, play video games, control household appliances. Anything that we can do via a computer, they can do as well. Eventually, this technology will become widely available. We will be able to walk into a room and immediately control all the chips hidden in that room. We will be like magicians, able to control everything around us mentally. We might also be able to control robots with superhuman bodies (like in the movies “Surrogates” and “Avatar”) so that we can live on other planets, explore the heavens, work in dangerous environments, or have powerful exoskeletons like in “Iron Man.”

BIOG: What are some of the dangers we have to look out for along the way?

MK: All science is a double-edged sword. One edge can cut against ignorance, poverty, and disease, the other side can cut against innocents. One downside to this technology raises the question of privacy. Our thoughts are our most private part of who we are. We don’t want our thoughts to be read by strangers from a distance. However, reading a person’s thoughts over a distance is extremely difficult, since radio and electrical waves dampen extremely fast outside the brain. Even in controlled laboratory situation, sensors must be placed directly on the scalp. Signals quickly become lost in the gibberish of the environment once you leave the scalp. So mind-reading by strangers is unlikely. But there are real problems. To protect our privacy, we must also learn self-control. Eventually, the internet might be replaced by a “brain-net,” in which emotions, memories, and sensations are routinely sent to our Facebook friends. We will have to learn a new set of social skills so that these brain-net messages don’t come back to haunt us. So if we let our thoughts go viral, we must be sure that they don’t have unintended consequences.

BIOG: What do you think will be the most exciting brain science breakthrough in the next five years?

MK: One of the most exciting developments in the coming years will be a better understanding of mental illness, which is one of the greatest source of human suffering, going back to the dawn of humanity. Using brain scans of schizophrenics, for example, one can actually see areas of the brain light up that are used when we talk to ourselves. However, in schizophrenics, this happens without their permission or knowledge. They are literally talking to themselves, but are convinced the voices come from external sources, such as aliens. Similarly, one can use brain scans to see precisely where the brain goes awry in bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, etc. A cure is still far away, but this technology allows us to see precisely how the brain is malfunctioning.

BIOG: In this book you also explore artificial intelligence, with looks at self-aware and ethical robots. It was hard for me not to think of shows like the “Battlestar Galactica” remake. What roles do you see these robots playing in our future?

MK: Fifty years ago, scientists made a mistake thinking that the brain was like a digital computer. Yet , the brain has no programming, no Pentium chip, no central processor, no Windows, no operating system, no subroutines, etc. We now realize that the brain is entirely different; it’s a learning machine, a neural network of some sort, that rewires itself after learning every new task. This means that our robots are simple adding machines when compared to the brain. Currently, our most advanced robots have the intelligence of a bug. (But even bugs can rapidly hide, find food, and mates, etc., which our robots cannot.) In the coming decades, robots will be as smart as a mouse, rat, rabbit, dog, or cat, and eventually as smart as a monkey. So they will inevitably play a role in our lives. In fact, robotics may eventually become an industry larger than the automobile industry today, performing the 3 D’s, i.e., jobs that are dirty, dreary, and dangerous. But when robots become commonplace, we will have to bond with them, so they will have to understand our emotions as well. They will have to recognize changes in our face and voice, allowing them to understand our emotional state, and then have a menu of responses to these emotions. Emotions also help us assign a value judgment on everything, which robots do not have. For example, robots will have to know whom and what to save in case of an emergency, and hence will have to make snap-value judgments. In fact, there is a whole branch of artificial intelligence theory, called “friendly AI,” which analyzes the programs necessary to make robots acceptable to humans.

BIOG: An emphasis on the role of the mind over that of the body or spirit is bound to make some people uncomfortable. What can you say to reassure them that in this brain-centered future we’ll still be human, only better?

MK: The object of the multimillion dollar Human Connectome Project is to map every neural pathway the brain, to have a complete blueprint of every neural connection. This may mean we will eventually have Brain 2.0, i.e. a chip containing every pathway of our brain. In this case, the question is: Can the mind exist independent of the body? Indeed, can the mind become immortal? This a favorite theme in Hollywood (see the latest Superman movie, where Superman’s father does not die on Krypton, but lives on as a conscious holographic computer program). One day, we might have something similar, a computer program that simulates the consciousness of loved ones who have passed away. But does this mean that we are immortal? Probably not. It will probably be clear that the loved one is deceased, and that the program you are talking to is only a very good simulation of that person. We may take comfort in talking to a simulation that is remarkably real, but we will know that it is a simulation.

BIOG: One of my favorite subjects -- quantum consciousness -- appears at the end of your book. Could you briefly explain the concept and expound on how it’s tied to theoretical physics?

MK: In my book, I give an entirely new definition of consciousness which describes the consciousness of animals and human alike. My theory is testable, reproducible, falsifiable, and even measurable. This definition in particular focuses on the consciousness of animals and humans. However, there is also another type of consciousness, which is sometimes called cosmic consciousness, which goes to the heart of the quantum theory (my specialty). It is so sensitive that even Nobel Laureates today are not in uniform agreement. Basically, the quantum theory (which I teach to our grad students, and which is the most successful physical theory of all time) says that you have make an observation to determine the state of any object (e.g., atoms, electrons, laser beams). Before you observe something, it exists in a never-never-land world, being neither here nor there. (For example, this means that a cat in a closed box is neither dead nor alive in this nether state, before it is observed.) But once you make an observation, you know precisely the state of the cat (e.g., it is alive.) So, in some sense, an observation was necessary for the cat to exist. But observations imply consciousness. Only conscious beings can make an observation. Hence, it seems that consciousness is more fundamental that reality, and that a cosmic consciousness is necessary to observe the universe so that the universe can exist. The greatest minds of science have struggled with this question, without a final resolution. But in my book, I give you a critique of the various bizarre solutions that have been proposed. As J.B.S. Haldane once said, the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose.

BIOG: If you could be granted telepathy, telekinesis, or control over your dreams, which one would you choose and why?

MK: One of the most practical devices would [instead] be one that allows us to upload memories. For the first time in history, this was recently achieved in mice. This means that we might eventually upload entire subjects (such as mathematics and physics) into the mind. Not only would we be able to assimilate entirely new college level subjects, it would allow workers to learn new skills necessary to function in a technological society. Millions of workers, instead of being left behind, would be able to keep up with the latest advances. This could have a profound impact on the economy. One reason why income inequality seems to be increasing is because the economy itself is changing. Entry-level factory work, which was once the conveyor belt that moved unskilled workers into the middle class, is no longer available. The technical skills of workers have not kept up with the rapid advances in science, leaving those workers in the dust. And universities often graduate students to live in the world of 1950. One cure for this problem is increased education, especially technical training. But in the long term, perhaps uploading memories might be the permanent solution to this problem.