Sunday, February 23, 2014

Can a Physicist Explain the Future of the Human Mind?

From NPR's All Things Considered, this segment featured physicist and author Michio Kaku talking about his new book, The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind. The book will be released on February 25, 2014.

Here is the publisher's ad copy:
The New York Times best-selling author of Physics of the Impossible, Physics of the Future and Hyperspace tackles the most fascinating and complex object in the known universe: the human brain.
For the first time in history, the secrets of the living brain are being revealed by a battery of high tech brain scans devised by physicists. Now what was once solely the province of science fiction has become a startling reality. Recording memories, telepathy, videotaping our dreams, mind control, avatars, and telekinesis are not only possible; they already exist.

The Future of the Mind gives us an authoritative and compelling look at the astonishing research being done in top laboratories around the world—all based on the latest advancements in neuroscience and physics. One day we might have a "smart pill" that can enhance our cognition; be able to upload our brain to a computer, neuron for neuron; send thoughts and emotions around the world on a "brain-net"; control computers and robots with our mind; push the very limits of immortality; and perhaps even send our consciousness across the universe.

Dr. Kaku takes us on a grand tour of what the future might hold, giving us not only a solid sense of how the brain functions but also how these technologies will change our daily lives. He even presents a radically new way to think about "consciousness" and applies it to provide fresh insight into mental illness, artificial intelligence and alien consciousness.

With Dr. Kaku's deep understanding of modern science and keen eye for future developments, The Future of the Mind is a scientific tour de force--an extraordinary, mind-boggling exploration of the frontiers of neuroscience.
Here is the NPR story.

Forecasting The 'Future' By Tapping Into Human Consciousness

by NPR Staff
February 22, 2014 4:00 PM
5 min 52 sec

Now more than ever before, we have the tools to study the mysteries of consciousness. Memory, dreams, the self are now being examined using high-tech brain scans developed by physicists on the cutting edge of their field.

Dr. Michio Kaku, professor at the City College of New York, is among them. In The Future of the Mind, he gives readers a look at some of the most astonishing research in neuroscience today, and presents a vision of what future innovation might bring. NPR's Arun Rath speaks with Kaku about the advances in technology and our understanding of human consciousness.

Interview Highlights

On the organization of the brain

We used to think the brain was like a computer. But now we realize that's not true — there's no programming of the brain, there's no windows. And we think the brain is more like a large corporation. ... In a corporation, you have subdivisions that operate independently of the main office. And that's why we have an unconscious mind, because you have to have, for example, emotional reactions to things very quickly.

On what makes human consciousness special

We can imagine things far beyond our body. We can imagine social hierarchies much more complex than what we actually have, and we can simulate the future. And so these are three levels of consciousness. Consciousness-one level is understanding where we are in space. Consciousness two is where we understand our position in society: who's top dog, who's underdog, and who's in the middle. And type-three consciousness is simulating the future ... only humans have this ability to see far into the future.

The Future of the Mind is physics professor Michio Kaku's eighth book.
Courtesy of Random House
On modern technology and the mind

We've learned more in the last 10, 15 years than in all of human history. In fact, we can take the consciousness of somebody who is totally paralyzed, cannot do anything with their body, put a chip in their brain, and have that person control a laptop. They can now surf the Web, they can now write emails, answer emails, control their wheelchair, control household appliances, and even manipulate mechanical arms, and eventually a mechanical exoskeleton — and they are totally paralyzed.

Stephen Hawking, my colleague, is totally paralyzed, and he has a chip in his right glass. Next time you see him on television, look in his right frame, and you see a brain sensor which picks up radio from his brain and allows him to type mentally.

On "downloading" one's mind for the future

In the movie Back to the Future, Doc Brown is asked the question, "Do you want to see the future?" and he says, "I've always wanted to see beyond my years." You see, I'm also a futurist. I dream about the world 50, 100, maybe even 1,000 years in the future. But I also realize I'm probably not gonna see it. However, I wouldn't mind having at least a copy of myself see the future, maybe 50, 100, 1,000 years into the future. It would be a fantastic ride.

Read an excerpt from The Future of the Human Mind.
* * * * *

Here is that excerpt, brief though it is.

Excerpt: 'The Future Of The Mind'

Houdini, some historians believe, was the greatest magician who ever lived. His breathtaking escapes from locked, sealed chambers and death-defying stunts left audiences gasping. He could make people disappear and then re-emerge in the most unexpected places. And he could read people's minds.

Or, at least it seemed that way.

Houdini took pains to explain that everything he did was an illusion, a series of clever sleight-of-hand tricks. Mind reading, he would remind people, was impossible. He was so outraged that unscrupulous magicians would cheat wealthy patrons by performing cheap parlor tricks and séances that he took it upon himself to go around the country exposing fakes. He was even on a committee organized by Scientific American, which offered a generous reward to anyone who could positively prove they had psychic power. (No one ever picked up the reward.)

Houdini believed that true telepathy was impossible. But science is proving Houdini wrong.

Telepathy is now the subject of intense research at universities around the world where scientists have already been able to read individual words, images, and thoughts of our brain by combining the latest scanning technology with pattern recognition software. This could revolutionize the way we communicate with stroke and accident victims who are "locked-in" their bodies, unable to articulate their thoughts except through blinks of their eyes. But that's just the start. It might also radically change the way we interact with computers and the outside world.

As we know, the brain is electrical. In general, anytime an electron is accelerated, it gives off electromagnetic radiation. The same holds true for electrons oscillating inside the brain. It sounds like something out of science fiction or fantasy, but humans naturally emit radio waves. But these signals are too faint to be detected by others, and even if we could perceive these radio waves, it would be difficult for us to make sense of them. But computers are changing all this. Scientists have already been able to get crude approximations of a person's thoughts using EEG scans. Subjects put on a helmet of EEG sensors on their head, and concentrate on certain pictures, say, the image of a car or a house. The EEG signals were then recorded for each image and eventually, a rudimentary dictionary of thought was created, with a one-to-one correspondence between a person's thoughts and the EEG image. Then, when a person was shown a picture of another car, the computer would recognize this EEG pattern.

The advantage of EEG sensors is that they are non-invasive and quick. You simply put on a helmet containing many electrodes onto the surface of the brain and the EEG can rapidly identify signals which change every millisecond. But the problem with EEG sensors, as we have seen, is that electromagnetic waves deteriorate as they pass through the skull, and it is difficult to locate the precise source. This method can tell if you are thinking of a car versus a house, but it cannot recreate an image of the car. That is where Dr. Gallant's work comes in.

The epicenter for much of this research is the University of California at Berkeley, where I received my own Ph.D. in theoretical physics years ago. I had the pleasure of touring the laboratory of Dr. Jack Gallant, whose group has accomplished a feat once considered to be impossible: video taping people's thoughts. "This is a major leap forward reconstructing internal imagery. We are opening a window into the movies in our mind," says Dr. Gallant.

When I visited his laboratory, the first thing I noticed was the team of young, eager postdoctoral and graduate students huddled behind their computer screens, looking intently at video images that were reconstructed from someone's brain scans. Talking to his team, you feel as though you are witnessing scientific history in the making.

Dr. Gallant explained to me that first, the subject lies flat on a stretcher, which is slowly inserted head first into a huge, state-of-the-art MRI machine, costing upwards of $3 million. The subject is then shown several movie clips (such as movie trailers readily available on YouTube.) To accumulate enough data, you have to sit motionless for hours watching these clips, a truly arduous task. I asked one of the post-docs, Dr. Shinji Nishimoto, how they found volunteers who were willing to lie still for hours on end with only fragments of video footage to occupy the time. He said the people in the room, the grad students and post-docs, volunteered to be guinea pigs for their own research.

As the subject watches the movies, the MRI machine creates a 3D image of the blood flow within the brain. The MRI image looks like a vast collection of 30,000 dots or voxels. Each voxel represents a pinpoint of neural energy, and the color of the dot corresponds to the intensity of the signal and blood flow. Red dots represent points of large neural activity, while blue dots represent points of less activity. (The final image looks very much like thousands of Christmas lights in the shape of the brain. Immediately, you can see the brain is concentrating most of its mental energy in the visual cortex while watching these videos.)

At first, this color 3D collection of dots looks like gibberish. But after years of research, Dr. Gallant and his colleagues have developed a mathematical formula which begins to make connections between certain features of a picture (edges, textures, intensity, etc.) and the MRI voxels. For example, if you look at a boundary, you'll notice it's a region separating lighter and darker areas and hence the edge generates a certain pattern of voxels. By having subject after subject view such a large library of movie clips, this mathematical formula is refined, allowing the computer to analyze how all sorts of images are converted into MRI voxels. Eventually, the scientists were able to ascertain a direct correlation between certain MRI patterns of voxels and each picture. "We built a model for each voxel that describes how space and motion information in the movie is mapped into brain activity," Dr. Nishmoto told me.

From The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku. Random House.

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