The Wonder of Us

Stretching the boundaries Michio Kaku shows us how to have fun without breaking the law
Stretching the boundaries Michio Kaku shows us how to have fun without breaking the law

Cathy Hutchinson is a quadriplegic. Since May 2012, she’s been controlling a mechanical arm with her brain. In 2011, scientists at the University of Southern California successfully stored the brain of a mouse on a computer. In 2013, two scientists at the University of Washington spoke to each other with their minds. I still cannot do any of these things, but thanks to Professor Michio Kaku, I am optimistic.

In a world where Iron Man and Spider Man routinely defy the laws of physics, it’s a good thing we have Michio Kaku. He reminds us that you can have just as much fun without breaking the law. In The Future of the Mind, he brings a physicist’s perspective to the human brain. The reason he can do this is because the brain is an electrical device, and physicists understand electrical devices. They’ve been studying electromagnetics since 1860. Equipment like EEG machines have transformed our understanding, and enabled new medical techniques like Deep Brain Stimulation. They also help Japanese youth flap their kitty ears at parties. But more on that later.

The human brain is a marvel of nature. It consumes the same amount of power as a 20-watt bulb. Yet to match the computing power of a single human brain, you would need a computer the size of New York City. For hundreds of years, our main source of knowledge were dead brains. We had no idea about what was going on inside. But in the last 10 years, increasingly sophisticated electromagnetic equipment is helping us see inside living brains. When a person raises a hand, or sees a picture of a loved one — we can see which parts of their brain light up. In this way, bit by bit, scientists are creating an encyclopedia of the brain, recording exactly which parts come into play for different thoughts, emotions and actions. For example, once you know which part of the brain ‘lights up’ when a person raises his hand, you can get another person to raise his hand by stimulating the same area.

Professor Kaku is a methodical explorer of wonders. On any given subject, he first lays out the state of the art. Then he tells you some amazing things that are already possible. Next, he tells you amazing things that are likely to happen soon, followed by things that should happen later, but within your lifetime. Finally, in a very matter- of-fact way, he shares with you things that will happen in the next few centuries. According to him, what slows down progress is not the science — it’s the engineering. The theory is all there. However, as the reader of any sex manual will tell you, it’s the practice that’s the problem.

But before we get to the wonders, let’s look at the basis for them. Professor Kaku asks the same question I often ask towards the end of parties, which is, what is consciousness? What makes us different from animals? Apparently, it’s the ability to plan for the future. No other animal does this. Our lives are full of future simulations. Should I cross the road now, or two minutes later? If I borrow money from Bank of Baroda, will I need to give it back? Do I have a chance with Katrina Kaif? We do thousands of projections like this every single day. This is what makes our brains so much more complicated. Professor Kaku uses Time Simulation theory to explain everything, including humour. His explanation is plausible, but not very funny.

The Future of the Mind Michio Kaku
The Future of the Mind
Michio Kaku Allen Lane
378 pp; Rs 899

According to Professor Kaku, we will be mentally communicating with computers in the next five years. We will pay phone bills and write poetry with our minds. Paraplegics will no longer be trapped inside their bodies. They could even move freely using exoskeletons. Which means Iron Man could soon be a reality, although the colossal wealth and the attractive assistant would be extra. In fact, if Dr Miguel Nikolelis of Duke University can finish on time, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil will be started by a Brazilian quadriplegic, who will kick the first ball wearing just such a suit. Watch out for him. Meanwhile, Guger Technologies of Austria has developed an EEG based typewriter, which sounds fantastic. Can’t you see I’m writing, I’ll say, while dozing off in a chair. Of course, there’s a flipside to this too. If we can control computers, they can read us too. Soon, MRI scanners will be small enough to fit in a mobile phone. Connected to a powerful supercomputer, such a scanner could read your mind. If your boss gets one of those, you can kiss your job goodbye. Or imagine your wife putting a helmet on her head and asking, ‘How was dinner, darling?’

Mind-reading projects have been lavishly funded by the Pentagon, which has been trying to read Fidel Castro’s mind since 1962. That’s not all they’ve funded. NASA was an offshoot of a US defense project. In the 1960s, the Pentagon funded a program called Arpanet, to keep scientists in touch with the leadership in the event of World War III. At the end of the cold war they went public, leading to the birth of the internet. The reason they were so afraid was because their technology for guiding missiles had become advanced enough to drop nuclear bombs with pinpoint accuracy. This guided missile technology became the basis for GPS, without which we would never be able to find the nearest KFC. Apparently, every human invention in history has been funded by the US Army. ‘We try not to break more than one law of physics per project,’ explained one of the scientists to Professor Kaku.

The US military and the study of the brain are closely linked, and the cold war had a lot to do with it. Films like The Manchurian Candidate convinced the US authorities that they were in imminent danger of being turned into mind-controlled zombies, not realising that television was already doing this. Accordingly, large sums of money were poured into mind control research. There was a rumour that the Soviets were making major breakthroughs using microwaves. In this, they were misinformed. Soviet brainwashing techniques mostly involved shouting a lot, the effect of which was found to diminish as time and distance separated the victim from the shouter. Nevertheless, the bulk of US efforts were devoted to firing microwaves into innocent brains, despite the fact that microwaves have absolutely no effect on the brain. The brain, as we mentioned before, is an electrical device.

As we can see from movies like The Terminator, the US Army is also deeply interested in robot soldiers, which brings us to the subject of the robot brain. The world’s most famous robot is the Mars rover, Curiosity, which has the intelligence of a bug, but thanks to neural networks, it can learn. Unlike your average politician, it will get smarter. But is this not a slippery slope? As Terminator movie after Terminator movie shows us, will these robots not eventually become evil, and try to rub us out? Dr Rodney Brooks, co-founder of iRobot, says that before Totally Evil robot, we will first end up creating Slightly Naughty robot and Mildly Evil robot, so there will be time to reverse the process. Personally, I don’t trust him. Being a scientist himself, he’s pretending that evil scientists don’t exist.

Apart from the US Army, the other evil force at work in this area is the gaming industry. A company called Neurosky has been making EEG based computer games since 2009, and currently markets the Mindwave Mobile Headset at $129. In Japan, partygoers can buy cat ears, which will go up or down depending on whether you’re excited to meet someone. Like the super-intelligent commode, this is yet another path-breaking Japanese invention, but it ignores the fact that most people will avoid someone in cat ears. Meanwhile, at the ATR Computational and Neuroscience Laboratories, in Kyoto, Japan, they are photographing dreams. The pictures are fuzzy, but they’ll get better over time.

Other countries have also been up to no good. Dr Olaf Blanke of Switzerland has identified the exact area in the brain that causes out-of -body experiences. He can make you have one by stimulating that area, adding one more to the list of strange things that happen in Switzerland.

Why is delayed gratification the key to success? How can wearing contact lenses help us enter someone’s dream? What is the future of pornography? Will we ever be able to construct a computer to match a human brain? These, and many other vital questions are answered in this excellent book by Professor Kaku, which you must read immediately, because it reminds us of a great and simple thing. In a world full of wonders, real and imagined, the biggest single wonder is us.


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