Physicist Michio Kaku isn't afraid of scientific frontiers, whether it's the super-subatomic world of string theory or the mind-bogglingly big world of the accelerating universe. In books and on TV, he's delved into the physics of the impossible and the physics of the future.
Kaku's latest focus is a real stretch: It's the scientific frontier that sits between your temples. In his latest book, "The Future of the Mind," Kaku surveys the burgeoning field of neuroscience. You might think the subject is out of a string theorist's usual comfort zone, but his breezy, science-fictiony style wins the day. "The Future of the Mind" has been on The New York Times' best-seller list for the past month.
In preparation for our talk-show gig on "Virtually Speaking Science," Kaku fielded some questions about the far-out future of the mind. Here's an edited transcript of the Q&A:
Alan Boyle: The first thing a person might ask is, 'What's a string theorist doing writing about neuroscience?'
Michio Kaku: "Well, ever since I was a child, I've been fascinated by the brain, by the mind. When I was a child, I used to do experiments on telepathy and telekinesis and recording memories. Eventually, I concluded that all of that was bunk. However, now I'm a physicist, and using physics, we can now probe the brain in detail that was unimaginable just a few years ago.
"We've learned more about the brain over the past decade than in all the rest of human history, and it's from physics that we have all the instruments with which we can trace blood flow in the brain, and actually see thoughts ricocheting like a ping-pong ball.
"Telepathy ... telekinesis ... recording memories, uploading memories ... even photographing a dream: All of that is now possible because of advanced physics."
Q: One of the concepts that you put forward in the book is the idea of a 'brain-net,' which will connect people directly, brain to brain. How do you envision that working, and when might we see the beginnings of the brain-net?
A: "The Internet will eventually be replaced by a brain-net, in which we can experience emotions, memories and sensations. Of course, teenagers are going to go crazy on Facebook — they'll share the memory of their first kiss, their first date, the senior prom. All those emotions and hormones will be pumping away, on Facebook!
"The first steps in this direction were taken just last year. For the first time in history, a memory was recorded. It was recorded in a mouse. Next, we'll do it for primates. The short-term goal is to create a 'brain pacemaker' for Alzheimer's patients, so they can push a button and they'll know who they are and where they live. And beyond that — well, maybe we'll be able to upload a vacation that we never had."
Q: For many of these technologies, you really have to literally get inside the skull. Will people accept the idea of having their brain opened up to get these new communication technologies?
A: "My colleague Stephen Hawking is now wired up. He's lost control of his fingers, so we physicists put a chip in his right glass. Next time you see him on TV, look at his eyeglass frame, and you'll see an antenna connected to a chip, connected to a laptop computer. He can control a computer simply by thinking.
"Right now there are helmets or headbands you can put on, to type or to control the world around you. In the future, we're going to have nanofibers — fibers that are just a few molecules thick, perhaps, that can be inserted into the brain so we don't have to remove the skull."
Q: You also discuss the 'space-time theory of consciousness' — which sounds like a pretty way-out concept. People barely understand the concept of space-time, and when you add consciousness to the mix, their heads might explode! How do you see this theory solving the conundrum of consciousness?
A: "We physicists believe in giving numerical rankings to everything, including consciousness. I think that animals are conscious. If you look at animals, you'll realize that this reptilian brain of ours is inherited from reptiles. Reptiles are very good at looking at their position in space. Then, look at mammals. Mammals are very good with emotions and social hierarchies. I call that Level II consciousness.
"Level III consciousness is human consciousness. Now, what do we have that robots and alligators and mammals cannot do? What we can do is predict the future. Animals do not have a concept of tomorrow. Take your dog, or your cat: You can train them to do many tricks, but try training them to understand 'tomorrow.' Animals have a very good understanding of space, a very good understanding of social hierarchies and emotions, but they are clueless when it comes to strategizing or planning days, months or years into the future. That's what we do.
"So I think there are three levels of consciousness. I even rank them numerically, and give you a formula. Robots, by the way, would be a Level I. They have the intelligence of an insect."
Q: One of the movies that's coming out this month is 'Transcendence,' with Johnny Depp as a scientist who gets integrated into a supercomputer. Is that something that's at all realistic to consider?
A: "Yes. In that movie, Johnny Depp lives forever inside the computer, because all the knowledge of his brain is encoded in software, and eventually he tries to take over the entire Internet. Now, as bizarre as all this sounds, we are on the verge of a program that may make it possible. It's called the BRAIN Initiative.
"President Barack Obama and the European Union are spending up to a billion dollars to create a map of the human brain. If we have one disk that says 'Our Genome,' and another disk that says 'Our Connectome,' then in some sense, even if we die, we live on. That's because our emotions, our genes, our body, the blueprint for who we are physically and mentally is encoded on these two disks."
"The movie with Johnny Depp is science fiction, but it's not totally out of the question."
Q: So many of the things you write about sound fantastical. Do you think it's inevitable that they'll all come to pass, or will we run into something that turns us in a different direction?
A: "I have something called the caveman principle, or the cavewoman principle, that determines whether certain inventions will be rejected or accepted by the population. In some ways, we haven't changed since we emerged from the forest 100,000 years ago. Our whims, our desires, our needs are basically the same as they were for cavemen and cavewomen.
"That's why the 'paperless office' never came to be. It's because we're hunters, and we want proof of the kill. We don't trust electrons, we want paper. People in the city were all going to teleconference from their homes, right? No, cities are bigger than ever. Why? Because we're social animals. We like to hunt socially.
"Why is Facebook so big? It's because after the hunt, we would have a great time at the campfire. We'd get drunk, and flirt, and take off our clothes, and dance, and do all sorts of crazy things. That's Facebook. Facebook is nothing but a campfire in cyberspace."
"So some of these inventions may be rejected by the public — if they go against the grain of cavemen and cavewomen."
Flash interactive: How the brain works
Michio Kaku is a theoretical physicist at the City College and City University of New York, the author of several widely acclaimed science books, the host of numerous TV specials and radio programs, and a CBS News contributor. For more about Kaku, check out his website.
Kaku discussed brain science, string theory and more on "Virtually Speaking Science," an hourlong talk show that airs on Blog Talk Radio and in the Exploratorium's auditorium in the Second Life virtual world. If you missed the live show, never fear: The podcast is available for download from Blog Talk Radio and iTunes.
First published April 2 2014, 3:55 PM