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Sat February 22, 2014
Author Interviews

Forecasting The 'Future' By Tapping Into Human Consciousness

Originally published on Sat February 22, 2014 7:18 pm

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.

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.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Michio Kaku is famous for explaining some of the weirder mysteries of the universe in books like "Hyper Space." But he has shifted his attention to a much smaller system: the brain. Kaku shifts from physics to neuroscience for his new book called "The Future of the Mind." He says we can think of the brain as a large corporation.

MICHIO KAKU: Now, 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. Because think of the unconscious mind. In a corporation, you have subdivisions which 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. And so the organization of the brain is in some sense very much like a large bureaucracy.

RATH: I know this is something you wrestle with in the book - how does something like consciousness emerge out of this corporation?

KAKU: Well, consciousness, there are about 20,000 papers on consciousness with no consensus. Nowhere in history have so many people devoted so much time to produce so little. But our consciousness differs because we simulate the future. Animals have no conception of tomorrow. We do. We constantly are daydreaming, constantly planning for tomorrow, constantly thinking about things that happened even beyond our lifetime.

RATH: Sounds related to a similar definition I've heard in the past from philosophers that what sets us apart is a knowledge of our own mortality, the idea that there will one day not be a me.

KAKU: That's right. We can imagine things far beyond our body. 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. And type-three consciousness, only humans have this ability to see far into the future.

RATH: Can you talk about what modern technology has been able to tell us about the mystery of consciousness?

KAKU: Well, 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. 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.

RATH: And the fact that our brains and bodies can interface with machines in this way, what does that tell us about, you know, our idea of our self and our consciousness?

KAKU: Well, President Barack Obama stunned the scientific community last year in the State of the Union Address announcing the Brain Project. Just like the Human Genome Project revolutionized genetics in medicine, the Brain Project of America and the European Union will allocate over a billion dollars to map all the sequences and pathways of the human brain. The short-term goal is to understand and cure mental illness, one of the greatest afflictions in the history of the human race. The Bible mentions mental illness, for example.

And even beyond that, if you have a CD-ROM with all our pathways on it, that's sort of like brain 2.0. Philosophers have asked the question: if we have a CD-ROM with all our neural pathways on it, perhaps consciousness is nothing but information, and this information can live forever. This has philosophical implications.

RATH: Isn't that - couldn't you say that's kind of reductive, though, that just because these processes can be mirrored by machines or even, you know, mimicked by machines, you're still - that's not the same as if you're mapping out of neurons. That's not the same thing as getting the essence of a person, of that cell.

KAKU: Well, it all depends on how you define the word you. What are you? If you are a mass of soft tissue and bones and so on, so forth, then you're absolutely right. These things look like no more than sophisticated tape recorders. They are not conscious in the sense that our neurons are conscious. But if that set of neurons, mechanical transistors eventually become so sophisticated, is basically a carbon copy, then perhaps there's a new definition of you. Perhaps you can exist independent of your body.

Now, of course, we've seen this on "Star Trek," we've seen this in the movies, but now things that we think of as science fiction are now entering the laboratories of people working on this brain initiative, this $1 billion initiative to understand mental illness and what is the human consciousness.

RATH: Would you want your brain to be downloaded, to have a copy made of your mind?

KAKU: Well, you know, 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BACK TO THE FUTURE")

CHRISTOPHER LLOYD: (As Dr. Emmett Brown) I've always dreamed of seeing the future, looking beyond my years, seeing the progress of mankind.

MICHAEL J. FOX: (As Marty McFly) Why not?

LLOYD: (As Dr. Emmett Brown) I want to be able to see who wins the next 25 World Series.

KAKU: 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 going to 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.

RATH: Michio Kaku's new book is called "The Future of the Mind." Thank you so much.

KAKU: Glad to be on your show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.