Book Review: “The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind” by Michio Kaku

Reading this book is like reading a science fiction with real science explained by a real scientist. As a engineer, I particularly like Dr. Kaku’s technical ability to separate out the science from the fiction, especially on some of the popular scifi movies like iRobots, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Matrix, Total Recall, The Planet of the Apes, and etc. From the book, I can derive that the author must be a movie buffs. Many topics are covered in the book. You can check out a very summary speech video by Dr. Kaku in the videos list below:
Dr. Michio Kaku’s Speech at Microsoft
Dr. Michio Kaku’s Youtube Channel

Let me outline some of my takeaways from the book here:
1. Our brains are a truly amazing machine, capable of emotion, long-term and short-term memory, reasoning and simulating the future. It consists of more than 100 Billions neurons.

2. The brain is like a large corporation: 1) Most information is subconscious (CEO is not aware). 2) “Emotions” are rapid decisions made independently at a lower level. 3) There is a constant clamoring for the CEO’s attention. 4) Final decisions are made by the CEO in the command center (prefrontal cortex). 5) Information flows are hierarchical.

3. The author defined “Consciousness” as the process of creating a model of the world using multiple feedback loops in various parameters (e.g. in temperature, space, time and relation to others), in order to accomplish a goal (e.g. mates, food, shelter). Three levels of consciousness: Level 1: reptiles-like feedback loop, Level 2: create a model of their place in space and relative to others (social animals with emotions). Level 3: Capable of simulating the future (like humans). Humor is a sign of Level 3 consciousness because of a surprise from our own simulating. Self-awareness is creating a model of the world and simulating the future in which you appear (limited by the “mirror test”).

4. Telepathy: Reading of the mind is possible through an MRI machine (which can be as small as a cell phone) and matching of the brain pattern against a “dictionary.”

5. Telekinesis (mind controlling matter): This is already possible using EEG and MRI to control external mechanical machines. The author talked about extending the control through the “brain-net”, total immersion in entertainment and exoskeletons, use of avatars and surrogates.

6. It’s now possible to record/download memory from the mice brain and then replay/upload to the mice. It’ll take a few decades to do that for humans, when people can shop for the knowledge they want and upload it. There are benefits to erase certain memory to cure post-traumatic disorder (PTSD). Once a person’s memory can be downloaded and uploaded, what’s preventing a person to live forever by leaving a legacy of memory and upload it to someone or some future avatar/surrogates? Provocative!

7. Photographic memory is due to the brain’s inability to forget, like a savant. Forgetting is an active process, requiring intervention by dopamine.

8. What separates us humans from chimpanzees are just 1.5% of genes. The critical ones are the HARI (folds our brain for more surface area), and ASPM (speech, language) genes. RIM-941 gene was discovered to be unique in homo sapiens only. Potentially, scientists could tweak the ASPM genes and allow humans to evolve to be more intelligent and turn chimpanzees into humans.

9. Due to thermal dynamics and energy conservation reasons, our human brain seems to be maxed out in term of intelligence level.

10. Dreams can potentially be projected into the contact lens of a sleeping person and enact a dream. Also dreams can be captured via MRI scans.

11. Many mental diseases like OCD are due to the various parts of the brain getting stuck in the infinite feedback loop. Sometimes an extra neutrotransmitter like serotonin can be given to reduce the symptom. They’re largely caused by the disruption of the delicate checks and balances between competing feedback loops that simulate the future (usually because one region of the brain is overactive or underactive). DBS (Deep Brain Stimulation) has been used with some success.

12. On AI (Artificial Intelligence), today’s robots are at Level 1 (difficulty navigating in the real world) like a worm or slow insect. Robots need to have emotions, linked to consciousness, especially empathy valued by the owner and fear as a defense mechanism. The most difficult one is humor.

13. About reverse-engineering the brain, the author suggested 3 methods: 1) simulate the brain electronically with a computer, 2) map out the neutral pathways of living brains, 3) decipher the genes that control the brain development. By doing so, we may be to 1) find the origins of certain mental diseases, 2) pinpoint precisely which cluster of neurons are misfiring, 3) help AI, 4) determine how the long-term memories are stored, 5) allows immortality.

14. Predicted by Dr. Ray Kurzweil that by 2029, a $1000 PC will be a thousand times more powerful than the human brain, which can then be reverse-engineered. By 2055, $1000 PC will equal the processing power of all the humans on the planet. 2045 is the year of “singularity” when the machines will surpassed humans in intelligence. That’s a pretty brave prediction. I hope Intel to live up to that and I can live to see it happen.

15. Traveling in space may require us to transfer our consciousness via a light beam to an avatar/surrogate without our physical body as it’s limited by the harshness of space travel.

16. Our mind has been evolved to be the most intelligent wetware 1200 light year from the earth. We should be grateful how lucky we are to be living on this planet. Thanks to this 3-lbs flesh on our shoulders; it’s a real master piece.