Miffed that the Canadian spy agency was snooping on your airport WiFi signal? That’s nothing. Using a technique called electrocorticography, researchers are now able to decode the electromagnetic signals in your brain with enough accuracy to recognize simple words like “hot” and “cold” more than 75 per cent of the time. Sure, it requires open-skull surgery to access these signals, but how long will it be before neuro-eavesdropping goes wireless?
Fortunately, there are ways of keeping your thoughts to yourself, as Michio Kaku explains in The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind. The key is a device called a Faraday cage, which blocks brain waves by dispersing the electric field around it. In practice, Kaku writes, this telepathy shield “would consist of thin metal foil placed around the brain.”
That’s right. Michio Kaku, the New York-based theoretical physicist who helped lay the groundwork for modern string theory, the multi-New York Times-bestselling author of (most recently) Physics of the Future, is suggesting that you may want to start wearing a tin-foil helmet.
These are interesting times for neuroscience. Brain research has supplanted nanotech and genetics as the scientific flavour of the moment, thanks to dramatic improvements in brain imaging technology.
But predicting where all this bustle and commotion will take us in the next 50 years is, as always, fraught with difficulties.
Back in 1964, the scientist and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov set out his predictions for what life would look like in 2014. Flat-screen TVs, solar arrays in the Arizona desert, Skype-like video communication, and even vegetarian “mock turkey” – as far gadgets and machines go, he foresaw their onward march with striking clarity. His biggest misses, in contrast, came from misreading the most intricate and magnificent machine of them all: the human mind. Underground houses, with softly glowing ceilings and walls and light-forced vegetable gardens, are not yet “fairly common.” We have the technology to fulfill this prediction, but it turns out that we don’t want to.
This challenge is even knottier for Kaku. It’s a struggle to predict how we’ll think about new technology that changes the way we travel or eat or communicate; it’s an entirely different and perhaps intractable problem to predict how we’ll think about new technology that changes how we think.
Kaku plays by two key ground rules. First, the technology he extrapolates has to rigorously obey the laws of physics; second, there must be existing prototypes that demonstrate proof-of-principle. Scientists have figured out how to connect the brains of a pair of rats, such that when one rat sees a red light, the other presses a lever; hence (and I’m glossing over a few key steps here) we might one day be able to upload our consciousness onto a laser beam and roam the galaxy in the form of pure energy.
With this framework, Kaku explores the present and future of telepathy, telekinesis, brain enhancement, mind control, and the more general quest to understand – and perhaps reverse-engineer – the human brain. Listed in the table of contents, these topics sound like fantasy. But anchored by the proof-of-principle experiments, they begin to sound plausible.
Kaku’s descriptions of these proofs-of-principle are the best parts of the book. For example, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley are using MRI scans to figure out the patterns of brain activity corresponding to looking at different kinds of objects, and the technique even works when you close your eyes and imagine looking at something. That means they can record the brain activity of sleeping subjects and produce rudimentary videos of their dreams. “I saw a series of faces flickering across the screen, meaning that the subject (in this case Dr. Nishimoto himself) was dreaming of people, rather than animals or objects,” Kaku recounts. This is astounding, and the dream research is still too new to even be published. This glimpse is worth the price of admission on its own.
On the other hand, there’s the tin-foil helmet. Kaku’s goal is to imagine what’s possible, not catalogue what’s inevitable, so it’s not surprising that his prognostications take some odd turns. But the farther he peers into the future, the fewer surprises he offers. Instead, we get the usual chewed-over discussion of how various nifty devices from Star Trek might someday be built, tethered only loosely to any technology existing now or in the foreseeable future.
Even more disappointing is his exploration of what it would mean to gain the ability to insert or delete memories, enhance intelligence, or merge consciousness with a machine. What would it mean if neuroscience advances far enough to, say, create an artificial brain? “Instead of endlessly debating the question, which is pointless, we should be devoting our energy to creating an automaton to see how far we can get,” he argues. “Otherwise we wind up in endless philosophical debates that are never ultimately resolved.”
Philosophy aside, Kaku offers some oddly prosaic guesses about the consequences of advances in neurotechnology. Let’s say we master direct brain-to-brain communication, implanting telepathic probes to enable live transfer of the full range of emotions and sensations. This might spur “a radical shift in how movies are made,” he posits. “Movie theaters would also have to be retrofitted to process this data and then send it to people in the audience.” Similarly, the ability to upload knowledge directly into the brain would make job retraining for the unemployed quicker and cheaper. Apparently when the neurorevolution comes, the first thing we’ll do is put DeVry out of business.
What’s strange is that the book is packed with references to a much richer seam of futurist thought experiments: science fiction. New and old, classic and pulp, books, short stories, TV shows, movies – these references offer a convenient shorthand for, say, the difference between implantable (Total Recall) and erasable (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) memories. But they also remind us how much is missing from the discussion.
In the end, Kaku’s greatest service is providing an up-to-the-minute round-up of what’s already happening at the pointy end of brain science. The revelations are surprising, impressive, and a little bit scary. To ponder what it all means, though, you’re better off turning to Robert J. Sawyer’s WWW trilogy or any number of other fictional explorations of similar themes. The future of the mind won’t be dictated by technology alone; you have to understand how the mind works right now.
Alex Hutchinson writes The Globe and Mail’s Jockology column.