Physicist Michio Kaku talks telekinesis, uploading memories and The Future of the Mind
Though telepathy and photographing dreams seems like the stuff of sci-fi, physicist Michio Kaku says science is catching up to fiction. In his new book, The Future of the Mind, the theoretical physicist and co-founder of string-field theory delves into the study of the human brain and these seemingly impossible feats that are now becoming possible. In advance of Kaku's book-signing and talk at 7:30 p.m. tonight at Tattered Cover Colfax, we spoke with him about telekinesis, uploading memories and the evolution of the theory of consciousness.
Westword: What made you want to write The Future of the Mind?
Michio Kaku: When I was a kid I was fascinated by science fiction about telepathy, reading minds and telekinesis, moving objects with the mind, and I would read stories about recording memories and becoming a genius and all these things, but I grew up and became a physicist and I realized that all that was nonsense. Until now. Now because of advances in physics, we can actually peer into the brain and all the things that I mentioned -- telepathy, telekinesis, uploading memories, recording memories, even photographing a dream -- these are things that we actually do in the laboratory. And I wanted to tell people the excitement that we feel knowing that these new advanced instruments of physics are literally prying open the thinking process.
Can you talk about telepathy? How is that demonstrated in the lab?
We have people who are paralyzed because of a stroke or they have a war injury or they lost a limb, and we can now put a chip the size of a dime on their brain, connect that chip to a laptop computer, and then these people can search the web by thinking. They can write e-mails, they can do crossword puzzles, they can operate a wheelchair, operate household appliances, and they can even operate mechanical arms and mechanical legs. The military, of course, is interested in this because it allows the wounded veterans to use mechanical arms and legs that they can control mentally just by thinking about it. One of my colleagues, Stephen Hawking the physicist, he's lost control of all of his bodily functions now and he communicates by thinking. There's a chip that picks up radio from his mind, decodes it, and then types. You can now type by simply thinking about it.
What were you most surprised to learn about in your research for this book?
I used to think that uploading a memory was simply too difficult for science, but actually the first step was taken just last year. For the first time in history, scientists were able to actually upload a memory into a mouse. Next, they want to do it to a monkey, and then after that they want to do it for Alzheimer's patients. In other words, what we want is a brain pacemaker. Just like a pacemaker makes the heart beat normally, we think that a brain pacemaker would give an Alzheimer's person the gift of memory so they wouldn't get lost, they would know who they are, and it would not become such a burden on society. Those memories are placed on a chip that can then be uploaded into the brain. This was once considered science fiction, but already we've taken the first steps, at least for animals.
How was memory uploaded to a mouse?
What they do is the memory is formed in the very center of the brain called the hippocampus. There are signals that go bouncing across the hippocampus and you can record by putting two electrodes on either side of the hippocampus, you can then measure all the electrical impulses going back and forth. Then you put that on a tape recorder. You then tape the signals that go back and forth and the mouse learns something. Later, the mouse forgets, and then you put it back and the mouse instantly remembers.
You discuss the theory of consciousness in your book. How has the theory changed over the years?
Well, we used to be totally clueless about consciousness, but now we have brain scans that allow us to see the brain as it thinks. We can now differentiate between animal consciousness and our consciousness. I give a definition of consciousness in my book that consciousness is a process of continually creating a model of where you are with respect to space, with respect to other animals, and with respect to the future. Animals do not simulate tomorrow. They do not daydream. They don't plan. Animals are largely instinctual. When they hibernate it's not because they plan, it's because it gets cold and their bodies' metabolism slows down automatically. We plan to go to sleep. We plan to travel. And that's what separates human consciousness from animal's consciousness. I think there's a continuum all the way from the simplest form of consciousness up to humans, which can simulate the future, which I think is the essence of human consciousness and also intelligence. Why is it that a bank robber could have a low IQ because he flunked out of elementary school, but he can rob banks better than the police can catch him? It's because the bank robber just simulates the future. He can daydream. He can think about, "What if I do this? What if I do that?" And he thinks about it much better than any police. And that's why I think that this is a measure of intelligence.