Skip to main content

The Future of the Mind – Michio Kaku ***

Physicist Michio Kaku, an expert in string theory, might not seem the obvious person to take us on a tour of what the subtitle describes as ‘the scientific quest to understand, enhance and empower the mind.’ But Kaku is a very experienced science communicator and though I didn’t feel the same deep connection with, and love for, his subject as comes across in his physics-based books, there is certainly a lot to ponder in this reasonably chunky bit of scientific futurology.
Of all the great science popularisers – and I don’t hesitate to put him in that bracket – Kaku is the most deeply immersed in the science fiction tradition. For every example of a scientific idea he has a story to put it into context, which if you like SF, as I do, is a great asset. The only slight problem this makes for is that when Kaku extrapolates a piece of current technology into the future he tends to oversimplify the problems and goes far too far. So, for instance, an experiment where monkeys are led to feel the sense of touch from a remote sensor leads us to Kaku prompting an interviewee to say ‘I think this is the first demonstration that something like the [Star Trek, the Next Generation] holodeck will be possible in the near future.’ This is almost the definition of hyperbole. My suspicion is that physicists make better science fiction writers than futurologists.
Throughout the book we visit different aspects of the brain and the mind and how they might in the future be enhanced. This often involves finding out more about current brain conditions and injuries, as these have frequently resulted in discovering more about the workings of this most remarkable organ. Kaku quotes a mind-boggling example of a patient with a split brain. Without the usual connection of the corpus callosum, the left and right sides of the brain can hold different opinions and have different feelings. We hear of a patient whose left brain was atheist and right brain was a religious believer – a quite remarkable state of affairs. The ‘learning through damage and illness’ bit is necessary, but after a while, hearing about all these failings of the brain does get a little wearing.
Along the way we experience mind-to-mind communication, mind controlling machines, intelligence enhancement (though strangely with hardly any overlap with Smarter), artificial intelligence, disembodied minds and more. There’s a lot of good material here, but somehow I found reading it a little too much like hard work, rather than the feast of ideas we often get in one of Kaku’s books. Interesting, but not one of his best.

Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

Artificial Intelligence - Yorick Wilks ****

Artificial intelligence is one of those topics where it's very easy to spin off into speculation, whether it's about machine conciousness or AI taking over the world (and don't get me onto the relatively rare connection to robots - cover designer please note). All the experience of AI to date has been that it has been made feasible far slower than originally predicted, and that it faces dramatic limitations. So, for example, self-driving cars may be okay in limited circumstances, but are nowhere near ready for the commute home. Similarly, despite all the moves forward in AI technology, computers are so-so at recognising objects after learning from thousands of examples - sometimes fooled by apparently trivial surface patterning - where humans can recognise items from a handful of examples.

Even so, we can't deny that AI is having an influence on our lives and Yorick Wilks, emeritus professor of AI at the University of Sheffield, is ideally placed to give us a picture …

Apollo 11 - David Whitehouse *****

The problem with doing a book about the Apollo programme is that it's hard to find something that hasn't been said before - but with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing just weeks away, the publication of this elegant book is extremely timely, and science-reporting veteran David Whitehouse manages to make the story feel fresh, even if you're one of the just 20 per cent of the world population who were alive on the remarkable day in 1969.

Although he has worked a lot with New Scientist, Whitehouse was for many years a TV journalist, and that comes through in his impressively engaging prose as he takes us back to the origins of the US/USSR space race that would lead to the moon landing. He passes through the wartime aspects relatively quickly, but once the two superpowers are flexing their space technology muscles, Whitehouse achieves a near perfect balance between the far less-heard USSR side of the story and the US. This is probably the best bit of the whole bo…