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Part 12: The Future of the Mind–
A Theoretical Physicist's Perspective
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
The previous article explored recent advances in our understanding of
consciousness from the perspective of a cognitive neuroscientist,
Stanislas Dehaene. This article focuses on the perspective of a
theoretical physicist, Michio Kaku, as explored in his excellent
non-technical book, The Future of
the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the
Mind (2014). Kaku takes readers on an incredible tour from the
beginnings of consciousness and intelligence to the increased roles
that robotic technology will play in future cognitive behavior—and then
finally on to possible explorations in other planets.
Telescopes that could compress space and allow us to see galaxies up
close were invented 350 years before we could make the major
step forward to enter the space age. Conversely, it only took 15 years
from the invention of brain imaging technology to allow us to observe
brain functions up close.
We now know quite a bit about the natural forces of gravity,
electromagnetism, and weak/strong nuclear forces. Part of the rapid
progress in the ability to observe brain function occurred because
physicists now have a good understanding of electromagnetism. These
govern the electrical signals that process neuronal activity and are
also the basis of the most advanced imaging technologies. Cognitive
neuroscientists, who understood about 30 brain regions prior to imaging
technology, now understand the basic roles of several hundred regions.
A Conscious Brain
Consciousness is central to human rational thought. Animal
consciousness is predicated on the kinds of information that are
important to the survival of the species (which differs in bats,
dolphins, and humans, for example).
Kaku has developed a space and time theory of consciousness that he
defines as follows:
Consciousness is the process of creating a model of the world using
multiple feedback loops in various parameters (e.g., in temperature,
space, time, and in relation to others), in order to accomplish a goal
(e.g., find mates, food, shelter). (Kaku, 2014.)
This definition can be applied to all forms of life. So, Kaku uses it
to discuss the consciousness levels of bacteria, plants, various
animals including chimpanzees and elephants, and human beings. Among
these living entities, humans are best at creating mental models of
possible futures and working to achieve a future that the human
believes is desirable.
Kaku presents an interesting comparison between a room thermostat that
can sense temperature and make a decision to turn a heater or air
conditioner on or off, versus a flower that can sense temperature,
moisture, sunlight, gravity, and so on, and act on this information. In
Kaku’s definition, a flower has a higher level of consciousness than
the thermostat, and humans currently are at the high end of his scale.
This type of example lays groundwork for discussions of whether an
artificially intelligent computer can have consciousness (yes,
according to Kaku’s definition) and whether this level of consciousness
might someday equal or exceed that of humans.
In humans, our brain sub-units use the brain’s feedback loops to create
a model that best represents and responds to the current challenge. The
feedback loops process how we relate to space, time, society, and a
possible future. The internal, almost collegial brainstorming that we
engage in (often at multiple levels) seems so normal that we're not
really aware of it. Eventually our brain's CEO (the dorsolateral
prefrontal cortex) receives input from various brain sub-units, and
makes up its mind after evaluating the past, assessing the present, and
simulating the future. If we make a wrong decision we'll typically come
up with an explanation that makes the decision appropriate. Or else
we'll just laugh it off.
The laughter of humor depends on the punch line. We can imagine how the
story will turn out on the basis of our extensive understanding of the
physical and social world. Laughter is the release when the punch line
provides an unexpected conclusion. That's the essence of humor. Our
survival depends on our ability to foresee and effectively respond to
unanticipated events. Humor certainly has other values but a sense of
humor develops and maintains this capability in a pleasant
non-threatening way. Play, games, and gossip are similar to humor in
that they deal with unexpected outcomes to the solutions that folks
Beyond Our Current Brain
The size of the female birth canal led to a human brain that is
just 1/3 of its adult size, leading to an extended juvenile dependent
period that is focused on nurturing and formal education. We've become
a very successful social species with a current life span in the upper
70s. The chimpanzee is our closest genetic relative, sharing 98.5% of
our genes. It has half our life span and lacks both articulate speech
and human technological capabilities. We thus have a slight genetic and
social edge that scientists are now trying to understand.
What do we humans need to know about our cognitive capabilities and
limitations in order to live in a probably increasingly complex world,
given the profound ecological challenges that confront humans and the
rest of the biosphere and the effect of advances in science and
technology? Kaku devotes much of the rest of his book to this issue.
His basic point is that we've pretty much maxed out the cognitive
capabilities that we've developed through evolutionary processes. It
may, however, be possible to use a combination of gene therapy, drugs,
and imaging capabilities to increase our intelligence and collaborative
potential in order to enhance our chances for survival and the
survival of the rest of the biosphere.
A relatively inexpensive approach would be to encourage the development of delayed gratification
in children. The evidence is strong from longitudinal studies that
children who are willing to delay gratification mature into adults who
are socially and vocationally successful. In our governmental and
public activities, we can compare the costs of regular maintenance and
replacement against the ultimate cost of deferring maintenance and
replacement. It's much cheaper to provide regular maintenance of such
things as a public building or a bridge, or to respond in a timely
manner to massive issues such as global warming. However, we seem to
prefer to not tax ourselves a little now, opting instead for our
children to tax themselves substantially.
It's not that we don't intellectually understand the cost of delay. We
have a rich history of the cost of cultural and economic neglect.
Knowing what has happened in the past is basically the initial element
in solving problems in the present with an eye to the future. For
example, Kaku provides incredible descriptions of new technological
discoveries that will enhance intelligence and motor control for people
who suffer from various sensorimotor disabilities. Will we encourage
the development and adoption of such technologies or continue to
warehouse the disabled?
Altered Forms of Consciousness
Various maternal hormones sedate a preconscious fetus. Birth
triggers a massive surge of stress hormones and neuronal stimulations
that activate the various systems that regulate consciousness.
Conscious behavior begins slowly and sluggishly, developing over a
20-year period, as parents and educators well know. Delivery is thus
the genuine birth of a conscious mind.
Illness and accidents can result in conditions that adversely affect
conscious capabilities. Schizophrenia, dementia, coma, and vegetative
states are examples. Dehaene is optimistic that the direction of
current research and clinical intervention will help many whose
conscious capabilities are now limited.
A Robotic Future
Life forms emerged on earth 3.5 billion years ago when the ocean's
stirred organic soup produced the self-perpetuating bubbles that became
our planet’s earliest life forms. Error-prone copying resulted in a
continuous production of diverse forms of life. Those that best adapted
to the current conditions flourished, while the incidence of
less-adapted forms decreased. Sentient conscious people appeared
200,000 years ago. Kaku suggests that we're probably still several
decades away from developing robots that can function normally in human
society. Even then such issues as self-awareness, recognizing emotions,
feeling pain, and developing ethical behavior indicate the great
distance between what robots can do now and will still need to master.
Analogically-driven science fiction books and films are leading the way
Could the basic concept of evolutionary progression continue into the
future as human wetware and robotic hardware merge, something analogous
to the symbiotic relationship that we already have with bacteria and
immune cells? Many of us now wear glasses and some have pacemakers,
cochlear implants, or artificial retinas. Most people carry a cell
phone. Will the emerging wetware/hardware combination stop at this, or
will we reach a point at which replicating inorganic material can exist
within humans as bacteria and immune cells currently do? Given the
concept of evolution, does a scientific reason exist why it can't?
Cognitive neuroscientist Douglas Hoffstadter suggested to Kaku in a
discussion that we might begin to think of robots as being our
children. We should begin to love them as we do our human children,
realizing that robots might take over in the end (as our human children
Childhood includes playing games as an informal introduction into adult
life, but during recent decades video games began to supplant balls and
dolls. The primitive Pac-Man morphed into complicated socially-oriented
video games that explore elements of 21st century life. The next
article by a young video games devotee will examine how video games are
helping to shape the current generation into an understanding of the
reality that represents their emerging life.
Kaku, M. (2014). The future of the mind: The scientific quest to understand, enhance, and empower the mind. New York: Doubleday.
Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the
University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to the IAE Newsletter. His most recent
books are A Child’s Brain: The Need
for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy
(2007, Corwin Press). He also helped to write/edit three books for IAE (http://iae-pedia.org/IAE_Newsletter).
He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire
2000-2009 run. Contact information: email@example.com.
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