Michio Kaku. The Future of Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance and Empower the Mind. Allen Lane, 2014.

Having explored the outer limits of physics, Michio Kaku now turns to examining the cutting edges of neuroscience. The areas with the most immediate applicability are the various projects to transform the lives of people with quadriplegia and locked-in syndrome, by constructing systems directly linking the brain to computers and hence to a variety of equipment, including cyborg arms. Along the line are hopes of complete exoskeletons to allow much greater mobility.

A further development of such brain to computer systems would be to allow a better remote control of robotic avatars that could work in conditions far too hazardous for flesh and blood creatures. Kaku argues that we might on the verge of direct brain to brain communications, leading to a transformation of human consciousness, something rather more probable in the short run than artificial intelligence. Also just on the horizon is dream reading, in a very crude state now (say at the level of the first TV experiments of Logie Baird), but maybe a new form of entertainment in a decade or two’s time.

Rather more speculatively Kaku argues for the possibility in theoretical terms of downloading human memories into computers, or even into laser beams, and sending them to the remote stars. He rather glosses over the snag that there would have to be some sort of reception equipment at the other end, which would have to be sent by probe the old fashioned way.

Of course all of these advances, if possible, would be open to abuse, and who can doubt that virtually all governments, whatever their surface ideology, would so abuse such developments. One way, not thought of by Kaku, that ‘democratic’ governments would sell intrusive systems is to appeal to ‘safety’. Wouldn’t you like your children to able to roam free and not be stuck in front of the computer all day? Wouldn’t it be to have a little chip inserted, along with a micro camera between the eyes, so your computer/cell phone etc. can keep track of them, and you can watch what they are seeing? Soon extended to tackle the elderly with dementia, or as a less obtrusive way of tagging criminals, and why then not everyone? If you are not doing anything wrong why object? (Don’t believe this, then remember that if the present level of CCTV surveillance had been mooted 50 years ago there would have been a revolution.)

Kaku is if nothing else, a great technological optimist, and I suspect that much of the talk about reverse engineering the brain, downloading consciousness and such like is wildly over the top. If, of course, consciousness evolved over many millions of years to deal with the day to day problems of living, then there is little chance of it developing in computers or robots unless they are sent out into the wild and allowed to develop and reproduce over vast periods of time. -- Peter Rogerson.

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