January 18, 2015

The future of the mind by Michio Kaku

The future of the mind by Michio Kaku
The scientific quest to understand, enhance and empower the mind

[The concept of mind-reading research and programmable matter are quite interesting topics]

Nobel Laureate Eric R Kandel of the Max Planck Institute in Tubingen, Germany writes,” The most valuable insights into the human mind to emerge during this period did not come from the disciplines traditionally concerned with the mind - philosophy, psychology or psychoanalysis. Instead they came from a merger of these disciplines with the biology of the brain...”

A map of brain:

The outer layer of the brain divided into four lobes. It is highly developed in humans. All the lobes of the brain are devoted to processing signals from our senses, except for one: the frontal lobe, located behind the forehead. The prefrontal cortex, the foremost part of the frontal lobe, is where most rational thought is processed. The information you are reading right now is being processed in your frontal cortex. Damage to this area can impair your ability to plan or contemplate the future and this is the region where information from our senses is evaluated and a future course of action is carried out.

The parietal lobe is located at the top of our brains. The right hemisphere controls sensory attention and body image; the left hemisphere controls skilled movements and some aspects of language. Damage to this area cause many problems, such as difficulty in locating parts of your own body.

The occipital lobe is located at the very back of the brain and processes visual information from the eyes. Damage to this area cause blindness and visual impairment.

The temporal lobe controls language (on the left side only) as well as the visual recognition of faces and certain emotional feelings. Damage to this lobe can leave us speechless or without the ability to recognize familiar faces.

One analogy for the brain that I have found useful is that of a large corporation. In this analogy, there is a huge bureaucracy and lines of authority, with vast flows of information channeled between different offices. But the important information eventually winds up at the command center with the CEO, There the final decision are made. Using this analogy, it should be able to explain certain peculiar features of brain:

Most information is ‘subconscious’ - that is the CEO is blissfully unaware of the vast, complex information that is constantly flowing inside the bureaucracy and only tiny amount of information finally reaches the desk of the CEO who can be compared to the prefrontal cortex.

Emotions are rapid decision made independently at a lower level. Since rational thoughts takes many seconds, this means that it is often impossible to make a reasoned response to an emergency; hence lower level brain regions must rapidly assess the situation and make a decision, an emotion , without permission from the top. As per Rita Carter, author of mapping mind writes, “ emotions are feelings at all but a set of body-rooted survival mechanism that have evolved to turn away from danger and propel us forward to things that may be of benefit”.

There is a constant clamoring for the attention of the CEO. Various sub centers within the command center are in constant competition with one another, vying for the attention of the CEO. The concept of ‘I’ as a single, unified whole making all decision continuously is an illusion created by our own subconscious minds.

Final decisions are made by the CEO in the command center. The CEO located in the prefrontal cortex has to make the final decisions. While most decisions are made by instinct in animals, humans make higher level decision after sifting through different bodies of information from our senses.

Information flows are hierarchical.

Parallax: The retinas of our eyes are two-dimensional, but because we have two eyes separated by a few inches, the left and right brain merge these two images, giving us the false sense of third dimension. For distant objects we can judge how far an object is by observing how they move when we move our head. This parallax explains why children sometimes complain that moon is following them. Because the brain has difficulty comprehending the parallax of an object as distant as the moon, it appears as if the moon is always fixed distance ‘behind’ them, but it is just an illusion  caused by brain taking a shortcut.

Dr. Roger W Sperry won Nobel prize for showing that the two hemispheres of the brain are not exact carbon copies of each other, but actually perform different duties.

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). Animals create a model of world mainly in relation to space, and to one another, while humans go beyond and create a model of the world in relation to time, both forward and backward.

Sr. Daniel Gilbert has written, “The greatest achievement of the human brain is its ability to imagine objects and episodes that do not exist in the realm of the real and it is this ability that allows us to think about the future.

Levels of consciousness for different species:

Level    Species    Parameter             Brain Structure
0        Plants     Temperature, sunshine None
1        Reptiles   Space                 Brain stem
2        Mammals    Social relations      Limbic system
3        Humans     Time (esp. future)    Prefrontal cortex

Space-time theory of consciousness: We define consciousness as the process of creating a model of the world using multiple feedback loops in various parameters (e.g., in space, time, and in various parameters (e.g. in space, time and in relation to others), in order to accomplish a goal. Human consciousness is a particular type that involves mediating between these feedback loops by simulating the future and evaluating the past.

I asked DARPA engineers (the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which has spearheaded some of the most important technologies of the twentieth century, including GPS), why do have to rely on dogs to sniff our luggage for the presence of high explosives? Engineers replied that olfactory sensors of dogs, had evolved over millions of years to be able to detect a handful of molecules, and that kind of sensitivity is extremely difficult to match, even with our most finely tuned sensors.

With a budget of $3 billion, DARPA has now set its sights on the brain machine interface. Some of the potential uses are soldiers could communicate by thought alone.

When hearing of mind-reading machines for the first time, the average person might be concerned about privacy. Faraday cage invented by Michael Faraday is a sample mechanism to block mind reading attempt. Basically electricity will rapidly disperse around a metal cage, such that the electric field inside a cage is zero. This why airplanes can be hit by lightning bolts and not suffer damage and why cable wires are covered with metallic threads.

Avatars and surrogates:
These are science fiction today, but one day they may become an essential tool for science. The human body is frail, perhaps too delicate for the rigors of many dangerous missions, including space travel.

Solar flares from the sun can bathe a spacecraft in lethal radiation. A simple transatlantic flight from the United States to Europe exposes you to a millirem of radiation per hour, or roughly the same as dental X-ray. But in outer space, the radiation could be many times more intense, esp.,. in the presence of cosmic rays and solar bursts. During intense solar storms, NASA has actually warned astronauts in the space station to move to sections where there is more shielding against radiations.

In addition, there are many other dangers awaiting us in outer space, such as micrometeorites, the effects of prolonged weightlessness and the problem of adjusting to different gravity fields. After just a few months in weightlessness, the body loses a large fraction of its calcium and minerals, leaving the astronauts incredibly weak, even if the exercise every day. After a year in outer space, Russian astronauts had to crawl out of their space capsules like worms, and it is believed that some of the effects of muscle and bone loss are permanent, so that astronauts will feel the consequence of prolonged weightlessness for the rest of their lives.

The lack of industrial robots caused an acute problem and esp. when we consider a Chernobyl accident in the Ukraine. Workers sent directly to the accident site to put out the flames died horrible deaths due to lethal exposure to radiation. Eventually Mikhail Gorbachev ordered the air force to ‘sandbag’ the reactor, dropping five thousand tons of borate sand cement by helicopter. Radiation levels were so high that 250,000 workers were recruited to finally contain the accident. Each worker could spend only a few minutes inside the reactor building doing repairs. This massive project was the largest civil engineering feat ever undertaken.

In the future, even with an external power source to magnify our thoughts, it is unlikely that people with telekinetic powers will be able to move basic objects like a pencil or a mug of coffee on command. The technology called ‘programmable matter’ has become a subject of intense research for the Intel Corp. The idea behind programmable matter is to create objects made of tiny ‘catoms’ which are microscopic computer chips. Each catom can be controlled wirelessly; it can be programmed to change the electrical charge on its surface so it can bind with other catoms in different ways. By programming the electric charge one way, the catoms bind together to form say a cell phone. Push a button to change their programming, and the atoms rearrange themselves, to reform into another object, like a laptop.

Memory (short term and long term):
Scientists researching on NR2B gene and other such genes and these experiments may eventually explain many mysteries of our long term memory, such as why cramming for an exam is not the best way to study, and why we remember events if they are emotionally charged. Scientists have found that there are two important genes, the CREB activator (which stimulates the formation of new connection between neurons) and the CREB repressor (which suppresses the formation of new memories).

Scientists theorize that we have a fixed amount of CREB activator in the brain that can limit the amount we can learn at any specific time. If we try to cram before a test, it means that we quickly exhaust the amount of CREB activators, and hence we cannot learn any more - at least until we take a break to replenish the CREB activators. Hence the best way to prepare for a final exam is to mentally review the material periodically during the day, until the material becomes part of your long-term memory.

This may also explain why emotionally charged memories are so vivid and can last for decades. The CREB repressor gene is like a filter, cleaning out useless information. But if memory is associated with a strong emotion, it can either remove the CREB repressor gene or increase levels of CREB activator gene.

Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see - Arthur Schopenhauer.

All of us are born with certain abilities that are programmed into our genes and the structure of our brains. That is the luck of the draw. But how we arrange our thoughts and experiences and simulate the future is something that is totally within our control. Charles Darwin himself wrote, “I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work:”

Success in life and delayed gratification:

Dr. Walter Mischel did a series of tests with children and the results of these and other studies were eye-opening. The children who exhibited delayed gratification scored higher on almost every measure of success in life: higher-paying jobs, lower rates of drug addiction, higher test scores, higher educational attainment, better social integration, etc.

Dr. Michael Sweeny, author of Brain: The Complete Mind, notes, “Tests doesn’t measure motivation, persistence, social skills and a host of other attributes of a life that’s well lived”.

Dr. Nilli Lavie says, “Our study confirms our hypothesis that people with autism have higher perceptual capacity compared to the typical population... People with autism are able to perceive significantly more information than the typical adult”.

Genetics of intelligence

Only 15 million base pairs or letter that makes up our genome (out of three billion base pairs) separates us from the chimps, our closest genetic neighbor. Isolating genes could have enormous implications for our future. Once we know the genes that gave rise to Home Sapiens, it becomes possible to determine how humans evolved. The secret of intelligence might lie in these genes. It might eve3n be possible to accelerate the path taken by evolution and even enhance our intelligence.

Dr. Pollard knew that most of our genome is made of ‘junk DNA that does not contain any genes and was largely unaffected by evolution. This junk DNA slowly mutates at a known rate (roughly 1% of its changes over four million years). Since we differ from the chimps in our DNA by 1.5 percent, this means that we probably separated from the chimp about six million years ago. Hence there is a ‘molecular clock’ in each of our cells. And since evolution accelerates this mutation rate, analyzing where this acceleration took place allows you to tell which genes are driving evolutions.

In the research Dr. Pollard identified a stretch of 118 bases that together became known as human accelerated region 1 (HAR1).  Primates separated from chicken about three hundred million years ago, yet only two base pairs differ between chimps and chickens. So HARI was virtually unchanged for several hundred million years, with only two changes, in the letters G & C. Yet in just six million years, HARI mutated eighteen times, representing a huge acceleration in our evolution.

Dreams can determine destiny:

Perhaps the most famous dream in antiquity took place in the year AD312, when Roman emperor Constantine engaged in one of the greatest battles of his life. Faced with a rival army twice the size of his own, he realized that he probably would die in battle the next day. But in a dream,, he had that night, an angel appeared before him, bearing the image of cross, uttering the fateful words, “ By this symbol you shall conquer”. Immediately he ordered the shield of his troops adorned with the symbol of the cross and the rest is history.

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams - Eleanor Roosevelt.

Dr. Allan Hobson cataloged dreams into five basic characteristics

  1. Intense emotions - this is due to the activation of the amygdale, causing emotions such as fear
  2. Illogical content - dreams can rapidly shift from one scene to another, in defiance of logic
  3. Apparent sensory impressions - dreams give us false sensations that  are internally generated
  4. Uncritical acceptance of dream events  -we uncritically accept the illogical nature of the dream
  5. Difficulty in being remembered - dreams are soon forgotten, within minutes of waking up

If it is possible to alter the course of someone's dream, is it possible to control not only that person's dream but that person’s mind as well? During the Cold War, this become a serious issue as both the Soviet Union and the United States played a deadly game, trying to use psychological techniques to control other people’s wills.

How drug alters mind
High of drug addiction is due to the drug’s hijacking of the brain’s own pleasure / reward system located in the limbic system. This pleasure/reward circuit is very primitive, dating back millions of years in evolutionary history, but it is still extremely important for human survival because it rewards the beneficial behavior and punishes harmful acts. Once this circuit is taken over by the drugs, however, the result can be widespread havoc. These drugs first penetrate the blood-brain barrier and then cause the overproduction of neurotransmitters like dopamine, which then floods the nucleus accumbens, a tiny pleasure center located deep in the brains near the amygdale. The dopamine, in turn, produced by certain brain cells in the ventral tegmental area called VTA cells.

Heroin and other opiates work by neutralizing the cells in the VTA that can reduce the production of dopamine, thus causing the VTA to overproduce dopamine. Drugs like LSD operate by stimulating the production of serotonin, inducing a feeling of well-being, purpose, and affection.

Optogenetics is one of the fastest developing fields in science today. The basic goal is to identify precisely which neural pathway corresponds to which mode of behavior. Optogenetics starts with a gene called opsin, which is quite unusual because it is sensitive to light. When an opsin gene is inserted into a neuron and exposed to light, the neuron will fire on command. BY flipping a switch, one can instantly recognize the neural pathway for certain behaviors because the proteins manufactures by opsin conduct electricity and will fire.

Artificial Intelligence:

There are least basic problems with confronting AI: pattern recognition and common sense. Honda Corporation manufactures 30% of all industrial robots.

Moore’s law cannot last forever. In fact, we can already see it slowing down. It might flatten out by the end of this or next decade and the consequence could be dire, esp. for Silicon Valley. Physicists are experimenting with a wide variety of alternatives after the age of Silicon draws to a close such as quantum computers, molecular computers, nanocomputers, DNA computers, optical computers, etc. None of these technologies, however, is ready for prime time.

Why Japan is leading in industrial robots where Honda has a 30 % market share? Culturally, the Japanese approach to robots is different from the West’s. While kids in the West might feel terror watching rampaging Terminator-type robots, kids in Japan are steeped in the Shinto religion, which believes spirits live in all things, even mechanical robots. Instead of being uncomfortable at the sight of robots, Japanese children squeal with delight upon encountering them

Reverse engineering the brain:

Because the brain is so complex, there are at least three distinct ways in which it can be taken apart, neuron by neuron. The first is to simulate the brain electronically with supercomputers, which is the approach being taken by the Europeans. The second is to map out the neural pathways of living brains, as in BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Newurotechnolisies). And the third, one can decipher the genes that control the development of the brain, which is in approach pioneered by billionaire Paul Allen of Microsoft.

The book concluded with exploring the existence of aliens in the universe.

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