Unmediated

The fact of fiction

Print edition : July 25, 2014

Michio Kaku, the theoretical physicist. According to him, through a brain-net in the future “people… would be able to telepathically exchange thoughts, emotions, and ideas in real time…." Photo: LUIS ROBAYO/AFP

WE have at least a metaphoric understanding of life imitating art. But when science mimics or tails art we are left marvelling at what can be intuitively grasped and unlocked by creativity, to be then explained and developed scientifically. In his fascinating new study of cutting-edge work on the tangible brain and the intangible mind, under way in some of the best science laboratories in the United States and other parts of the world, the theoretical physicist Michio Kaku looks at how their vast and infinitesimal potential are being plumbed and put to myriad applications. The numerous citations from films and novels, mostly science fictional, in The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance and Empower the Mind would make it appear that much of what is happening in these laboratories is verifying and establishing, or discarding, the hypotheses that artistic imagination throws up in the first instance. It is as if a whole lot of scientific method and effort goes into traversing, inch by inch, the ground spanned by science fiction’s quantum leaps. The centrality of imagination to the scientific enterprise is not surprising or new. After all, as Albert Einstein, as quoted in the book, said, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

Science fiction, it would seem, is to science what the blog is to journalism; stepping beyond the confines of the discipline; trespassing on conventional wisdoms and well-established practices; incentivising the subjective, the impressionistic, the imaginary. The fiction was always a step ahead of the science in terms of what the human mind aspires to. Telepathy and telekinesis, which were the stuff of fiction or magic— even the greatest magician of them all, Houdini, did not believe they could be more than sleight of mind tricks—are now being validated in laboratory experiments as doable and demonstrable mental feats. Scientists are predicting an era in the not-too-distant future of a brain-net or an “internet of the mind” in which the act of thought will be the mode of communication replacing the keyed-in text or the rendered voice or image. IBM believes mental communication with computers, without the help of mouse or voice commands, is just five years away. “This means,” Michio Kaku extrapolates, “using the power of the mind to call people on the phone, pay credit card bills, drive cars, make appointments, create beautiful symphonies and works of art, etc.”

At the University of California in Berkeley, Dr Jack Gallant and his team are involved in an experiment in videorecording the thoughts of a person. “We are,” Dr Gallant tells Michio Kaku, “opening a window into the movies of the mind.” It may yet be a long and excruciating process for the subject who has to lie for long stretches of time motionless in an MRI machine while his thoughts are being videotaped, and the picture quality of the thought that is captured may yet leave a lot to be desired, but that this is possible at all is already exciting.

The MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, machine itself is to neuroscience and to probing the mind what the telescope has been to astronomy and exploring the universe. With Moore’s law at work for almost half a century now and the capacity of computers doubling every two years, the MRI would imaginably become smaller and smaller in size until it is an easy-to-wield handheld device like a mobile phone, or, in cinematic terms, like the tricoder in Star Trek—a futuristic cinematic equivalent of the ready-to-be-drawn gun slung at the waist in Westerns.

Brain-machine interface

An entire new field of appeal for research is that of brain-machine interface (BMI), which is already making a big difference to hitherto hopeless medical situations, and is set to transform the way we live our everyday lives and the future of the entertainment industry. The Revolutionising Prosthetics project of DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. Defence Department) came up with a metallic arm for Jan Sherman, a quadriplegic who was paralysed below the neck from a genetic disease; and it was set going by electrodes positioned on top of her brain which helped send signals from her brain to her limp arm via a computer and activate it. Soon she was on CBS News waving to the viewers and shaking her host’s hand. EEG helmets that enable video games to be played directly by the mind or prevent workers dozing off to sleep in perilous jobs are, we are told, already being developed by companies like Neurosky dealing with brain-computer interface technologies. Dr Kaku refers to EEG helmets becoming like party poopers in Japan, with the electrodes fashioned as two ears popping up every time a person has a surge of excitement for another at the do.

Dr Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University proceeds from BMI or brain-to-machine, to BMBI, or brain-to-machine-to-brain interface, to bring in the missing element of the sense of touch in an artificial steel arm. His approach to achieve this tactile sensation reminds Dr Kaku of the “haptic technology” (digital simulation of touch) of the “holodeck” in Star Trek, “where you wander in a virtual world but feel sensations when you bump into virtual objects, just as if they were real”. Dr Nicolelis’s next step is also reminiscent of, or inspired by, Star Trek: that of a “mind meld” of two brains. He demonstrated that brain signals from rats in his laboratory could be received via the Internet and complied with by another set of rats positioned in distant Brazil, thus setting the premise for a brain-net or “Internet of the mind”.

Scientists at the University of Washington took this further by a successful brain-to-brain link between two scientists. One of them with an EEG helmet and playing a video game fired a cannon imagining that he is doing so with his right hand, but not actually moving his arm. The thought is transmitted on the Internet to the other scientist with a special helmet, and his right arm responds and moves to this signal without his volition. This sets the basis for a brain-net in the future on which, says Dr Kaku, “people… would be able to telepathically exchange thoughts, emotions, and ideas in real time… to share the totality of mental information in a conversation, including emotions, nuances, and reservations. Minds would be able to share their most intimate thoughts and feelings.”

From touch to smell, and perhaps taste, and so on so that all five senses are covered—that would be the “total immersion” simulation that technology offers movie-goers of the future. We would be able to smell the flowers in the heroine’s hair. The delectable food being eaten in a scene could excite our taste buds in response, and the blood and gore in violent sequences would hopefully not leave too bad a stench or aftertaste. Of course, all this will, imaginably, have to be carefully calibrated by the film-makers lest psychosomatic wrecks tumble out of the cinema when the show is over. And, of course, all of this is experience by proxy, by stimulation of the mind. We would perhaps, like we do for a 3-D movie now, have to wear EEG helmets to allow our brains to be prodded into these telepathic suggestions.

Progressing from telepathy to telekineses we can, suggest the scientists working on all of this, actually turn into our science fictional characters. Humans can acquire superhuman strength and energy by following the sci-fi example of a character in an episode of Star Trek who claims to have, and demonstrates, godly powers by mentally tapping into a secret power source. Michio Kaku draws on this analogy to envisage a construction worker using telepathy to “exploit a power source that energises heavy machinery. Then a single worker might be able to build complex buildings and houses just by using the power of his mind. All the heavy lifting would be done by the power source, and the construction worker would resemble a conductor, able to orchestrate the motion of colossal cranes and powerful bulldozers through thought alone.”

He is also chastened, again by drawing morals for science from science fiction, by the flipside dangers of such unleashed power. He points to the havoc wrought by the eponymous protagonist in Stephen King’s early novel of the 1970s (based on which multiple films have been made) Carrie, who avenges the treatment meted out to her by her paranoid mother and the slights heaped upon her by her schoolmates by wreaking all-round havoc with her telekinetic powers. There is also the sombre possibility of the subconscious mind surfacing on its own and having a free destructive run without the knowledge or intention of the person, as in the film The Forbidden Planet (1956).

Manipulating memories

Another favourite celluloid theme, harnessing and manipulating memories, is also the subject of scientific inquiry—whether it is about downloading memories of martial skills to become instantly lethal like Neo in The Matrix, or implanting artificial memories into the brain to derive the bad guy-turned-just-warrior that Arnold Schwarzenegger is, unknown to himself, in Total Recall. Where Hollywood gets it wrong, says Dr Kaku, is in assuming that memory can be sequentially erased as on a tape or hard disc. The storage of memory is dispersed across different parts of the brain depending on its function and type; and there are as many as 20 different kinds of memory identified by scientists thus far. Emotional memories are stored in the amygdala, those of visual information and colour in the occipital lobe, of words in the temporal lobe, of touch and movement in the parietal lobe. As for the rest, it is work in progress, as is the precise manner in which the “binding” of these different and scattered categories of memory takes place when we re-member something.

Then there is the aspect of wilful, induced or natural erasure of memory dealt with as much in science laboratories as in a number of films. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet wipe each other’s memory out when their relationship turns sour in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004); Men in Black (1997) comes up with the “neuralyzer”, a handheld gadget used by the agents Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, to induce selective and temporary memory loss in those targeted. Matt Damon has his memory at stake in the thriller, The Bourne Identity (2002), whose huge success spawned the sequels The Bourne Supremacy (2004), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) and The Bourne Legacy (2012). Perhaps the memory thriller film that found best traction in India, because director A.R. Murugadoss unabashedly lifted it into Tamil with Surya and Hindi with Aamir Khan with the title Ghajini, was Christopher Nolan’s Memento about a man with anterograde amnesia, or very short-term memory, using notes and symbols written on bits of paper and tattooed on his body as self-reminder devices as he hunts down the man who murdered his wife.

Super intelligence

Science is also analysing the phenomenon of brain enhancement to create super intelligence or what is called savanthood which, again, has been the stuff of cinema. Ralph Nelson’s Charly (1968), based on the novel Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes published a decade earlier, charts the intellectual roller-coaster ride of the protagonist who acquires superior intelligence for a while through surgical intervention. More recently, in Rain Man (1988), Dustin Hoffman plays an autistic savant. Research attributes this savant quality to the right brain, raising the question whether by externally suppressing the left brain and thereby boosting the function of the right, instant savanthood could be attained. Dr Allan Synder in the University of Sydney, Australia, did try this out with transcranial magnetic stimulation muting parts of the left brain of a subject who, in the process, did acquire some remarkable capabilities, though they were short-lived and the experiment itself was not conclusive. Kaku examines at some length whether a Planet of the Apes (2001) scenario, where humans are inferior to the simian lot, is in the realm of the possible, since we are genetically not too far removed from apes, sharing as much as 98.5 per cent genetic traits with them. He hazards the guess that it took only a few extra genes to give us greater longevity and better intellect. After looking at the available evidence adduced by genetics and bioinformatics, he arrives at the conclusion that “creating intelligent apes is no simple matter”, not impossible perhaps, but improbable. The movies themselves have left the hairy apes behind and taken to the ET (1982) figure of a weak hairless body with a large-sized and prominent head that represents superior intelligence, well or ill disposed to earthlings.

Dreams are another fascinating realm of the mind that stupefies both the film-maker and the scientist. Scientists are already at a stage where they can photograph and videotape dreams using MRI machines. The dream film can be as complex and sophisticated as Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) with its dream within a dream structure, and about sharing and stealing dreams. There is then the thriving vibrant world of robots and artificial intelligence. Dr Kaku reminds readers of the IBM computer which in 2011 beat all opponents to win the $ 1 million prize on the Jeopardy television show, and the Deep Blue computer (also from IBM) which, earlier in 1997, beat the then world chess champion, Garry Kasparov. There are numerous other applications of robotics, from cars developed by DARPA which can, driverless, do reconnaissance on enemy territory, to robotic pets for children in Japan. As artificial intelligence approximates to human intelligence, the aspect yet not cracked by it is that of subjective feelings and sensations —what the cognitive scientist David Chalmers calls “qualia”. And so, as the interplay of science and fiction continues, nothing, and everything, is left to the imagination. Fiction throws up the question and science sets about finding the answer.

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