Monday, February 3, 2014

The Future of the Mind:The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind, by Michio Kaku

Doubleday Books, ISBN 9780385530835, February 2014

Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist with a love of science fiction and of explaining science to non-scientists as well as of physics, once again takes a big, broad subject area that people are fascinated by, and  explores what we know and  can do now, what we can expect in the near future, and what the next century or two might bring us.

This is a readable, fascinating introduction to what we know about the workings of the human brain, and how the mind emerges from it, as well as the current state and realistic prospects for artificial intelligence.

In recent decades we have learned, with new tools many of which emerge from physics, startling details about the deep structure of the brain, what parts correspond to which abilities and behaviors, and how memory is constructed and stored. As we understand more about how our brains and minds really work, the problems of artificial intelligence become clearer. Past periods of optimism about AI were founded largely in a lack of understanding of the complexities involved. Now we have a much greater understanding of what intelligence and consciousness are, and a more realistic prospect of creating the computing power we need to replicate it--in the future. That capacity doesn't exist yet, and we are in the early stages of creating robots with minimal "intelligence" and learning ability. The breakthroughs we've made are exciting, though, and the prospects even more so.

As our ability to create intelligent machines increases, what will the implications be? Will our machines be our children, or will they be a threat to us? Will we use mechanical surrogates controlled by our own minds to explore distant worlds? Will we achieve immortality through replacement robotic bodies? Will we live our lives wholly inside a computer-generated environment?

Kaku also considers the question of intelligent alien life. Why haven't we heard from them? What will happen when we do find intelligent aliens? Aliens advanced enough to make traveling from their worlds to ours would not be just a few centuries ahead of us, technologically; they would be thousands of years ahead of us. Would they even notice us, or would the biggest danger we face from them be the danger the deer face from the developer--having our environment developed into uninhabitability, not out of malice but because we're not important enough to notice.

This is an entertaining, educational, and stimulating book. Recommended.

I received a free electronic galley from the publisher via NetGalley.

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