When Smart Is Not: Technology and Michio Kaku’s The Future of the Mind

By on June 29th, 2017 in Leading Edge, Magazine Articles, Robotics, Societal Impact

In his new book, The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower Mind, theoretical physicist and best-selling author, Dr. Michio Kaku, ventures into multiverse. wormhole, Schrödinger’s dead- and not-dead-Cat territory that few to no prominent neuroscientists would dare venture. It’s hard to fathom Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist, Dr. Eric Kandel, for example, a fixture on Charlie Rose’s periodic round tables on The Brain, bringing up the pure energy, interstellar laser beam Fed Exing of, neuron for neuron, connectome duplicated human/cyborg brains, all cellular pathways, memories, and quirks included.

This book is an encyclopedic take on the future of brain science and technology. While Kaku acknowledges the double-edged sword character to both science and technology, writing that “One side of the sword can cut against poverty, disease, and ignorance, but the other side can cut against people” [1, p. 101], the main thrust of his book lies in celebrating the soaring positive possibilities of brain science. In this, Kaku, with some reservations, follows the conventional wisdom that any technology that eliminates effort, that makes life easier or more convenient that responds instantly to our every wish and command is, ipso facto, good. He quotes former Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) official, Michael Goldblatt, who bids us contemplate “a world in which learning is as easy as eating, and replacement of body parts as convenient as a fast-food drive-through”[1, p. 74]. In his chapter, “Memories and Thoughts Made to Order,” he writes that “In The Matrix, learning the amazing skills of a black-belt karate master is no harder than slipping an electrode into your brain and pushing the ‘download’ button. Perhaps one day we, too, may be able to download memories which will vastly increase our abilities” [1, p. 104].

Kaku cites research that may lead to a “smart pill’ that could boost concentration, improve memory, and maybe increase our intelligence” [1, p. 120]. We could learn calculus “by simply uploading the skill” [1, p. 121]. There would be no need for the unemployed to engage in the effort of retraining for new marketable skills. They could fast and easy acquire the “skills by having memories implanted” [1, p. 121].

In “The Artificial Mind and Silicon Consciousness,” Kaku’s chapter on artificial intelligence and robots, the author focuses on the February 2011 victory of IBM’s Watson over Jeopardy champs, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, a victory that prompted Jennings’ now famous remark: “I for one welcome our new computer overlords.” Watson, as Kaku sees it, represents “just the latest generation of ‘expert systems,’ software programs that use formal logic to access vast amounts of specialized information” claiming that they “will continue to evolve, making our lives more convenient and efficient” [1, p. 214].

Kaku reports that “engineers are currently working to create a ‘robo-doc,’ which will appear on your wristwatch or wall screen and give you basic medical advice with 99 percent accuracy almost for free.” The technology will “reduce unnecessary visits to the doctor (and) eliminate costly false alarms” since it will have access to “the databanks of the world’s leading medical centers (with) the latest scientific information.” It will “make it effortless to have regular conversations with a doctor.” Also on the horizon are robo-lawyers answering “all common legal questions” and robo-secretaries “that can plan vacations, trips, and dinners” [1, p. 215]. He cites Harvard’s celebrated psychologist and best-selling author, Steven Pinker, who says that he “would pay a lot for a robot that would put away the dishes and run simple errands” [1, p. 217] and recounts his visit to the M.I.T. Media Laboratory where “Everywhere you look you see futuristic, high-tech devices designed to make our lives more interesting, enjoyable, and convenient” [1, p. 227]. He interviews Cynthia Breazeal, creator of Huggable, a teddy bear-like robot that can bond with children and might “become a tutor, babysitter, nurse’s aide, or a playmate” [1, p. 227]. Nexi, another of Dr. Breazeal’s robots, is designed to bond with adults. Elderly patients in nursing homes love it. Once they got used to it, “they would kiss it, talk to it, and miss it when it had to leave.” (Also – Jibo (pronounced jee-bo), is Breazeal’s latest social robot described as “friendly, helpful. and intelligent, who “just can’t wait to meet … you.”)[1, p. 227].

The takeaway here is the conventional wisdom. When technology does things for us, when it makes anything more convenient, that’s good. If Huggable robots can eliminate the inconvenience of dealing with human tutors, babysitters, nurse’s aides, or playmates, that’s good. If elderly patients in nursing homes can be conveniently fooled into bonding with robots, kissing them, talking to them, and missing them when they leave, that’s good. When robo-docs/lawyers/secretaries make life more efficient, meaning we get what we want with less hassle, instantly, on demand, that’s good. If technology eliminates the drudge of doing such mundane tasks as washing the dishes, or running simple errands, freeing up Dr. Pinker to focus on more important stuff, much like calculators sweep away the tedium of calculating to allow students to focus on the higher, more important, mathematical concepts, that’s good. In the future, just as today’s students may offload more and more of what was once considered more important mathematical concepts onto calculators and their software progeny, if smart pills can make us smarter without the work of making our own neural connections smarter, if future students can simply upload (or is it download?) calculus into their brains, and get an A, that’s good.

But is it good? If that smart pill substitutes for the efforts our brains demand to sustainably develop the neural circuits that enhance cognition, those circuits will not get developed. The result will be diminished, not enhanced, cognition rendering us more and more dependent on smart pills much as vast numbers of students today addictively rely on Adderall to pump them up for that calculus test, or paper due tomorrow.

Relying on smart pills to do the mental work mirrors the loss of the need for internal mental navigation effort thanks to our increased dependency on GPS. That dependency not only dissipates our ability to find our way without the technology, research indicates that failure to form cognitive maps may, in fact, shrink the hippocampus creating an increased risk of dementia. As neuroscientist, Veronique Bohbot, proposed in an interview with physicist cum journalist, Dr. Alex Hutchinson, “‘society is geared in many ways toward shrinking the hippocampus’… ‘In the next twenty years, I think we’re going to see dementia occurring earlier and earlier’” [2], [3]. Then again, we needn’t be overly concerned about shrinking hippocampi leading to early dementia. In the event they shrink too much from disuse, an unintended consequence of, say, rapidly smartening homes, technology will come to the rescue. As Kaku points out, artificial hippocampi are on the horizon, waiting in the wings to replace any shrunken native versions [1, p. 110].

While virtually every technology can be used smartly to enhance our lives, with apps as symbiotic enablers as Howard Gardner and Katie Davis argue in their new book, The App Generation, there is always a dark side to the equation. “The plurality of apps,” Gardner and Davis point out “and the uses to which they’re currently put, lean strongly in the direction of dependence, not enablement” [4]. While the science and technology elite will make excellent use of brain enhancing technology – as some students use calculators to focus deeply on mathematical concepts beyond the reach of today’s technics – most will fall into the trap of dissipative dependency by letting technology’s apps do more and more of the work. (Kaku, in a Feb.8, 2014, New York Times interview on the topic of reading, began his response with “For bedtime reading, I usually curl up with a good monograph on quantum physics or string theory, my specialty” [5].) For the non-elite, the exponentially accelerating power in advancing technology is not symbiotic. It does not enhance human powers, skills, and relationships – it erodes them. The sensation of power users feel with technology that does the work for them is an illusion, one that is only revealed when, for whatever reason – say Hurricane Sandy – the power, the connectivity, and the enabling is gone.

In her book, Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose, Dr. Deirdre Barrett cited the nine-month study I conducted in New York City’s Penn Station on commuters overwhelmingly taking the escalator rather than climbing up a measly 18 steps from the lower to the upper level of the station [6]. The reason why commuters, even in rush hour, actually wait in long lines to take the escalator rather than climb up even a short flight of steps is their brains are on autopilot. Drawing on the fictional but useful agents of behavior originally proposed by psychologists, Keith Stanovich and Richard West, the fast, habit driven, shortcut seeking, convenience loving, comfort relishing, effort minimizing, sucker for salt, sugar, and fat, brain is what Daniel Kahneman, co-winner of the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, in his best-selling, Thinking Fast and Slow, calls “System 1” [7]. “System 2” is the deliberative, more energy demanding, critical thinking brain, the brain a student would have to deploy to, say, multiply in his head instead of knee-jerk reaching for the calculator, the brain that could put two and two together and conclude there was something fishy about Bernie Madoff’s consistent, too good to be true, returns.

The sensation of power users feel with technology that does the work for them is an illusion.

Without thinking, System 1 draws us to the escalator. Were she to even just a tad engage System 2, the commuter would realize that, although letting the technology do the work of lifting is easier, waiting on line to take the escalator when it will take ten seconds or less to climb the 18 steps, exercise included, is stupid. The once upon a time, survival crucial, “orienting response,” cueing us to look, look, look for predator threat and prey promise, hooks System 1 with jolts of dopamine as we scroll down and down texts and selfies, ads slipped in en route. “Why am I wasting my life on Facebook?” asks System 2 [8].

Alas, smart use of any technology, much as choosing the healthier, and even faster when there’s a line, stairs to the next level demands more effort than is absolutely necessary when our satisficing, food energy preserving, System 1 magnetically draws us to whatever is less demanding, more comfortable, techno-boob job tastier. As with calculators, as with GPS navigation, as with robo-docs/lawyers/secretaries, apps, smart pills, smart, symbiotic use will increasingly be the province of the relatively few who, for whatever reason, are highly motivated to make the extra effort that smart, symbiotic use demands.

The plunge in the cost of computing (in 1972, the average price per transistor was about 15 cents, in 2015 it is 0.00000011 cents [9]1) has enabled vast global, rising-tide-lifts-all clicks, pokes, swipes, pinches, and twirls access to technology. But that access guarantees neither smart use nor smartening users. With apps, hard and soft, gaining exponentially in power and ubiquity, absent a System 2 step-back-for-chewing-on-what-doing-it-all-for-us is also doing to us, access to real brain gain will continue to bifurcate ever more steeply, not only into the haves and have-nots. but into the haves who have and the haves who have not.


1The logarithmic plot of Average Transistor Price vs. Year was extrapolated from 2008 to 2015 assuming a halving of cost per 1.6 years.


Jeff Robbins is with Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ. Email: jhrobbin@rci.rutgers.edu.


Full article: