Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Go fetch


Michio Kaku is a string theorist turned popular science writer who has given us a string of books exploring the outer reaches of physics. Worm holes and hyperspace are his bread and butter. In a sense, that stuff is passé, so 20th-century. Now Kaku has turned to the topic of the day, the topic everyone is writing about and no one understands.

Consciousness.

I haven't read his latest book -- The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind -- but according to reviews he has a Kurzweilian optimism that the brain is just a meat computer and we're on track to understanding how mind emerges from the meat.

Well, we'll see. I'll have to read the book, although it's in a big pile of still unread books purporting to explain consciousness.

Key to much of the newfound optimism is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of brain activity as subjects are subjected to different stimuli, from poems to math problems -- a kind of mapping of awareness.

Which raises the question in my mind: Just how unique are the maps?

I saw a news segment not long ago -– I think it was on 60 Minutes -– about warehousing at Amazon. Apparently, in those vast storage facilities, goods are not stored in fixed locations -– books here, electronics there, shoes somewhere else –- and certainly not by specific item. Rather, when an item arrives at the warehouse it is stuck in any convenient empty location, which is kept track of by computer. The latest novel may be stored next to a certain model of GPS device. The computer sends the fetcher to the right cubby.

If this works for Amazon, perhaps the brain makes use of similar flexibility, which will only complicate the interpretation of fMRI scans.

I'm one of those who believes the mind is what the brain does, simply because I'm an Ockhamist. But I suspect reductionists like Kurzweil and Kaku are overly optimistic about the chances of an early solution to the riddle of consciousness. Especially if the brain is an Amazon warehouse.