SGU Episode 451

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SGU Episode 451
March 1st 2014
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SGU 450                      SGU 452

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that the arts and sciences are at odds with one another. That is a recent, stupid and damaging idea. You don’t have to be unscientific to make beautiful art or to write beautiful things… science is not a body of knowledge or a belief system, it is just a term that describes humankind’s incremental acquisition of understanding through observation. Science is awesome. The arts and sciences need to work together to improve how knowledge is communicated.

Tim Minchin

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

This Day in Skepticism (0:57)[edit]

R: Hey, guess what happened today? I have no segue.

S: You're segueless?

R: Happy March, everyone, first of all.

S: Yup, March 1st.

E: Yeah, that's right.

R: It's now March 1st. In 1865, on March 1st, Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first black woman to receive an American medical degree. She was just known as Rebecca Davis Lee at the time, but she eventually went on to marry, and became known as Rebecca Lee Crumpler. But she was pretty awesome! She was born in 1831 in Delaware, and she had an aunt who was known for being good with dealing with the sick. And she really looked up to this aunt, and decided that she should go on to also devote her time to helping the sickly.

So remarkably, for the time period, she actually studied hard, and she overcame quite a bit of both sexism and racism in order to eventually graduate from New England Female Medical College with her MD. She went on to practice medicine, and focus mostly on women and children. And she wrote a book of medical discourses, describing her experiences dealing with various illnesses. She was pretty cool. Rebecca Lee Crumpler.

S: I looked up the New England Female Medical College. This is before the Flexner Report in 1910, so there were tons of medical colleges. But this was founded by a Samuel Greggory, an all female medical college, because he believed it was unseemly for male physicians to assist women during childbirth. So had to get them out any, you know, couldn't allow them into male medical schools. And at the time, women were not allowed to attend medical lectures or examinations. So they needed

B: Wow

S: their own college. But in 1873, it merged with Boston University School of Medicine. So,

R: I went to Boston University.

S: by then there were already, yeah, they were already integrating.

News Items[edit]

My Three Parents (3:12)[edit]

Dowsing for HIV ()[edit]

Climate Engineering ()[edit]

Open Data ()[edit]

Who's That Noisy ()[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Oliver Stone

Questions and Emails ()[edit]

Question #1: Food Babe Follow Up ()[edit]

Hi guys. Love the show. I sent an email to my local public radio station when I heard that they were planning to interview Vani Hari (again). I sent a link to your recent blog about the Subway sandwich kerfuffle. Here's a link to the interview with her response to Steven's comments. interview starts around the 37 minute mark.Thanks for all you do. Alex WittigCharlotte NC

Michio Kaku (42:37)[edit]

S: Joining us now is Dr. Michio Kaku. Dr. Kaku, welcome back to The Skeptics' Guide.

MK: Glad to be on the show.

S: And we're interviewing you tonight to talk about your new book, The Future of the Mind. So, is this your first departure from writing about your primary area of physics?

MK: Not really. However, this is the first time that I've seriously gone into a topic where physics has changed the entire landscape, but is not really physics per se. However, I've always had an enduring curiosity about the mind. After all, the big bang and the origin of intelligence are the two greatest mysteries in all of nature. Inner space and outer space.

S: So that's why you decided to write a book on neuroscience. Just because you've been very interested in that for a long time?

MK: Well, more than that. When I was a child, I read a lot of science fiction. And I was fascinated by the idea of telepathy, reading minds, and telekinesis, moving objects, and recording memories and maybe photographing dreams. All the stuff that you see in paranormal pseudoscience journals and stuff like that. I was fascinated by these things, so I would do experiments. I would try to read other peoples' minds and project my thoughts and move objects by the sheer power of thinking. And I came to the conclusion that maybe there were telepaths that truly walked the surface of the Earth, but I wasn't one of them. I was a total failure when it came to becoming a telepath. However, now I'm a physicist, and now we can actually use advanced physics to do all of the above. Telepathy, telekinesis, photographing dreams, uploading memories. They are all possible; in fact, we do it in the laboratory.

S: So give us an example of what you mean by doing telekinesis in the laboratory.

MK: Well, take a look at Stephen Hawking, my colleague. He's a great cosmologist, but he's lost control of his fingers now, and so he has no direct way to manipulate things to communicate with the world. But next time you see him on television, look at his right frame of his glasses. There's a chip in it. That chip has a radio which picks up radio emissions from his brain, interprets them, and allows him to type. So he can type with the power of the mind. And now the military has done millions of dollars in a project called Revolutionary Prosthetics, whereby they take veterans from the Iraq and Afghan war, put a chip in their brain about the size of a dime that is then connected to a laptop, that then allows them to move a mechanical arm or a mechanical leg or exoskeleton. And so we're at the point now where we can take people that are totally paralyzed because of a sports injury, because of a roadside bomb, or a stroke, and with the sheer power of the mind, connect them to a wheelchair so they can manipulate household appliances, read e-mail, write e-mail, surf the web, do crossword puzzles, and even manipulate exoskeletons, and this is straight out of "Iron Man" comics.

S: So you're talking about the brain-machine interface.

MK: That's right; B.M.I. And not only can we do that, we can also upload memories, just like in the movie The Matrix. So Hollywood movies are slowly becoming physical reality. Just last year, for the first time in world history, the first thought was recorded and then inserted back into a living brain. It was done on a mouse, and it proved that you can record memories. We've actually done it and insert the memory back into the brain. Next will be a primate. We will record something that a primate learns, insert it back into the memory after they've forgotten it, and they will retrieve that memory. And after that comes humans in clinical trials for Alzheimer's. That's one of the immediate goals driving neurologists to perfect this technology. It's called a brain pacemaker. And the brain pacemaker will inject memories of people who have advanced Alzheimer's so they'll know who they are, who their kids are, where they're located, their house, their keys and things like that. And beyond that: think of all the courses you flunked in college. Maybe, just maybe, we'll push the button and learn calculus. Or for that matter, think of all the workers that are thrown out of work because technology marches on. We may be able to re-train workers by simply pushing a button. Or, think about taking a vacation that never existed. And if you saw the movie Total Recall with Arnold Schwarzenegger, he had a whole marriage, a whole marriage, uplifting into his memory which was totally fake. And so the implications of this are enormous.

S: Right. So, I agree that these things have been demonstrated in principle in the lab, the brain-machine brain interface research is really exciting. But the applications that you're talking about, of course, are some unforseeable future away. There's significant practical limitations before we get to the point where we're learning kung fu in two minutes by downloading it from a computer.

MK: Yeah, we have a long ways to go, but the first step was taken, and that is incredible. Who would have thought that we can input memories artificially? And now we can do it.

S: Yeah. I agree; I think that the prosthetic exoskeleton application is probably a lot closer than recording and downloading memories. It's one thing to have a rat—mouse run through a maze. Having entire histories of people and detailed memories—it's hard to predict how far off that is. But I think, right now, we've already pretty much established every proof of concept necessary for full control of either virtual...

B: Avatars.

S: Avatars. Yeah, or full exoskeletons. I think that's probably going to be a lot closer.

MK: And another thing—another movie that is coming to fruition is the movie Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis and—

B: Oh, that was great. Yeah.

MK: Here's a situation where you mentally—mentally control another being. And that other being could have super powers. That other being could be super handsome. And you can control it and see through its eyes. Now, in Japan, the first steps toward Surrogates was taken with the robot ASIMO. ASIMO is one of the world's most advanced robots; it can run, walk, climb up stairs, dance, even. And they connected ASIMO to a worker with an EEG helmet. And so by simply thinking, the worker is able to move the motions of a robot. This could be the future of the space program. It's very dangerous to put astronauts on the moon. But why not put a robot on the moon that is controlled by a human on the Earth, mentally. That could be the future of construction, 'cause there are many jobs that are very dangerous for construction workers. And so you can imagine all these commercial and industrial applications of robots doing jobs that a normal robot cannot do, because these robots are controlled by a human. Look at Fukushima. All the robots sent into the Fukushima disaster have failed. Every single one has been a disaster. That's why, again, the Pentagon is allocating millions of dollars to create robots that can work in high-radiation fields amid all the debris of a nuclear accident. And so this has enormous industrial applications.

S: Yeah, so you have the intelligence of a human combined with the ruggedness of a robot.

MK: Right. And it's called a surrogate, and one day, firemen, one day, perhaps policemen encountering very dangerous situations will enter these situations knowing that the person is actually quite safe.

E: Unfortunately, there will also be the other side of that coin, in which some people will use this technology for nefarious purposes, and...

MK: Well, the bad applications of this technology are potentially enormous. If you can upload false memories, like a vacation, into somebody like in the movie Total Recall, you can also inject evil memories as well. And so our legal system, for example, is based on eyewitness accounts. That's why you have to swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But if you can inject false memories into people, then eyewitness testimonies don't mean anything at all. Or, as the movie Total Recall showed, you are who you think you are via your memories. Throughout the movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger thinks he's the good guy. At the very end of the movie, he finds out that he's actually the bad guy with good memories imposed upon him. And so he has an identity crisis at the end of the movie; "am I the good guy or the bad guy or both?" The answer was he's both; he's both the good guy and the bad guy in the movie. And so, the legal implications are enormous with this technology.

B: Doctor, you mentioned all these potential technologies: uploading, telepresence, artificial intelligence, and they're clearly—they're very fascinating and we've clearly taken the first steps in making these reality and I think the potential is amazing. But are there any that you shy away from; some that maybe you're either afraid of or just something you just have no interest in actually attempting?

MK: Well, there is the concept of mind control. During the 1950s and '60s, the CIA and the government spent millions of dollars, tens of millions of dollars on cockamamie ideas called "MKULTRA". And we know from the Freedom of Information Act the details of MKULTRA. I quote them in my book. The military enlisted psychics to find Russian submarines. They also used psychics to try to read peoples' minds. They analyzed hypnosis, hypnotic drugs, LSD, truth serums. You name it; they tried it. It was a complete failure. Not one usable piece of information came out, even though the military tried to control peoples' minds. However, now in the future, we may have some of that possibility. For example, President Barack Obama shocked the nation and especially the scientific community last January in his State of the Union address. He mentioned the BRAIN Initiative. The Europeans and the U.S. will dump over a billion dollars—that's billion with a "B"—into mapping the entire human brain. Once you map the human brain, you're going to have a disk with all the connections on it, including your personality, your memories, who you are. And the short-term goal is to cure mental illness. Because with this brain scan, we can now see mental illness in action. We can actually begin to pick apart why schizophrenics are quote-unquote "crazy". We can actually see that the brain talks to itself. That's your left temporal lobe in action; that's why you talk to yourself. But we're aware of it. These people are not. They are not aware of the fact that their brain is talking to themselves. We can see that now in brain scans. So, mental illness may one day be cured with this project. However, further down the line, if you know all the pathways for behaviors, you can excite them without a person's permission. That's already been done with animals. I quote from animal studies where we can actually have a dial, turn the dial, and make animals run around in circles, charge, stop, do all sorts of things by just turning a dial. Sort of like controlling a puppet, except it's a real animal. If it can be done for animals, then eventually, somebody is going to try to do it on humans as well. So there definitely is a dark side.

S: Since you're a fan of science fiction, I'll just mention that that's essentially a zone implant from the Gap Series. I don't know if you're familiar—

B: Ha-ha. What?

S: —with that science fiction series. But anyway, that's exactly what you're saying; it's an implant that you can completely control somebody's emotions and actions and whatever with, like, a remote control. Let's talk about artificial intelligence a little bit. Some you mentioned about mapping the connectome, all the connections in the brain, and that's certainly one path that will lead us to, potentially, to reverse engineer brain function and therefore create a virtual or artificial intelligence. So, what do you discuss about that in your book; what are your feelings about how far are we or how close are we to artificial intelligence; like, true self-aware machines and how long do you think it'll be 'til we get there?

MK: Well, 50 years ago, scientists made a mistake in thinking that the brain was a digital computer. Throughout history, people have made analogies to the brain. Sigmund Freud thought that the brain was like a steam engine. You had energy flows, repression and explosions that he called neuroses. So he thought the brain was like a steam engine. Then they thought that the brain was like a telephone switching station. Then they thought that the brain was like a digital computer. It is actually none of the above. A digital computer has a Pentium chip, CPU, software, programming, Windows, whatever. The brain has none of the above. So what is the brain? Brain is a neural network. It's a learning machine. It rewires itself after learning every new task. Therefore, your laptop today is just as stupid as it was yesterday. It never learns anything at all. And therefore we had to start from the bottom and go up. That's how Mother Nature did it. That's how evolution did it. Through insects, reptiles, and animals. They learn by bumping into things. We thought that we could put all the laws of logic and motions on a disk, put the disk in a robot, and all of a sudden, it becomes self-aware. That is too hard. No one has succeeded. Billions have been spent on that approach, called the top-down. Now they're looking at bottom-up. That is, learning like a baby. And one of the fruits of this is the Mars rover. The Mars rover does not have the dynamics of walking inputted into it. Everyone thought that the first robot on Mars would look like a human and walk like a human. No, it's an insect. That's the way of the future: To build robots from the ground up. So we have a long ways to go before robots become as smart as us. Right now robots that are truly autonomous have the intelligence of a cockroach. A retarded cockroach. A lobotomized retarded cockroach. But eventually, they will become intelligent, like maybe a mouse, then a rabbit, then a dog or a cat, and finally a monkey. At that point, they could become dangerous. So I think we should put a chip in their brain to shut them off if these monkey robots have murderous thoughts.

E: I have to agree; yes.

B: Asimov's laws; yeah, of robotics.

S: We need the off switch. Gotta have that off switch. Dr. Kaku, it seems like the theme running through your book, then, is a pretty solid premise of a materialist approach to the brain. No dualism or "ghost in the machine" that... we're able to muck around with the brain because it is just a complicated machine.

MK: Well, it's wetware.

S: It's wetware. Yeah, exactly. So you agree with that; you think that... the materialist assumption of neuroscience is pretty solid.

MK: Well, one day, we'll be able to have a disk, after Obama's program is finished, a disk called Brain 2.0 with all our neural connections on it, including our memories, personalities, desires and hopes. And it will live on after we die. We will die as biological beings because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. But the disk will survive. And one day, someone will turn it on, maybe your great-great-great-great-grandkids, and they're going to have a nice conversation with you. So you will live forever. So in some sense, who are you? You, in some sense, is information. The sum total of everything necessary to create you; your genome and your connectome is you. And what is you? You are information. Well, on that note, unfortunately, I have another call coming in. But it's been a great pleasure to talk to you people.

S: Dr. Kaku, thanks for giving us the interview. We really appreciate it.


B: Thank you.

S: Take care.

E: Thank you.

Science or Fiction ()[edit]

[ Item #1: A pair of studies both indicate that, contrary to prior research, breast feeding does not correlate with higher intelligence. Item #2: A review of data indicates that obesity prevalence among children and adults in the united states have not significantly changed between 2003 and 2012. Item #3: A new study finds that children as young as 9 months old are able to learn how to read.

Skeptical Quote of the Week ()[edit]

“Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that the arts and sciences are at odds with one another. That is a recent, stupid and damaging idea. You don’t have to be unscientific to make beautiful art or to write beautiful things… science is not a body of knowledge or a belief system, it is just a term that describes humankind’s incremental acquisition of understanding through observation. Science is awesome. The arts and sciences need to work together to improve how knowledge is communicated.” - Tim Minchin

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at, where you will find the show notes as well as links to our blogs, videos, online forum, and other content. You can send us feedback or questions to Also, please consider supporting the SGU by visiting the store page on our website, where you will find merchandise, premium content, and subscription information. Our listeners are what make SGU possible.


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