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Ways To Live Forever Book Talk Assignment

Minds made of meat (ours) are just one of Kaku’s concerns. He is also interested in the possibilities of silicon and even alien minds. A compelling chapter on artificial intelligence describes the explosion in robotics and the new research that seeks to broaden the requirements for silicon self-consciousness, including a capacity to feel emotion.

Like the futurist Ray Kurzweil, Kaku believes the most important advances in silicon computing will still serve our needs and not the coming robot overlords (if we do create them). By mapping out the “connectome” — the explicit account of every neural connection in your head — Kaku tells us it should be possible to reverse-engineer each and every person’s brain. Reconstruct this connectome in a computer and you will have downloaded yourself into that machine. In this way the future of the mind, your mind in particular, might last as long as there are computers to run your connectome.

But are you nothing more than the sum of your brain’s connections? Here’s where Kaku stumbles. It’s been almost 20 years since the philosopher David Chalmers introduced the distinction between “easy” and “hard” problems in the study of consciousness. Easy problems, according to Chalmers, were things like figuring out how the brain cycles through signals from the arm allowing you to pick up an object. Researchers developing the next generation of prosthetics will tell you this “easy” problem remains pretty hard, but as Chalmers rightly pointed out, control of the arm is nothing compared with developing a scientific account of the vividness of our own experience. It’s the internal luminosity — the “being” of our being — that constitutes Chalmers’s hard problem and that eludes Kaku’s engineering-­based perspective.

The problem is that we still don’t have much in the way of a working model of consciousness. With a physicist’s eye for economy, Kaku tries to provide one through what he calls a “space-time theory.” It’s a model of consciousness with a graded scale of awareness based on the number of feedback loops between environment and organism. Thus, in Kaku’s view, a thermostat has the lowest possible level of consciousness while humans, with our ability to move through space and project ourselves mentally backward and forward in time, represent the highest level currently known.

I’ve spent most of my professional life running supercomputer simulations of events like the collapsing of interstellar gas clouds to form new stars, and it seems to me that Kaku has taken a metaphor and mistaken it for a mechanism. There has always been the temptation to take the latest technology, like clockworks in the 17th century, and see it as a model for the mechanics of thought. But simulations are not a self, and information is not experience. Kaku acknowledges the existence of the hard problem but waves it away. “There is no such thing as the Hard Problem,” he writes.

Thus the essential mystery of our lives — the strange sense of presence to which we’re bound till death and that lies at the heart of so much poetry, art and music — is dismissed as a non-problem when it’s exactly the problem we can’t ignore. If we’re to have anything like a final theory of consciousness, we had better be attentive to the complexity of how we experience our being.

When Kaku quotes the cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky telling us that “minds are simply what brains do,” he assumes that scientific accounts of consciousness must reduce to discussions of circuitry and programming alone. But there are other options. For those pursuing ideas of “emergence,” descriptions of lower-level structures, like neurons, don’t exhaust nature’s creative potential. There’s also the more radical possibility that some rudimentary form of consciousness must be added to the list of things the world is built of, like mass or electric charge.

On the ethical front, Kaku does an admirable job of at least raising the troubling issues inherent in the technologies he describes, but there’s one critical question he misses entirely. The deployment of new technologies tends to create their own realities and values. If we treat minds like meat-computers, we may end up in a world where that’s the only aspect of their nature we perceive or value.

Keeping these questions in mind, however, only enhances the enjoyment of this wide-ranging book. Kaku thinks with great breadth, and the vistas he presents us are worth the trip even if some of them turn out to be only dreamscapes.

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The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind

By Michio Kaku

Illustrated. 377 pp. Doubleday. $28.95.

Sam McQueen has lived 11 years, and so far it’s been a grueling journey. Diagnosed with leukemia at age six, he has been in and out of hospitals, dealing with endless nosebleeds, always feeling tired, and surviving the torturous bouts of chemotherapy. The doctors thought they had beaten the cancer, but it always comes back. This time, they suspect the worst and give Sam about a year to live.

Not all of Sam’s life has been horrid. He has two awesome parents and a younger sister named Ella who love him very much. And then there’s Felix, who he met at the hospital. Felix also has cancer, but it’s a different kind. Although Felix is two years older than Sam, they became best friends almost immediately. The two of them together spell “trouble” and present a big challenge to the nurses, like the time they snuck around the hospital corridors playing spy games.

Sam and Felix have school together three days a week at Sam’s house. Their teacher, Mrs. Willis, usually makes it fun and doesn’t push them to do boring stuff. In fact, she gave Sam the idea to start his very own book, in which he will talk about his life and coping with cancer. Included will be all of the lists that he and Felix make: his favorite things, what he looks like, what to do when someone dies, ways to live forever, and questions that nobody will answer. He also has a list of goals to accomplish, such as seeing a ghost, flying in a blimp, kissing a girl, and going up the down escalator. He never really expects to perform these activities, but with the encouragement of Felix, he starts crossing things off his list.

Eventually, both Sam and Felix’s health begins to fade. Sam knows they don’t have long to live, and the idea of death is never far from his mind. But he doesn’t let it stop him from taking advantage of the time he has left, or loving those most important to him.

Sally Nicholls has written an amazing story that will forever touch those who read it. Her very real character of Sam will wiggle into your heart with his honesty and openness, and no one will be able to refuse his sincere invitation to share in his challenging life. His quizzical mind asks the questions everyone wants answered, and his heart- and soul-touching story may even provide some possible answers. Nicholls writes with a childlike openness and sense of humor that, along with its page-turning intensity, will have the book finished all too soon. However, becoming Sam’s friend and sharing in his special story will allow readers to carry a part of him in their hearts forever.

Reviewed by Chris Shanley-Dillman on September 1, 2008

Ways to Live Forever
by Sally Nicholls

  • Publication Date: September 1, 2008
  • Genres:Fiction
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0545069483
  • ISBN-13: 9780545069489

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