You never know who is going to sit next to you on an airplane. Usually it’s just someone who wants to read his newspaper and sip ginger ale in peace. But then there’s the rare instance when you happen to be seated next to one of the world's best known living scientists.
Such was my luck a few weeks ago on a flight back from New York, when I was stunned to see Dr. Michio Kaku stowing his carry-on over my head before taking his window seat.
If you don’t know who Michio Kaku is, all you have to do is turn on almost any Science Channel or Discovery show about space exploration, black holes, worm holes, or technologies of the future. Or you could pick up one of his seven bestselling books, like his latest New York Times Bestseller, Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100. Or tune into his weekly national radio programs, Science Fantastic and Explorations in Science.
If you want to know what makes a science writer off-the-chain happy, it’s chatting with a world class scientist for two hours and change, with drinks and snacks to boot. Aside from being a brilliant theoretical physicist, Dr. Kaku is also a heck of a nice guy. He graciously gave me more ideas than my pen could catch, any of which would be a substantial article on its own. I'll just run the highlight reel for now.
One of the most intriguing items he mentioned is the research effort underway in Japan to photograph dreams. Dr. Kaku described this as “doable” and thinks it’ll eventually happen. The idea is that brain activity in the visual center of the brain can be read and captured as pixels on a screen. In dream state, the brain’s visual center is excited, producing an abundance of images that are theoretically ripe for the capturing.
Dr. Kaku explained that it's already possible to translate simple images this way. Say, for example, you envision the letter U. The brain activity associated with holding this image in mind can be captured via nodes attached to your scalp and translated into individual pixels that will eventually resemble a U. The technology is still a bit clunky at this stage, but the underlying science is sound. One day we will hear of the first photographed dream and we’ll have an entirely new wrinkle in the privacy debate to iron out.
Dr. Kaku also discussed a recent step forward in brain-interface technology. For the first time, a sub-cranial interface is enabling epileptic patients to pick out individual words on a screen simply by thinking about them. Previously it was possible to move a cursor around the screen this way, but never before has the technology enabled precise selection of words. This advance brings us one step closer to a brain prosthetic for instantly communicating by merely thinking.
Stephen Hawking, a colleague of Dr. Kaku's, uses a single-channel brain interface device called iBrain to communicate via brain waves, though it isn't sub-cranial. Lou Gehrig's disease has rendered Hawking almost completely unable to move any part of his body. Brain interfaces could one day change the lives of those with similar medical conditions.
We also chatted about judicial decisions on whether fMRI should be allowed as a lie-detection technology in court. This to me is truly scary, because the technology is not nearly far enough along to be used this way. If it’s allowed, brain imaging would become a legal crowbar for prosecutors and defense attorneys – an exceptionally bad outcome considering that neuroscientists themselves are still debating the usefulness of the technology.