Michio Kaku: Feedback loops are creating consciousness

Our ability to make predictions about the future distinguishes our level of consciousness.

MICHIO KAKU: In the entire universe, there are two great unsolved problems. The two greatest problems in all of science, first of all, is about the very big. It's about the origin of the universe. Why did it bang? Why do we have an expanding universe? And I personally work on something called the multiverse, which we think is the dominant source of theories that gives us the universe before creation itself-- the multiverse. But there is also the mystery of inner space, not outer space.

And that's the human mind. Where does consciousness come from? And I think that in my book, The Future of the Mind, I try to make a stab at what is consciousness? First of all, let me explain my theory. I have my own theory of consciousness. I think consciousness is the sum total of all feedback loops necessary to create a model of yourself in space, in society, and in time. Now, I'm a physicist. We like to measure things and quantify things. I think there is a unit of consciousness. If consciousness is a sum total of all feedback loops necessary to create a picture of yourself in space, in society, and in time, then the unit of consciousness is a thermostat.

A thermostat has one unit of consciousness, because it has one feedback loop-- measures temperature. Now, a plant has maybe five units of consciousness, because plants have to regulate temperature. They have to regulate humidity, the direction of gravity, when to sprout. So there are maybe five or so feedback loops in a plant. Then we go to alligators. The alligators are masters of the back part of the brain. And then you have maybe several hundred feedback loops that govern space. That's what alligators are very good at.

Their brain, if you look at the parts of the back of the brain, we, too, have the reptilian brain that governs our understanding of space, where we are in space. And then, going forward in time, evolution gave us the monkey brain, the center of the brain, the limbic system. And the limbic system, in turn, governs society. It governs where we are with respect to our elders, our children, other human beings. Pack mentality, wolves, all of them have a developed central part of the brain, the monkey brain. And then the front part of the brain is what distinguishes us from the animals. It is the temporal brain that constantly simulates the future.

Animals don't do that. In fact, animals don't even have much of a memory. When you look at a brain scan of what is the brain doing when it's thinking, thinking hard? What is the brain doing? You find out that the prefrontal cortex is active, and it is accessing memories of the past. You see, animals don't do that. Animals have not much of a memory. They don't see the future, because there's no necessity to see the future. There's no necessity to have much of a memory. In fact, the purpose of memory could be to simulate the future. Animals don't need it.

Why didn't the dinosaurs become intelligent? Well, they didn't need to become intelligent, because we humans sometimes overexaggerate the importance of intelligence. Intelligence is not necessary to live in the forest, but we are maladapted to live in the forest. We don't run very fast. We can't fly. Our skin is very fragile. We're not very strong. We have only one thing going for us -- our brain. And what separates us from the animals? We see the future. We plot. We scheme. So that's my theory of intelligence. And then you can then categorize animals. You can categorize machines on the basis of this category.

Level 1 would be alligators. Level 2 would be monkeys -- I mean, not monkeys, but social animals, like wolves. Level 3 would be just us. OK, we have the third level of consciousness. And then what about robots? What do robots have? Robots will be level 1. They can barely see what's around them and start to make some changes. They don't have emotions. They don't see social hierarchy. They can't interact socially with humans. And of course, they certainly don't see the future in all its forms.

Now, they can simulate parts of the future. They could model airflow on an airplane wing, for example. So robots can see the future in one direction. We see the future in all directions. So robots would be level one in conscious. OK? Plants would be level zero, that is, just a few feedback loops. We're the highest. We see the future. And then I think this will replace the IQ exam.

I think the IQ exam measures one aspect of intelligence, and that is clerical skills. Yes, I think IQ exams measure something. They measure how well you do on IQ exams. And what is it that IQ exams test you for? Clerical skills. So I personally think that clerics and maybe lawyers, who score very high on an IQ exam-- but that doesn't mean they are, quote, "intelligent." Intelligence, to me, is seeing the future in all its forms, whether you're a bank robber, whether you are a physicist, whether you're a gymnast, whatever. That, I think, is what intelligence is.

  • One of the great questions in all of science is where consciousness comes from.
  • When it comes to consciousness, Kaku believes different species have different levels of consciousness, based on their feedback loops needed to survive in space, society, and time.
  • According to the theoretical physicist, human beings' ability to use past experiences, memories, to predict the future makes us distinct among animals — and even robots (they're currently unable to understand, or operate within, a social hierarchy).

A brief history of human dignity

What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.

Credit: Benjavisa Ruangvaree / AdobeStock
Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
  • Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
  • That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
  • We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
Keep reading Show less

We’ve mapped a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Take the virtual tour here.

See the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.

Photo by Štefan Štefančík on Unsplash
Surprising Science

Astronomers have mapped about a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way, in the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.

Keep reading Show less

New data reveals Earth closer to a black hole and 16,000 mph faster

A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.

Credit: NAOJ
Surprising Science
  • A Japanese radio astronomy project revealed Earth is 2,000 light years closer to the supermassive black hole at the Milky Way's center.
  • The data also showed the planet is moving 7 km/s or 16,000 mph faster in orbit around the Galactic Center.
  • The findings don't mean Earth is in more danger from the black hole but reflect better modeling of the galaxy.
  • Keep reading Show less

    Mathematical model shows how the Nazis could have won WWII's Battle of Britain

    With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.

    Photo: Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild via Getty Images
    Politics & Current Affairs
    • The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
    • Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
    • A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
    Keep reading Show less

    How has technology changed — and changed us — in the past 20 years?

    Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.

    PEDRO UGARTE/AFP via Getty Images
    Technology & Innovation
    Just over 20 years ago, the dotcom bubble burst, causing the stocks of many tech firms to tumble.
    Keep reading Show less