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Book Review: Neuroscience Fiction

Over 50 years ago, large masses of movie enthusiasts flocked to the premiere of a much awaited sci-fi masterpiece called ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. The plot was rather simple. A mysterious black monolith appears in prehistoric times when humans are just starting to discover how to use tools as weapons. The same object is later found in 2001 by a searching party. Months later, a group of men and a computer set out to investigate the origins of this object. In a series of unfortunate events, the computer ultimately rebels against the space crew as human existence is threatened by a new order of being. The movie is inexplicably slow, with few isolated narrative jolts masterfully disseminated over a hundred-forty-two-minute sequence of seemingly unrelated events that, waltzing in time to the notes of Strauss, mercilessly culminate in the extinction of human existence. Acclaimed by the critics as few movies were at the time, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ was seen by most as a trip through space and time.

In his latest book titled NeuroScience Fiction, neuroscientist and author Rodrigo Quian Quiroga takes us on a similar kind of journey. His book revolves around the increasingly intimate relationship between science and fiction and illustrates how the futuristic premises of ten, seminal sci-fi movies have turned into reality thanks to recent advances in neuroscience. Riding along the notes of some of the most successful sci-fi movies of the last century, Quiroga expertly dissects the mixture of plausibility and poetry that characterizes this movie genre in 10 eye-opening, absorbing chapters.

The book begins by unearthing thorny philosophical questions that have fascinated and befuddled some of the brightest minds on Earth, including the dualism between the brain and mind. What is the mind? What is it made of and what makes it an exclusive attribute of being human? By trailing historical evidence from some of the greatest minds to ever ponder the mysteries of the human brain (Socrates, Plato and Descartes among others), the author wanders across centuries of thoughts that seamlessly interweave old and present perspectives on philosophy, perception and machine learning. This journey culminates in acute reflections on the gap separating artificial and human intelligence and on the limitations of existing computers in the face of the extraordinary accomplishments that have been achieved in recent times – see the Deep Blue and Kasparov duel. Could a machine ever manage to think and be intelligent?

“What’s then left for us humans? Should we resign ourselves to the possibility of a superior intelligence? Should we start taking measures to avoid being subdued by what we ourselves have created?”

This reflection ignites several breathtaking discussions of the unique features of the human mind and what attributes make us truly humans. Despite tremendous advances in the field of AI, the author contends that no machine has the ability to abstract and transfer knowledge in the same way that humans can. Quiroga does not dismiss the enormous capabilities of modern machines, nor their potential to revolutionise human existence; as the amount of knowledge expands and the world becomes increasingly complex, the possible applications of AI ‘defy the limits of imagination’. Nonetheless, the author urges us to remember that certain aspects of our intelligence simply cannot be replicated using computer algorithms, refusing the notion that any runaway AI will ever come to eradicate human existence or cripple its long-term potential.

After exploring what characteristics distinguish humans from AI, Quiroga touches upon The Planet of the Apes to examine the central role that language plays in giving rise to the ‘human experience’. The discussion lays the groundwork for Quiroga’s exploration of key, defining features of human and non-human animal communication. Can animals communicate as effectively as humans? Are their brains wired to decode complex language? To answer these questions Quiroga delves into the thoughts of some of the world’s oldest philosophers to examine how current thinking is firmly rooted into ancient views. The difference for Quiroga is not just educational but also genetic: human evolution allowed us to develop neuronal circuits capable of making abstractions and generalisations, ‘of classifying and constructing concepts’. Unlike animals, these circuits enable us to form internal and subjective representations that are critical to our ability to speak. Quiroga’s carefully reasoned argument leads him to conclude that animals may have different cognitive representations altogether, and by feeling the world differently, they may not need to use language at all. Nonetheless, the author acknowledges, humans nurture this unconscious belief that any intelligent animal should be able to verbalise its thoughts:

“Much like Descartes, we tend to assume that, similar to humans, any intelligent animal would want to express its thoughts. But the fact that animals don’t speak among themselves could be because they have different cognitive representations and, by feeling the world differently, perhaps they don’t have the need to communicate, or maybe they even do it through other means”

The next stop in the author’s quest to disentangle the relationship between science and fiction is The Matrix. Celebrated as one of the finest movies in his genre, the underlying idea behind The Matrix– that reality is a computer stimulation– has tickled the imagination of many scientists to this day. In NeuroScience Fiction, Quiroga strips the idea behind this movie to its bare essentials and offers a fresh new analysis of transcendental concepts shrouding the field of neuroscience. His conclusion leaves no space to imagination: the idea behind The Matrix is impossible. However, the tantalising idea that skills, knowledge and experience could be transferred almost instantly into someone’s brain, offers a useful analogy of how the brain works and how cognitive representations originate within the human mind. In addition, the author acknowledges that one of the greatest accomplishments of The Matrix was to project a reality that science has brought closer to us in recent years. The same concept, he argues, applies to other sci-fi movies, including ‘Until The End Of The World’, where the idea that human thoughts could be decoded and reconstructed on a screen is masterfully presented.

Understanding why Quiroga uses these cinematic examples is not surprising. Quiroga, a long-time science writer and acclaimed neuroscientist, is no stranger to the concept of ‘reading’ into people’s minds. His work is celebrated all around the world for the discovery that information provided by cerebral recordings can be used to predict people’s thoughts. Despite the tremendous success of his discovery, the author offers reassurance later in the book as he cautions that the technology is still rudimentary and ‘we are very far from peeking around private thoughts’.

Like his research, the scope of his new book is enormous as he provides a new perspective on scientific fiction. One of the most striking features about Neuroscience of fiction is Quiroga’s continued effort to bridge the gap between fiction and reality, while exploring philosophical issues such as free will, emotions and perception.

In both our conversation and in the book, Quiroga acknowledges that the sci-fi movies discussed therein served as springboards to compel us to think about questions that great thinkers of the calibre of Aristotle, Descartes, Locke and Hume have pondered for centuries. Does consciousness exist? How do we explain the feeling of pain? The author explains that most of these questions are beginning to unlock and the common denominator to all answers is always the same: understanding that the mind and the brain are one and the same; mental processes derive from measurable changes in brain activity and most of our feelings can be pinned to dynamic, yet quantifiable events in our brain.

Finally, the book shows our progress since the early era of cognitive neuroscience. The movie ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ was mostly acclaimed for projecting a reality that was hard to imagine only 50 years ago. Since then, countless writers and filmmakers created futuristic scenarios built on seemingly far-fetched premises that were never considered to reach the realm of reality. In NeuroScience Fiction, Quiroga dives into the latest scientific discoveries to show us that some of the ideas and scenarios presented in seminal science fiction movies are happening right now.

Elegantly written and remarkably learned, NeuroScience Fiction is a ground-breaking reassessment of the dualism between science and fiction. While science fiction often appears to transcend reality, Quiroga reminds us that the perennial and critical need for science has made us one step closer to close the gap between these two parallel universes. This gap notwithstanding, this book provides a fascinating and accessible account of the astonishing link between philosophy, neuroscience and fiction, as seen through the original lens of a world-renowned neuroscientist.

 

 

Written & illustrated by Marco Travaglio

This book review was edited by Joel Frohilich, PhD, and Desislava Nesheva.

NeuroScience Fiction

By Rodrigo Quian Quiroga

380 pages. BenBella Books.

 

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Author(s)

Marco Travaglio

Marco Travaglio is currently pursuing a PhD in Neuroscience at The University of Cambridge. His research aims to generate novel mechanistic insights into the selective vulnerability of dopaminergic neurons in Parkinson’s disease. His project involves the use of both embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cell based model systems to study the onset of the disease and its subsequent pathological manifestations. He received his MSci in Neuroscience from the University of Nottingham.

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