Monday, 24 March 2014

On Intelligence - the best book I've ever read!

On Intelligence

On Intelligence is a book about the brain. It is a book about how we think, how we remember and, most importantly, how we predict. On Intelligence was written by Jeff Hawkins, the man who founded palm, the company that produced these. Around 18 years ago, Jeff Hawkins decided that the brain was where it was at. He jumped the technology industry's ship and went back to university. The end result is a theory called the memory-prediction model of the neocortex.

How the human brain works...

I'm not going to go into vast amounts of detail - that's all in the book. The basic premise is that the neocortex is the most interesting part of the brain. Humans have the largest neocortex in the animal kingdom and it is in here that we are able to store memories and to predict events. Imagination and creativity are also grounded in here.

The neocortex is wired directly to our senses and to our motor system. Input goes in in the form of vision, hearing or touch etc and output goes out in the form of movement. As the neocortex experiences these inputs, it causes cells in the neocortex to activate. The neocortex contains somewhere in the region of 30 billion cells and these cells have thousands of connections throughout the neocortex. It is in the connections that the magic happens.

As an input activates cells in the lower regions of the neocortex the connections are fired and other cells are activated in higher levels of the cortex and so on up the hierarchy. The hierarchy contains several layers. The easiest example is vision. V1 -> V3 -> V4 -> IT -> Association Levels. There are many association levels and they handle associations between vision and motion or vision and sound etc.

The fundamental unit of a thought is an invariant representation. A generic 'face' or 'square'. Those of you who are familiar with Plato may recognise these as forms and they are basically the same thing except they are not idealised, they are the amalgamation of experience and the more faces we see, the more generalised our invariant representation of 'face' becomes. 

In the lowest levels of the hierarchy we will have very simple invariant representations. For example red or a line slanted at 24 degrees. There is a group of cells that handles every possible pixel of input. This raw information is sent higher up the hierarchy and is combined with information from other cells to form representations of corners, of colour gradients and other objects more complex than angles and colours. Step higher again and we start to find shapes. Higher again and structures and objects. Eventually you find a stage where you have an invariant representation of a face, or of your friends face or their voice. 

The idea is that the brain builds a model of the world in your brain. The model is populated with invariant representations.

For me, the most interesting part of this whole theory is the hierarchical structure of understanding. These invariant representations can represent abstracts as well such as love and happiness and mathematics. The idea that we first start understanding only the very basic reality of what a thing is....

Take my computer mouse for example. The most basic understanding you can have of it is that it has a shape, a colour, a rollable wheel and clickable buttons. It is quite light and moves the cursor on the screen. If you step up in the cortical hierarchy you can understand it is an interface device allowing you access to the world in your computer. Take it another step up the hierarchy and you understand that it is a way for you to experience the world. It is almost an external muscle. A thing which allows you to influence a world and a part of reality over which you should by any rights have no control. I'd take it up another level but I'm not sure that I can...

It is this stepping backwards to see a grander picture that is the pure nature of intelligence and how the brain works. The more time you spend with a thing, the further down the hierarchy your brain will push the familiar stuff and the more room you will have at the top for new, beautiful and complex interrelationships. 

It is the nature of intelligence to step back and wonder about the next link in the chain, the greater purpose... the next level of understanding. 

By having read this article, you agree
that I am not responsible for any
distress, discomfort, enragement or
offence caused by your reading
of this article. DFTBA.
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