on intelligence by jeff hawkins


I guess I have to write something really smart now, on a book with such a title… This book comes highly recommended, by people like James Watson of DNA fame, to name just one. The author is not the typical scientist though and that makes the book rather intriguing. Jeff Hawkins is the man behind the PalmPilot or the Treo smartphone, quite impressive achievements in itself. But Hawkins makes it clear that understanding the brain has always been on his agenda, or should I say on his mind. As I am the lucky winner, and subsequent happy user, of a Palm m515, I was curious and could not resist buying this book. It is a popular science book and very very accessible. A bit too accessible at times and the book is rather slow at embarking with the real stuff. I wonder if the book would not have benefited more from the collaboration with a Scientific-American style illustrator than with a co-author.

So what kind of intelligence are we talking about? From the computer background of the author an obvious first choice might be the “artificial intelligence” kind of intelligence (GOFAI). But the author is clearly interested in the biology and/or anatomy of our brains and states that this is too often ignored. In other words, more conventional computer power will not do the trick. But he also states that simply adding more “neural networks” the connectionist approach, so successful in pattern recognition, will not yield intelligence. The problem Hawkins wants to tackle is the big one, explaining how the brain works, emotion, creativity, consciousness and everything else included. And knowing that “We will be able to build genuinely intelligent machines”. The thesis of Hawkins, condensed in one phrase, could sound like this: intelligence emerges from the neocortex, a memory-based continuous prediction machine.

Hawkins describes how in 1979 he was inspired by a Scientific American paper by Francis Crick (also from DNA fame), an influential paper that made it obvious that understanding the brain and consciousness was a wide open field. Another inspiration for Hawkins, from the same period, was the “Chinese room“, the famous thought experiment by John Searle. Hawkins has a rather peculiar reading of this though experiment. He agrees with Searle that the Chinese room does not have intelligence, apparently refuting any computational theory of mind, but the rest of the book is the description a one particular computational theory of intelligence, a fully materialistic one, dominated by our insights of the structure and function of the neocortex. These philosophical problems can be safely ignored however, they are only what got Hawkins started, and after some interesting history of neuroscience the major inspiration of Hawkins Vernon Mountcastle makes an appearance.

Next we get to the main course of the book. I will not try to summarize it comprehensively. The thesis of Hawkins, condensed in one phrase, could sound like this: intelligence emerges from the neocortex, a memory-based continuous prediction machine. Hawkins quite convincingly describes how the anatomy of the different layers and column in the cortex together with some clever feedback mechanisms and connections with other parts of the brain explain a lot about our intelligence. This is the most technical part of the book and it would benefit greatly from enhanced graphics. Some fancy, interactive, on-line technology would come in handy, I guess there should be enough room on the books web-site .

I like the core of Hawkins thesis, to use a cliché, it provided me with quite an “aha” feeling. Even better Hawkins framework may explain what happens during an “aha” experience. In the appendix Hawkins makes predictions about this (nr8) and gives a lead about how this has to be tested experimentally. This is the strongest aspect of the book! This is real science in action.

In the penultimate chapter Hawkins wraps it up by tackling a lot of subjects and questions and linking them together with his central theme the ‘memory-prediction framework’. This sometimes works as in his discussion of awareness (the easy to explain part of consciousness). But other topics are treated in a rather superficial or strained way as when he claims that language is a fully learned capacity, Pinker has convinced me it isn’t. Hawkins take on creativity didn’t convince me either. He basically describes how we might detect art but there is no clue about how it is created, or how machines would become truly creative. We should however not request an explanation of everything at once, and Hawkins is probably over-stretching things in this chapter. (maybe, just maybe, having a business, product-launch, background is a handicap here)

In the last chapter Hawkins gets into Kurtzweil-light mode and describes/predicts the intelligent machine of the future. Hawkins has an optimistic view, end his quest does not necessarily result in scary machines or Bill Joy type gloom and doom. Hawkins envisions that emotions and experiences are optional as this would make machines uncomfortably human-like. This kind of engineering sound to me as a connectionist approach next generation. Exciting? Certainly. Intelligent? Maybe. I have no doubt these boxes will play chess even better and faster. I fail to discern the quantum leap toward intelligence. Maybe Hawkins wants the cake and eat it. Following Damasio and others, none of which are mentioned or referenced in the book, intelligence without the emotions is probably noting more than automated chess playing. But is this the kind of intelligence that got Hawkins excited? In the end I will have to read Vernon Mountcastles book to fully position Hawkins and make up my mind about this intriguing book. But I recommend it and hope more outsiders write up a synthesis of their bold ideas.

Y by Steve Jones

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Want to know about “manhood” ? Whateverthatmaybe… Want to know a lot of factoids about “manhood”? Read this book. Steve Jones knows about evolution and biology, and knows about writing. Essential reading? No. Entertaining? Certainly, maybe a bit too much. The case for the “crisis of modern manhood”, as noted on the sleeve, is not convincingly made. Problems enough, i agree, but why all the talk about crisis? And there are some aspects of the book that disqualify it as a real science book. But let me mention that i learned a lot of stuff, about baldness or the hydraulics of the male system and about male circumcision or the Olympic games, the migration of people to the Americas and the uncertainties about the seemingly ubiquitous crisis in “sperm counts”.

We should be cautious, very cautious, in using scientific evidence. Certainly when things are complex, as previously noted while discussing Dean Hamer’ book. Steve Jones is rather cautious, that is recommendable, but when it suits him he seems to be rather selective when hiding behind complexity.

Let me elaborate is some detail. In the envoi Jones writes: “(a proof that biology has nothing to do with it)”. Such statements are common in the old nature-nurture debate. I can only read this as an expression of an extreme position: nature has nothing to do with it (and no genetics are involved). Lets do some social engineering and all differences will disappear. This position may express a wish or a political goal but it certainly does not describe the real-world. Let me first state that I am certainly not making the case for the other extreme of the debate: it is all nature or exclusively genetically determined. What this quote on page 248 (in the UK edition) is all about does not really matter. I think it no longer belongs in a science book. (If you insists, some more detail. Consider for a moment that in order to be able to get a college degree you need to be healthy. Therefore ‘nature’ has certainly some, probably small but real, impact on obtaining a college degree. Nobody today can reasonably claim that genetics has no impact on heath.) The fact that things are rather complex, as Jones often explains throughout this book, make the extremes in the nature-nurture debate untenable. Let me also state that, in my humble opinion, policy should never be automatically or directly linked to the outcome of this debate. The policies should be fair to any individual whatever and the global statistics, whatever the averages or whatever the ‘exact’ percentages of the nature/nurture mixture.
Jones is somewhat less cautious in other areas of expertise, as in the case of the effects of environmental estrogen-like substances.

In the same vein I concluded after reading chapter 9 that, somehow, Jones has ax to grind with “sociobiologists”. He is quick to say not so nice things about sociobiology in general, but these comments lack any kind of detail. This lack of detail together with the rather large diversity of sociobiological opinion makes for uninformative reading. Are these kinds of remarks made by Jones in oder to establish his own credentials among a certain group? This is opinion and not informed science writing. The argument against ‘a basic tenet of sociobiology’ based on the motives of sperm donors seems to be seriously flawed as recent developments in the UK making anonymous donations impossible, possibly increasing the ‘cost’, resulted in a donor crisis.

The nature nurture debate is a difficult but an interesting one, but i think it helps to keep the debate on the scientific stuff separate from the political one. A good and informative example of such a nurture/nature debate, in a specific context, is this debate between Pinker and Spelke. Let me summarize and suggest you read this book for its divers, surprising and often entertaining sampling of facts and stories but I also propose you postpone making up your opinion on a lot of subjects. In particular postpone your take on sociobiology until you have read this superb book by Ullica Segerstrale.

bad science and/or bad journalism

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Through the excellent snowdeal blog I came across this column in the Guardian newspaper. READ IT. It is a remarkable piece, remarkable in that it allows, from within, some hard-hitting criticism of science-journalism. But you should read it even more for its smart analysis and content. I simply cannot agree more with the author. Only last week was I dismayed, once more, by the science-reporting in the Belgian newspaper “De Standaard“. (this newspaper considers itself a quality newspaper but let me add that science reporting by the government run broadcasting media are worse by an order of magnitude!) At first I thought of writing a letter to the paper. A waste of time, my father opined. Let me therefore briefly make the point here. September 2, science section, headline reading (my translation) “Mad cow disease caused by human remains out of the Ganges”. No hint, not a word, in the heading, about this being a hypothesis, something that remains to be researched further. I suggest reading the original.
Next page, same hyperbole in the headline (my translation) : “Comb better than lice-poison”. But reading the piece indicates that things are definitely not that simple. Why is this not be reflected in the title? Maybe the journalist is not writing up these headlines, but he or she should! It is not only the headlines though, it is the skewed selection of subject matter. Information or entertainment and scaremongering?

So it seems that the observations of Ben Goldacre in The Guardian have some global validity!