Cortex, Ergo Sum: 'On Intelligence,' by Jeff Hawkins
On Intelligence, By Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee

June 19, 2022

Cortex, Ergo Sum: 'On Intelligence,' by Jeff Hawkins

One of my more memorable tasks as a young software engineer was to develop a Java Application Programming Interface (API) to help other software engineers write enterprise software for exchanging and synchronizing PalmOS Database (PDB) data with back-end data stores, like Oracle, Sybase and SQLServer. Learning to parse and construct PDB files using Java code was a professionally challenging and fulfilling exercise for me at the time. The creator and big thinker behind the Palm Platform, Jeff Hawkins, still continues to amaze and delight me. In this episode, Cindy and I discuss our child-like fascination and learning of neuroscience, AI and Machine Learning referencing Jeff's 2004 book, 'On Intelligence'.

Prediction is not just one of the things your brain does. It is the primary function of the neocortex, and the foundation of intelligence.‘On Intelligence,’ Jeff Hawkins, pg. 89

My Top Five Takeaways From ‘On Intelligence’

First, Who Is Jeff Hawkins?

  • Founder of Palm Computing and Handspring. Palm was sold to U.S. Robotics and then HP. Jeff and certain staff members grew frustrated with things and left to start Handspring.
  • Recall that Palm Pilots were a huge leap forward in mobile computing in the early 1990’s, where prior to Palm, the Apple Newton was the revolutionary mobile device.
  • Jeff Hawkins has always had a keen interest in Neuroscience.
  • Founded the Redwood Neuroscience Institute non-profit focusing on neuroscience research.
  • Founded Numenta, a for-profit company also focusing on neuroscience research.

Second, ‘Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny’ And The Triune Brain

Did you know that there are effectively three primary regions of our brain: the amygdala, the mamalian brain, and the neocortex? I did not know this! Recall that the amygdala is also called the ‘lizard brain’ as it is largely responsible for our most basic instincts. The amygdala makes us want to immediately flee from danger or spring into action to fight in the face of danger. The amygdala is the part of the brain that modern day man tries to manage, especially in professional environments.

The mammalian brain (a.k.a limbic system) is responsible for much of our human feelings. It seems that evolution has programmed us to use brain chemicals to stimulate feelings within us, which help to build new neuro pathways in our brain.

The neocortex, or just cortex, forms the majority of our brain mass, upwards of something like 76%. The cortex is where we do all of our thinking. The cortex is the latest part of our brain in it’s evolutionary history.

In our podcast, I mention how this apparent evolution of the brain reminded me of the Recapitulation Theory I learned about in my college Evolutionary Biology class.

Also note that some may say that this Triune Model of the brain is an oversimplification of how the brain works, but I like simple!

Third, Your Cortex Is Like A Napkin

This book highlighted for me new information about the shape and content of our brains. I always thought our brain was a solid mass of gray matter. It turns out, though, that our cortex, which forms the majority of the mass of our brain, is really more like a crumpled-up dinner napkin folded up inside our cranium. The cortex is about 2mm thick, and if you were to take it out of our skull and flatten it out, it would end up being about the size of a large dinner napkin.

The cortex, even at 2mm thick, contains about 6 distinct layers and is packed with over 30 billion neurons. For comparison purposes, if you were to take 6 playing cards and stack them together, that thickness approximates the thickness of the human cortex.

Fourth, The Cortex As Pattern Recognition Machine

Our cortex is a generalized pattern recognition machine. I always intuited that our brain had areas of specialization (such as sight and hearing specializations). Rather, the cortex is able to tailor its output based on the types of data input it receives. To put it a bit differently, our cortex seems to only need a common operating system software to similarly handle all of the different types of sensory inputs it receives.

Vernon Mountcastle was a Neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University who wrote a 1978 Paper titled, “An Organizing Principle for Cerebral Function,” in which he proposed that the cortex uses the same computational model to accomplish everything that it does.

Further evidence supporting this can be found in more recent experimentation where vision-impaired people have been able to receive rudimentary sight using technology that takes visual data and converts it to digital electronic signals applied to the tongue. The implication being that parts of the brain originally suited for taste are also able to interpret visual data when received.

Specialization is for insects.Robert A. Heinlein

Brains are pattern machines. It’s not incorrect to express the brain’s functions in terms of hearing or vision, but at the most fundamental level, patterns are the name of the game.‘On Intelligence’, Jeff Hawkins, pg.62

Fifth, The Cortical Column Data Highway

In ‘On Intelligence’ I learned about apparent columns of neurons that run vertically through the cortex. These ‘cortical columns’ carry data from our sensors into our cortex where the data is processed and made sense of. In our podcast, I mention how these cortical columns, which span all six layers of the cortex, remind me of the OSI Network Model you learn about when studying computer networking. While the OSI Model consists of 7 distinct layers, the first and lowest layer is the physical layer, which describes physical connections of machines to networks. The physical layer of the OSI Model could map to the connectivity of our biological sensors to various regions of the brain before the data enters our cortex.

Just a thought and perhaps too random of an association to be meaningful? But I do think the correlation helps to stay grounded to the whole point of my shared interest in studying brain function with Jeff Hawkins.

In my mind, that purpose is in understanding how human cognitive function actually works so that it might ethically and responsibly be duplicated using computing technology for the betterment of mankind and human civilization.

The next three to five to ten years is going to blow our cortexes in this area of research and development.

Amazon re:MARS

Speaking of Human Intelligence, AI, ML, Robots and Space, Cindy and I will be at re:MARS next week! We’re looking forward to seeing first-hand some of the latest developments and trends emerging in this space. More to follow, and maybe we’ll see you there!

podcast learning entrepreneurship competition innovation learning personal growth intelligence cerebral cortex cortex brain neuroscience amygdala mamalian brain limbic system artificial intelligence machine learning palm pilot palm palmos handspring jeff hawkins mobile devices amazon remars remars machine learning robotics space osi model computer networking recapitulation theory redwood neuroscience institute Numenta

Dialogue & Discussion