POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

Brains and Technology - Two Mini-Reviews

I have just finished listening to two interesting books in the last week.  One is about our brains and their function the other is about the brains behind Google and their plans to "organize all the worlds information."  Both deal with the future extensively in different ways.  The first speculates and wrestles with technology that will be created to make intelligent machines, the second looks at one ambitious company and its plans to make all information (yes, all) indexed and searchable for the common man.  I'll cover each only briefly and in turn.

On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee, 2004 Times Books

Some people will find the name Jeff Hawkins familiar.  He was the inventor behind the first Palm Handheld computers in the mid 1990s, went on to found HandSpring and its modular handhelds and Treo smartphones and finally came back home to Palm to extend and kick start the smartphone category in the market for cell phones.  What many do not know is that Hawkins is extremely interested in human brains and has written a book about.

On Intelligence is Hawkins discussion and framework for how the brain works and how insights into brain algorithms might help us create intelligent machines.  Like the terminator...just kidding, not exactly like that.  Hawkins book begins with his frustrations with what he considers the misguided thesis of strong AI (artificial intelligence).  Strong AI considers your brain to be a computer and that when we have enough computing power in computers we simply arrive at intelligence or consciousness.  Hawkins discusses this primarily through the failures of strong AI both in its brute force and neural network flavors.  He also delves into the philosophy of consciousness by highlighting one of my favorite philosophical illustrations - John Searle's Chinese Room.  I won't get into that sort of discussion here, that is found elsewhere on the POCBlog.  Hawkins then goes into his own (or rather a commentary on the scientific work of others - particularly Mountcastle) theory of intelligence as it relates to the cortex and its functioning. What is found is fascinating writing on memory systems and prediction as the key to intelligence.

The book offers some facinating discussion about how our brains work as a wonderful processor of patterns by what he refers to as a broad neocortical algorithm.  There was one glaring drawback for me in reading Hawkin's work - he is a physicalist who does not speak like one.  Now, I do not hold this against Hawkins as I believe it impossible to explain human consciousness in physicalist (you are your brain, matter is all there is) terms.  Our language will not even permit it.  For instance the book is filled with discussions about how sensory signals enter various portions of our cortex and then give "you" an experience of sight, hearing etc.  The brain is there, but even in talking about this Hawkins maintains a "you" as well.  Perhaps our brains cannot talk about themselves in a way that is consident with there being "nobody in there." Of course it is a philosophical and religious matter to state you are only a brain and nothing more.  But it seems to me that my brain processes and presents "to me" sights, sounds, etc. Also how "new thoughts" emerge from Hawkins empirical physicalism remains a mystery to me as it seems he is reduced to a framework where no thought can be thought of as such.

With that said, Hawkins book was a fascinating read that I greatly enjoyed.  It seems that Hawkins is passionately interested in the subject and has even founded a company to research application of these ideas. He believes that within our life time (if we give up on the dead end of AI) we may just create intelligent machines that are aware and thinking in the sensory environment of the world.  Or...perhaps a large network of computers simply "becomes" aware on a certain date...like SkyNet of Terminator lore. Or perhaps such a network of computers is already in place organizing all of the world's information.  Or maybe there is just Google - the company that "does no evil" but seems happy for its computers to know everything about all of us. 

Planet Google - One Companies Audacious Plans to Organize Everything we Know by Randall Stross, 2008 Free Press.

Planet Google is a recent book written by author and New York Times journalist Randall Stross.  There are several books about Google which have been written.  Some works, like The Google Story, focused on the founding and expansion of Google from the early days of Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Standford University.  Stross' book takes a more recent tact focusing primarily on Google's forays toward its goals of organizing all the worlds information. I really enjoy technology and reading about the companies which create it.  This book was no exception. 

Particularly enjoyable was the treatment of Google's moves into new territory such as book scanning and video.  The chapter on video is interesting for its history on YouTube which was going to become a very famous Google acquisition. I also enjoyed discussion of Google's move from search Goliath into a company which desires to usher in a new era of cloud computing whereby you allow Google to host all your e-mail, documents and digital history on its computers rather than your own.  

Finally, the brief and non technical view of Google data centers (dark, mostly unmanned and automated rooms full of pulsating computers and voracious appetite for electricity) was quite interesting indeed.  How many Google computers does it take to organize the world's information?  Many more than the amount of pro wrestlers needed to change a light bulb.  Will Google become "the man" or "big brother"?  Time will tell I suppose...but I for one do not trust a company whose motta is "do no evil" yet is run by mere human beings.  Afterall, when the chief executive googler, Eric Schmidt, was asked what was "evil" the reply was simply: Whatever Sergey says is evil.  (see 2003 Wired Mag piece Google vs. Evil) Unless Sergey=God...which I am pretty sure that equation is false...I am just going to be crazy and guess that Google may be doing some evil along way. 

Great book though - recommended.