Reading Time: 2 minutes

My book review this week is on Jeff Hawkins’ book, A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of IntelligenceHawkins, a neuroscientist, engineer, and businessman, co-developed Palm Computing and created some of the earliest smart phones. After he sold his interest in the Company, he has pursued his passion to solve the mystery of how the brain works. This book is quite complex and I won’t try to dig deeply but I read it because Bill Gates praised the book saying it contained “tantalizing clues about the future of intelligent machines.”

The book is about the old, elsewhere sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain, versus the new brain. Hawkins spends considerable time trying to explain a very complicated mystery and was clear that he has not yet solved all of the brain’s mysteries.

Think of the neocortex, or new brain, if it could be laid flat, as a thick dinner napkin. Different sections do different things and each region is “divided into thousands of columns.” From there, think of each column as a collection of tiny mini-columns with “over one hundred cells each.” The  neocortex wraps around the old part of the brain and “is like 150,000 short pieces of spaghetti stacked vertically next to each other.” (p. 40)

One of the biggest discoveries that Hawkins made is that the brain makes a reference map (or model) of everything it knows, stores that data in reference frames, and uses that data to make predictions. Reference maps are incomplete and sometimes wrong, and so people can easily think they know things that are incorrect. Several more takeaways include:

  • The brain learns through movement. It is only through movements (sometimes small) that the brain can create new reference frames, which Hawkins thinks are the secret to understanding how intelligence works.
  • According to Hawkins, most existing neural networks in computers do not make these models, which is a limitation that likely needs to change before we can get to true generative AI. And deep learning machines cannot continue to learn while they are doing. They have to be continuously trained.
  • For those who wonder about the seemingly random thoughts that come to them at strange times, Hawkins says they are not random. “What we think next depends on which direction we mentally move through a reference frame, in the same way that what we see next in a town depends on which direction we move from our current location.” (p. 99)
One of the most difficult parts of learning is finding the right reference frame, which is not something we are typically aware of doing. Whether we organize by timelines, geography, or fairness completely changes our understanding of the facts. There are four actions that reference frames take. “Reference frames in the old brain learn maps of environments. Reference frames in the what columns of the neocortex learn maps of physical objects. Reference frames in the where columns of the neocortex learn maps of the space around our body. And, finally, reference frames in the non-sensory columns of the neocortex learn maps of concepts.” (Emphasis mine; p. 107) Becoming experts in any field requires that we develop good reference frames. Especially when dealing with concepts and abstract issues, intelligent people can come to wildly different perspectives.
As a project management and business advisor, one of my biggest takeaways is that we need to be more empathetic as we engage with colleagues who don’t see things the same way. And improving how we engage with colleagues is a never-ending quest.