“On Intelligence”

I recently listened to an audiobook format of Jeff Hawkins’ 2004 book “On Intelligence.” In this essay I will try to review some of the key concepts from the book. In a future essay I will relate these concepts directly to holistic tracking and awareness.

Jeff Hawkins has focused much of his life on understanding computers, the human brain, and searching for an overarching theory of intelligence. In his book titled “On Intelligence,” he presents such a theory, supports it with research, and explains how this theory can help design truly intelligent machines.  Hawkins does a great job of explaining the fundamental differences between computers and brains and the reasons why the most advanced computers of today still cannot do certain tasks that a three year old human does with ease.

Some of the key arguments that Hawkins makes can be summarized as follows:

1. Behavior is not the best way to measure intelligence.
2. The type of intelligence that he is looking at is an aspect of the neocortex (the most recently evolved part of the brain).
3. The main function of the neocortex and the basis of intelligence are memory and prediction.
4. Intelligent machines should be built by using the principles of the neocortex otherwise it will be difficult to make them truly intelligent.

Hawkins’ first point is that intelligence should not be measured by behavior such as the classic test of artificial intelligence called the Turing Test. Many aspects of having intelligence do not require action and behavior by itself can be very misleading. Instead, Hawkins’ is interested in the type of intelligence that humans take for granted but that has been very difficult to achieve in computer programs and robots. He is interested in how humans understand the world around us, learn patterns, and make meaningful predictions effortlessly without getting bogged down in millions of calculations.

Hawkins focuses almost exclusively on the most recent part of the brain known as the neocortex. While I might normally criticize this reductionism I feel that he justifies his focus and it works with his narrow definition of intelligence. One of the most interesting points he makes about the neocortex is the uniformity of it in appearance and structure. Hawkins’ cites the work of neuroscientist Vernon Mountcastle as pointing to the simple yet overlooked possibility that all of the neocortex is performing the same basic operation. He calls this the “single cortical algorithm.” This structure is seemingly redundant yet extremely flexible and functional. Unlike computers, it allows us to take incomplete information, recognize patterns, classify experience hierarchically, think creatively through analogy, learn language, and make useful predictions. Unlike a pre-programmed computer or robot this cortical architecture is specifically set up to learn, adapt, and function in an unknown and novel environment.

The single cortical algorithm does four main things:
1. It stores sequences of patterns
2. It recalls patterns in an auto-associative way
3. It stores patterns in invariant forms
4. It organizes stored patterns in a hierarchy

“Prediction is not just one of the things your brain does. It is the primary function of the neocortex, and the foundation of intelligence. The cortex is an organ of prediction.”  I must admit I was very stoked with how Jeff Hawkin’s emphasized the primacy of pattern recognition, memory, and prediction in his book. These are three attributes central to much of what I do and this framework has a lot of useful applications especially in tracking and awareness. In our daily life our brain is constantly making predictions about the world around us. These predictions are based upon patterns that we have learned through experience and store in our memory. As a child you learn how different objects respond to your touch, you store these experiences as patterns, and by the time you are an adult you unconsciously make predictions about how much force is necessary to push open a door. When everything goes according to subconscious predictions the tendency is not to notice. However, if something does not meet your prediction it is quickly brought to your conscious attention. If the door is rigged to be heavier you will notice because your prediction about how much force is necessary to open it will not match up.

In the last part of his book Jeff Hawkins explains the steps necessary to create intelligent machines based on the single neocortical algorithm and he delves into some of the ethics surrounding this field. As a non-computer scientist I still found this part of the book easy to understand and extremely interesting. His arguments were compelling and gave me a much better understanding of the hurdles faced by artificial intelligence. It also helped me broaden my conceptions of AI beyond the influence of Hollywood and popular media. It is amazing how the popular imagination and the worldview of the industrial age have had such a huge influence on the trajectory of AI research.

Overall, I truly enjoyed this book. It was thought-provoking, well-argued, and I look forward to synthesizing the key ideas and incorporating them into my approach.

For more information on Jeff Hawkins:

Culture: Definition and Function

“Culture refers to the learned, socially acquired traditions of thought and behavior found in human societies. It is a socially acquire lifestyle that includes patterned, repetitive ways of thinking, feeling, and acting.”  –Marvin Harris and Orna Johnson 2003

If you were to take a person and peel away their clothes, food, tools, language, ideas, beliefs, and worldview, what would you have left? Would that naked body and empty mind still be a person? Would they be able to survive?

Humans are the only animal that depends more on culture than biology. Our bodies are weak and unimpressive compared to most animals. We are ill-protected from the elements in our thin skin, our senses seem mediocre compared to most, and we seem to have few physical adaptations for self-defense or harvesting of food. Nevertheless, we have colonized more of the planet than any other species and have developed strategies for surviving in some of the harshest bioregions.

Since the emergence of anatomically modern humans, 200,000 years ago, culture has been our main way of adapting and evolving. Unlike biological evolution, cultural evolution allows for much faster change. In many cases, cultural evolution allows for adaptations and novelties that would not be possible with biological evolution. Human populations that migrated to the arctic did not have to evolve thick layers of blubber, dense fur, or other physiological adaptations to the cold. Such evolution would have taken thousands and thousands of generations if possible at all.

Cultural characteristics, whether they be material culture or worldview, can be analyzed from a sort of evolutionary perspective. The basic assumption is that if culture is our way of adapting to the environment then there should be a rationale to cultural characteristics. While this view can be criticized as overly simplistic and deterministic I feel that it often provides useful insight and is capable of explaining many things. This way of seeing culture can also be helpful to get away from the idea that some cultures are superior to others or that there is a progression of cultural stages from lesser to greater. All cultures came about as an adaptation to a particular environment over time. Cultures that have been in the same region for thousands of years must adapt to fit that environment. From this perspective, the aboriginal culture of a region is likely to be the best-suited culture for that region.

This essay outlines the basics of the anthropological definition of culture. Whenever I refer to culture it is this anthropological definition that I am referring to.

How Buckeye Changed Me…

Going to the Buckeye gathering for the first time in 2011 opened up a world for me.

I thought I had a well-grounded, practical, relatively sustainable and resilient lifestyle and a broadly informed and well-rounded perspective on nature, culture, and the human experience. I had studied cultural anthropology, organic farming, and permaculture, I had traveled and worked extensively in less developed countries, I had lived in simple off-the-grid ways, and I thought I had a relatively deep connection with the natural world.


I was wrong…


I realized there was a HUGE piece missing from my worldview and my skill-set. Learning primitive skills and meeting the people who practice them blew my mind open in a way I didn’t know was possible. Being introduced to tracking, nature awareness, and bird language added a whole new dimension of meaning and connection to my experience of nature. The level of sophistication, functionality, and beauty behind some of the skills and crafts gave me a renewed appreciation of material culture. And the camaraderie around the night-time fire and the trade blanket gave me a new heartfelt perspective on the potential of community.


Primitive skills gatherings, tracking, archery, hunting, and bird language are now all part of my daily perspective and my yearly calendar. The skills I have learned (or at least tried) have all taught me something powerful. The crafts I have created, the feelings I have felt, and the community I have connected to are now all central to who I am. Buckeye has made me a more whole person, more grateful, more humble, and more connected to nature and culture than ever before.


Check out the Buckeye website and these other gatherings:



The Sharpening Stone

Saskatoon Circle


Rabbit Stick


Photo at top is of Myron practicing hand drill friction fire technique.