Pattern Recognition Saves Lives

On a warm summer afternoon you walk down the rocky trail at your favorite regional park. Despite the beautiful surroundings, your head is full of thoughts about work, family obligations, and financial concerns. Coming to a steep part in the trail, you are about to grab a rock for support when your hand jerks back with a mind of its own.

Your distracted consciousness snaps back to the here and now. And then you see it. Coiled menacingly on the rock, inches from where you were about to put your hand, is a rattlesnake. Looking at it now with all of your attention you realize how camouflaged it is yet how striking the overall pattern is. There is something archetypal about the diamond shape of its pit viper head, the bulge of its jaw and the ridge over its gleaming eye.

Our human ancestors needed to recognize patterns in order to survive. This ability allowed them to discern dangers and take advantage of opportunities. As our proficiency for patterns grew it allowed our species to learn faster, adapt to new conditions, and eventually spread across the face of the planet. While there are fewer hidden predators and poisonous snakes for us to contend with, the modern, more urbanized human still depends greatly on the ability to recognize patterns. And for those of us who are interested in reconnecting with nature, tracking, or hunting, a fluency in the language of patterns is essential.

So what is a pattern? Two definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary stand out:

1. An arrangement or relationship of elements, especially one which indicates or implies an    underlying causative process other than chance.

2. A regular and intelligible form or sequence discernible in certain actions or situations; especially one on which the prediction of successive or future events may be based.

The first definition points to the fact that a pattern is not a superficial event and is not random, it is based on an underlying process. This is crucial when filtering information through awareness and focusing learning. Paying attention to patterns will lead to an understanding of underlying causes while paying attention to noise or superficial elements will not provide the same advantage.

The second definition points to the crux of the matter, namely the ability to predict. Patterns repeat themselves in a meaningful and intelligible way. Understanding the pattern allows the brain to make accurate predictions about future events. The ability to remember previously encountered patterns and make accurate predictions is the basis of intelligence. See my review of Jeff Hawkin’s book “On Intelligence” for more on the brain science behind prediction “On Intelligence“.

In the rattlesnake example above, the brain recognized the pattern in a “bottom up” process, where the more primitive parts made the call while the conscious neocortex was thinking about family problems and finances. Have you ever jumped back from what looked like a snake or a spider before you even realized what you were doing? Have you ever known what someone was going to do before they even did it?

These are a common occurrence that many people refer to as gut reactions or intuition. Much of our interpersonal relationships are actually based on the lower parts of our brain reading minute patterns in other people’s body language, tone of voice, and even smell. These intuitive, sometimes almost magical, predictions are also a central part of sports mythology and any field that requires high performance. Being open to these responses and training our brains through repeat exposure to these patterns we can react more quickly and more accurately whether in sports, business, relationships, or in the wilderness.

It is important to be aware of our bottom up pattern recognition but we can also bring our conscious awareness to the task and achieve great benefits. Paying special attention to patterns when learning new things will make it easier and faster to develop a holistic understanding of the subject matter. For example, When learning a new language, you can get a huge head start if you look for words that share a common ancestry with words from your native tongue. As this understanding of etymological patterns grows, your ability to learn languages and predict the meanings of foreign words will improve. If you start from scratch, with rote memorization of long vocabulary lists you will take much longer.

Some patterns repeat so often in nature that they demand special attention. The branching pattern of a river into smaller and smaller tributaries and streams can tell us much about the basic functioning of our universe. This pattern can be seen in plants, in our veins, in minerals, and even in our families.

By intentionally thinking in terms of patterns we can accelerate our learning, deepen our understanding, and make more accurate predictions in our field.
Whether predicting the presence of a poisonous snake, learning a new language, or tracking a trophy elk the ability to recognize patterns can save your life, and make it much more magical.

“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: