How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed Review

In the past year I’ve become very infatuated with futurology. I’m the one in my friends group who starts fights about how we’re not going to be driving cars in five years and we’re all going to end up living life through VR. Needless to say, the idea of Artificial Intelligence plays a large role in what we can expect in our future.

I, unlike a lot of people I encounter, am very optimistic about humanity’s future. Sure, it could end with extinction and droids taking over, but who are we to say that’s not how things were always meant to be and we’re just getting in their way? 

How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed doesn’t quite answer the questions of humanity’s fate and that’s not the intent of the piece. It does, however, give us a much better understanding of how our own bodies work and therefore helps us understand where we’re going.

The Author

Ray Kurzweil is an incredible source of information regarding our future. He has so much insight into what the world might look like years from now. He shares the information in many books and uses the intelligence at Google where he’s working on natural language understanding.

Why have a mind?

What is the main purpose of our mind? A simple question with a complicated answer. This text taught me that the neocortex’s main function is actually predicting the future. This surprised me.

A very simple example given goes like this: We recognize letters and words. We can break down the characters into shapes that our mind will notice straight away. Apple, for example, is something we see very often — whether reading about iPhones or your local grocery store flyer. We don’t actually read the whole word, though. We see the shape of the word in its entirety and say, “oh yes, apple”. If we see just the first three letter, it might bring up visions of an icon on your phone, however. With just the first four characters, Appl, the mind predicts what is coming next. It actually predicts the future and places an ‘E’ at the end of that word to save you time. 

It isn’t hard to imagine how this plays out on a larger scale. A similar phenomenon is chronostasis. This doesn’t only predict the future, but also replaces the past and fills gaps in your mind. Vsauce has a quality video explaining the stopped clock illusion where he explains how moving your eyes quickly enough can trigger your mind into inserting an image in that split second of blur. Your brain is helping you make sense of the real world but can also deceive you into thinking you saw something you did not. 

Memory

We are chauvinistic about our brains, thinking them to be the goal of evolution

A common misconception is that our brain’s job is to make us more intelligent. This is proved untrue given our evolution — natural selection doesn’t strive for intelligence. Your typical brain will have plenty of shortcomings including inefficient energy consumption, slow reaction time, and lengthy process of learning. It can be argued that this is not a result of crumby evolution but that humans are sufficiently evolved as well. 

It may seem obvious, but analyzing properties of the brain can also advance other areas of science such as technology. If you are ever at a crowded bar or concert while trying to converse with someone, you may find it difficult to listen to what they are saying. However, more often than not, you’ll unintentionally block out the background noise and focus on this one person’s words. A skill that comes naturally to your mind trying to help you again is also used in cell phones when the devices attempt to block out background noise during a phone call. The audio processing that goes on in the device is the same technique that our brains use. 

The hippocampus has the important role of remembering significant or unusual events. If a coworker arrives at the office in a silly bear costume, it will be up to the neocortex to determine that deserves a spot in the hippocampus to be remembered — unlike the daily chat you have that same coworker that might be similar to the one you had yesterday. This is one of the first areas of the brain to be damaged by Alzheimer’s. 

Reflex

When playing tennis, watching the ball come at you at different speeds determines how late or early you’ll start your swing. If the ball is approaching quickly and you haven’t begun your move, the cerebellum will kick in and make it happen. It also helps determine where the ball might go if you swing higher, lower, softer, or with some heavy topspin.

Movement is still widely controlled by the neocortex, but even the neocortex will fall back to the memory of the cerebellum for things you do over and over again like writing or typing. Understandably, the cerebellum is the home of muscle memory.

Since the cerebellum is great at predicting where your tennis ball might soar, there’s a certain rush that occurs when you put yourself in a situation that can’t be predicted. Gambling releases dopamine because your cerebellum struggles to provide an outcome. Dopamine is also released when in love. Unaware of the future, fast heart rates, and loss of appetite will trigger dopamine and also kick in your fight or flight since you’re either running away or to a person. 

“Lust is lewd, love is lyrical.” ~ John William Money

Attractiveness and sex drive play a large role in initial reactions to what may become love, but evolution shows romancing then would not be necessary. Imagine a girl (or boy) next door or an office crush. These prospects might not be the chiseled, curvy, sexy partner you always fantasized about, but by caring about them and caring about their needs you’ll fulfil their desires just the same. There have been countless love songs and stories written about this exact situation. 

Challenging the brain is something that provides a lot of pleasure — so much that Cecil B. Demille refers to his creativity as a drug. The mind has the potential to recognize 30 billion metaphors per second. When someone tells a joke that requires some esoteric knowledge, the cerebellum has to grab from multiple sources of your knowledge to put the pieces together and determine if it’s funny or not. Depending how specialized the joke is or how many things you needed to understand to get the entire joke can change your idea of the funniness of the joke. 

Dreams

Kurzweil only touches on dreams briefly but I had to discuss it as I’ve always felt very strongly about dreams. First, my thoughts. I don’t exactly know what it is or how humans evolved this way, but for some reason everyone seems to feel like they have an obligation to share their dreams with other people. 
The moment I’m told, “I had a crazy dream last night”, I try to end the conversation or leave as soon as possible. We all have crazy dreams. When I have a dream, crazy or not, I forget about it as quickly as I can because it provides no insights to the real world and the real things I’m trying to accomplish. The same goes for whatever conversation we’re about to have about your dream. I’ve always enjoyed House’s take on dreams.

The text gives some good insight into how dreams are conjured up. The big idea is that they’re simply confabulated versions of many smaller thoughts that may be lingering in our minds. As a side benefit, there are no real-world phenomena that constraint abilities in a dream. So, you’re never distracted by how easily you tore off your arm and used it to slap your friends around. You just enjoy the slapping as it’s happening in the dream. Same goes for that bronze elephant jumping through the window. You take your dream at face value without any regard to feasibility. The real innovation is that by ignoring common laws we’re used to now, things can get much more efficient. I’d love to have a dream one night where Albert Einstein and Jesus Christ visited me and gave me personal one-on-ones.

Mind vs. Computer

No, I’m not interested in developing a powerful brain. All I’m after is just a mediocre brain, something like the President of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. ~ Alan Turing

Lisp

Kurzweil refers to Lisp as the dominant programming language for AI related projects. Although the creator of Lisp (LISt Processor), John McCarthy, coined the term “artificial intelligence” (AI), there is a lot of debate over the best language — another popular one is Prolog. Jumping to the conclusion here is slightly uncomfortable because Lisp is directly compared to our neocortex. 

Essentially, each pattern recognizer in the neocortex can be regarded as a LISP statement — each one constitutes a list of elements, and each element can be another list. The neocortex is therefore indeed engaged in list processing of a symbolic nature very similar to that which takes place in a LISP program. Moreover, it processes all 300 million LISP-like “statements” simultaneously.

Jeopardy!

The technique Watson uses to win Jeopardy is essentially the same exact thing humans would do. It parses through all the keywords in the initial question and compares it to its 15 TB archive of human knowledge until it finds something it can confidently conclude to be the answer. The debate over whether or not this is artificial intelligence is interesting. Ultimately, Watson is doing what a human would do — that is good enough for some people. Noam Chomsky was unimpressed by Watson by stating that it is no more special than Deep Blue, the Chess computer that defeated Garry Kasparov.

Watson understands nothing. It’s a bigger steamroller. Actually, I work in AI, and a lot of what is done impresses me, but not these devices to sell computers. ~ Noam Chomsky

Kurzweil has commented on Chomsky’s remarks by saying it’s one of the most impressive things we have seen in this field so far and as long as there are flaws there will be naysayers. At the end of the day, it comes down to how easily impressed you are. 

It is the clearest demonstration I’ve seen of computers handling the subtleties of language including metaphors, puns and jokes, something people had said would not be possible. I don’t agree with Chomsky that Watson is not impressive in that regard. As long as AI has any flaws or limitations, people will jump on these. By the time that the set of these limitations is nil, AI will have long since surpassed unaided human intelligence.

Conclusion

How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed has enlightened me in many ways. 
It’s crucial to understand the mind in order to break the barriers of science and technology. By understanding the hippocampus’ job and knowing its failure is the first step in a widespread disease, we’re able to pinpoint what needs to be fixed and can more easily develop an implant to resolve or mitigate the damage.

To fully understand a computer you should learn how to code and to be a better driver you should take apart the engine. There’s a lower level to everything that must be understood to accomplish any innovation. Although I haven’t learned enough to build a mind myself, I feel accomplished enough to notice what’s going on up there when I recall a novel idea or catch a baseball.

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