On Intelligence: A book review by Bob Morris

On Intelligence: How a New Understanding of the Brain Will Lead to the Creation of Truly Intelligent Machines
Jeff Hawkins with Sandra Blakeslee
An Owl Book/Henry Holt and Company(2004)

How and why the brain works

I read this book when it was first published (in 2004) and recently re-read it while preparing for an interview of one of countless thought leaders who have acknowledged their great debt to Jeff Hawkins for what they have learned from him and, especially, for what they learned from this book. Written with Sandra Blakeslee, this book provides a superb discussion of topics that include

• Artificial intelligence
• Neural networks
• The structure and functions of the human brain
• A “new framework of intelligence” (more about that later)
• How the cortex works
• Consciousness and creativity
• Hawkins’ thoughts about the future of intelligence

As Hawkins explains, his goal “is to explain [his] new theory of intelligence and how the brain works in a way that anybody will understand.” However, I hasten to add, this is not a book written for dummies and idiots who wish to “fool” people into thinking they know and understand more than in fact they do.

Early on, Hawkins acknowledges his skepticism about artificial intelligence (AI) for reasons that are best explained within his narrative, in context. However, it can be said now that after extensive research, Hawkins concluded that three separate but related components are essential to understanding the brain: “My first criterion was the inclusion of time in brain function…The second criterion was the inclusion of feedback…The third criterion was that any theory or model of the brain should account for the physical architecture of the brain.” AI capabilities, Hawkins notes, are severely limited in terms of (a) creating programs that replicate what the human mind can do, (b) must be perfect to work at all, and (c) AI “might lead to useful products, but it isn’t going to build truly intelligence machines.” At least not until we gain a much better understanding of the human brain.

The material in Chapter 7, “Consciousness and Creativity,” is of special interest to me as I continue to read recently published books that offer breakthrough insights on creativity, innovation, and the processes by which to develop them. (The authors of many of those books, to borrow from a 12th century French monk, Bernard of Chartres, are standing on Dawkins’ “shoulders.” It must be getting crowded up there.) Hawkins asserts that creativity does not require high intelligence and giftedness, and defines creativity as “making predictions by analogy, something that occurs everywhere in cortex and something you do continually while awake. Creativity occurs along a continuum…At a fundamental level, everyday acts of perception are similar to rare flights of brilliance. It’s just that the everyday acts are so common we don’t notice them.” I call this phenomenon “the invisibility of the obvious.”

I am among those who are curious to know the answers to questions such as “Why are some people more creative than others?” “Can you train yourself to be more creative?” “What is consciousness?” and “What is imagination?” Hawkins has formulated answers to these and other questions and shares them in this chapter. Much of the structure of the “new framework of intelligence” to which I referred earlier is in place by the conclusion of this chapter. Then Hawkins concludes the book by looking to the future and offers with eleven predictions. Here’s #8: “Sudden understanding should result in a precise cascading of predictive activity that flows down the cortical hierarchy.” In other words, revelations (whatever their nature and scope) help us, not only to connect dots but to connect those that are most important.

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  1. Nancy Taerude on September 7, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    Thanks for sharing this Bob, looks like a must read to me!

    • bobmorris on September 7, 2011 at 7:23 pm


      Thank you for leaving a message.

      You may be pleased to know that Amazon sells a paperbound edition for about $10.00.

      Best regards, Bob

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