Tuesday, December 05, 2023


Curious About Real Intelligence
Nicholas Johnson
The Gazette, December 5, 2023, p. A6

“Curiosity killed the cat”? Not our cats. They slowly walk around the water dispenser, looking, sniffing, contemplating before risking a tongue immersion.

My 86 billion neurons recall my lying on my back in the front yard of our Brown Street house, age three, curious whether wind makes trees sway, or moving trees make the wind blow.

Maybe three-year-olds should know the answer. But at least my curiosity was not risky curiosity. Young boys discovering steam tunnels under the University campus, including one that goes under the river to the hospital? Now that’s a risky curiosity.

Using bridges, not steam tunnels, we moved to the West side. Irving Weber, Iowa City’s historian, lived across the street from us with his wife, Martha, and son, Willis.

Willie and I wondered if copper wire from the roof of my house to his roof might transmit the dots and dashes of Morse Code. Our small battery only produced one “dot” and the beginning of a “dash” (letter “A”). My mother asked why we didn’t use the phone. Martha never forgot the hole we made in her roof. Modestly risky.

Could a kit-built transmitter – with 500-foot antenna -- interfere with commercial radio stations? It could. High risk (though we were unaware of the illegality). That led to an amateur radio transmitter, licensed and legal (minimal risk) and presidential appointment as an FCC commissioner.

Birds have their “territory,” we had ours – including Rock Island Railroad track. We were curious what a locomotive would do to a penny on the track. It flattened it into something we could sell for a nickel (unaware it was also a crime: 18 U.S. Code Sec. 331). Risky curiosity.

A 50-cent piece? Derail a locomotive? Young neighbors debated. Some had seen half-dollars; none possessed one. Curiosity unfulfilled.

My current curiosity involves brains of animals – including Homo sapiens, the only animal species able to talk itself into difficulties that would not otherwise exist. [Photo credit: Wikimedia commons; National Institutes of Health.]

Aside from my scholarly writing, my random curiosity is not that of an academic – discovering more and more about less and less until knowing everything about very little (Ph.D.), or less and less about more and more until knowing a little about everything (liberal arts B.A.).

Curiosity has meant I’d rather be good, mediocre or poor at many things than excel at one. Double par golf. Singing off-key. Trombone sounds only loved by moose. Playing high school basketball for a coach who said I looked like an elephant on ice.

There is no longer an “I.” Only bodies run by brains. My interest is not brains’ weight, neuron numbers and electric messaging. I want to know precisely how those neurons sense, create, store and retrieve a song, book or image from decades ago.

I agree with neurologist Jeff Hawkins: “We don't need more data, we need a good theory.”

Before we struggle with AI’s pros and cons shouldn’t we, like cats, be more curious about what neurons are doing and how they do it?

Nicholas Johnson believes that artificial intelligence is better than none. Contact: mailbox@nicholasjohnson.org


Note: Of necessity, most of the “sources” for this column are from memories of my life experiences as communicated from my neurons.

As the column concludes, “we don’t need more data.” There are tens of thousands of academic articles regarding neurologists’ research and more popular articles reporting and commenting on it. As illustrated by just one of my numerous Google searches, without quotes: (Who said, with regard to knowledge of the human brain, that there is lots of data but no theory?) brought up 60 hits with enticing titles on the first Google page alone. For some reason there was no information about the total number of hits for that search.

I claim no expertise, thorough research or certification in this field. As the column suggests, "I'm just curious." However, based on what I have seen so far it seems that much of the research deals with such things as reporting the weights of various animals' brains, their number of nurons and connections, the primary functions of various locations within a human brain, and the role of electricity and chemistry in transmitting whatever it is the brain is transmitting. Whereas my primary interest is in the content of the messages, the routing details, and how they go about encoding, storing and later retrieving a sight, sound, smell or other content.

18 U.S. Code Sec. 331

“Chapter 17 – Coins and Currency,” U.S. Code, U.S. House, https://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?path=/prelim@title18/part1/chapter17&edition=prelim (“Whoever fraudulently alters, defaces, mutilates, impairs, diminishes, falsifies, scales, or lightens any of the coins coined at the mints of the United States, or any foreign coins which are by law made current or are in actual use or circulation as money within the United States; or

Whoever fraudulently possesses, passes, utters, publishes, or sells, or attempts to pass, utter, publish, or sell, or brings into the United States, any such coin, knowing the same to be altered, defaced, mutilated, impaired, diminished, falsified, scaled, or lightened—

Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

(June 25, 1948, ch. 645, 62 Stat. 700; July 16, 1951, ch. 226, § 1, 65 Stat. 121; Pub. L. 103–322, title XXXIII, § 330016(1)(I), Sept. 13, 1994, 108 Stat. 2147.)”)

Brain numbers research (an example)

Suzana Hercularno-Houzel, “The Human Brain in Numbers: A Linearly Scaled-up Primate Brain,” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, National Library of Medicine, Nov. 9, 2009, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2776484/

Jeff Hawkins

Jeff Hawkins, “How brain science will change computing,” TED Talks, Feb. 2003, at 5:11 and 05:53 minutes, over 1.7 million views, excerpt from https://www.ted.com/talks/jeff_hawkins_how_brain_science_will_change_computing/transcript

(“05:11 So why don't we have a good theory of brains? People have been working on it for 100 years. Let's first take a look at what normal science looks like. This is normal science. Normal science is a nice balance between theory and experimentalists. The theorist guy says, "I think this is what's going on," the experimentalist says, "You're wrong." It goes back and forth, this works in physics, this in geology. But if this is normal science, what does neuroscience look like? This is what neuroscience looks like. We have this mountain of data, which is anatomy, physiology and behavior. You can't imagine how much detail we know about brains. There were 28,000 people who went to the neuroscience conference this year, and every one of them is doing research in brains. A lot of data, but no theory. There's a little wimpy box on top there.

05:53 And theory has not played a role in any sort of grand way in the neurosciences. And it's a real shame. Now, why has this come about? If you ask neuroscientists why is this the state of affairs, first, they'll admit it. But if you ask them, they say, there's various reasons we don't have a good brain theory. Some say we still don't have enough data, we need more information, there's all these things we don't know. Well, I just told you there's data coming out of your ears. We have so much information, we don't even know how to organize it. What good is more going to do? Maybe we'll be lucky and discover some magic thing, but I don't think so. This is a symptom of the fact that we just don't have a theory. We don't need more data, we need a good theory.”)

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