Isaac Asimov Posts

“A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence” by Jeff Hawkins

Jeff Hawkins is a tech entrepreneur, computer pioneer, and a neuroscientist. He was the co-founder of Palm Pilot, handheld computing. He is the cofounder of Numenta, a neuroscience research company and founder of the Redwood Neuroscience Institute. The intersection of neuroscience and technology fascinates him but it is the manner in which the human brain operates that interests him the most. In A Thousand Brains, Jeff Hawkins ( Basic Books, Hachette India) answers two of life’s most important questions: What is intelligence? How do brains create it?

For centuries now, the concept of tabula rasa has been discussed. It basically states that babies are born in this world with their minds as a blank slate. Slowly, over a period of time, their brain collects information and stores it. How this happens has been a mystery and will continue to be for a long time to come. There is another theory too that if the brain is kept stimulated, age becomes just a number, as the neurons continue to make new connections. (In fact, Dr Sanjay Gupta, the CNN journalist, makes a strong case for this in Keep Sharp.) Jeff Hawkins and his colleagues have formed a new theory of intelligence called the Thousand Brains Theory. They argue that the brain uses maplike structures called reference frames to build models of the world — not just one but hundreds of thousands, which then vote together to reach a consensus.

A key discovery that Jeff Hawkins made was that the organ of intelligence is the neocortex. The human neocortex is particularly large, occupying about 70% of the volume of our brain. It wraps around the older parts of the brain such that when you look at the human brain, most of what you see is the neocortex ( with its characteristic folds and creases), with bits of the old brain and the spinal cord sticking out at the bottom. Almost all the capabilities that we think of as intelligence — such as vision, language, music, math, science, and engineering — are created by the neocortex. It consists of millions of neurons, many more connections between the neurons called synapses and several kilometres of axons and dendrites. It consists of many vertical cortical columns that are critical in mapping the world for the individual. But each column maps only a certain number of reference frames. The brain has the uncanny ability to connect with each region, enabling it form a holistic picture. The ability to form these conenctions is determined by our genes. So, when a child is born, its neocortex is a tabula rasa. The brain has 150,000 cortical columns where each column is a sensory-motor system. It is a learning machine. These columns are complementary to each other. Basically, Hawkins argues that the Thousand Brain Theory explains how we learn and recognize objects. It also states that there are thousands of models for every object perceived by the individual in their brain. Finally, the theory shows how the neocortex learns three-dimensional models of objects using reference frames.

Bulk of this book is devoted to discussing the Thousand Brains Theory of Intelligence suggesting that the future of machine intelligence is going to be substantially different from what most AI practioners are thinking today. AI is currently undergoing a renaissance. It is one of the hottest fields in technology. The field is dominated by artificial neural networks, although they are nothing like the networks of neurons we see in brains. Hawkins argues that the future of AI will be based on different principles than those used today, principles that most closely mimic the brain. The aim should be to build truly intelligent machines and he sees the shift of AI towards brain-based principles as inevitable.

A fundamental characteristic of the human brain is that it is constantly learning. As a result, humans are flexible in what we learn. Deep learning AI systems exhibit almost no flexibility. A Go-playing computer may play the game better than any human,but it can’t do anything else. A self-driving car may be a safer driver than any human, but it can’t play Go or fix a flat tire.

The long-term goal of AI research is to create machines that exhibit human-like intelligence — machines that can rapidly learn new tasks, seeanalogies between different tasks, and flexibly solve new problems. this goal is called “artificial general intelligence”, or AGI, to distinguish it from today’s limited AI.

It is not clear where, when, and how intelligent machines will be made or how will they be used; but it may be easier to define the attributes that determine an intellignt being. These attributes are: the ability to learn continuously, learning via movement, the ability of the neocortex to create multiple models that are complementary and thus provide flexibility ( “mental agility”?), and finally, using general-purpose reference frames to store knowledge. Hence, we as humans are intelligent not because we can do one thing particularly well, but because we can learn to do practically anything. The extreme flexibility of human intelligence requires the aforementioned attributes.

The future of machine intelligence is hard to predict but an important component of its behaviour would be safety. According to Hawkins ( who does NOT like science fiction stories), the three laws of robotics as defined by Isaac Asimov are like a safety protocol but don’t necessarily apply to all forms of machine intelligence:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

It is really impossible to say how long or when these changes will occur, if at all. It is certain that machines are here to stay. Humans and machines have to co-exist. But I could not help pondering over a key fact. It is not discussed in the book, but I think it can easily be surmised.

The Internet was invented to share files between scientific and military computers. It was previously done manually. In recent years, tech entrepreneurs have created massive social media platforms that are user-based. These tech platforms rely upon their websites proving useful to multiple users, at the same time. It is a constant buzz of activity. It is also a bunch of algorithms, written by a team of programmers determining how users can be encouraged to use the platform except that they do not reckon with how rapidly individuals can reprogramme their behaviours. Thereby also changing their expectations of the platform. This is probably the reason for digital strategists unable to work on anything more than a three month-time frame as opposed to earlier times when it was possible to work on 1-3 year strategies. No more. The older strategies presumed a certain amount of stability. Now, with so many human brains plugged into one platform simultaneously can result in the creation of a supercomputer whose size and intelligence is unimaginable. It is gargantuan! Also, just as many social media sites are discovering that people are sinking deeper into the platform to create little bubbles of communities, are happy being within those spaces, and in all likelihood, creating their own micro-histories. It is only IF these communities choose to communicate with each other, that connections can be created and larger communities can be formed. To what purpose, is still unclear, but they can exhibit behaviour that is like a single-celled large organism or it can be construed as herd mentality. Similarly, the neocortex is the intelligence organ of the individual, it consists of numerous cortical columns/users that map reference frames; these exist and are complementary but do not necessarily communicate with each other. IF they do, then it is for the benefit of the individual in building up knowledge and using their intelligence to assess the situation. So, while many tech giants are fascinated by AI and its applications, it is perhaps the study of human behaviour affected by AI and its response in real time that should be investigated in greater depth. Changes are happening at such a rapid pace in the digital world, they are probably not driven as much by algorithms and AI as many would like to believe, but it is the response of many individuals that are forcing the Internet/social media platforms to transform. The Thousand Brain theory illustrates the significance of the neocortex and its identification as the intelligent organ in our body, but if this theory is applied to the Internet wherein many individuals are like many thousand brains multiplied many times over, can you imagine the speed at which the digital landscape will evolve? No wonder Hawkins is not very amused at the current state of AI. It simply cannot keep pace with the human brain. It will take time, if at all.

A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins is an astonishing book. Perhaps there are more like it in the market but the lucidity with which this is written is splendid. It makes extremely difficult concepts manageable as well as recognising the limitations of what can be included in the book or not. It will be influencing tech discourse for a very long time to come. Don’t miss reading it.

2 May 2022

Sami Ahmad Khan, Sci-Fi writer from India

I first came across Sami Ahmad Khan a few years ago when he reached out regarding a manuscript he had written and wanted it evaluated professionally. It was one of the few science fiction novels I had read set in contemporary India. I did read and made a few constructive suggestions. Then I did not hear from him for a while as he was busy finishing his thesis unsurprisingly on contemporary Indian science fiction writers. Now his novel is to be published more or less simulataneously by two publishers — Juggernaut Books ( digital) and Niyogi Books ( print). Meanwhile he has published two articles exploring Indian science fiction.

Daily O article “What if aliens one day land in India? A sci-fi writer asks” ( 8 June 2017)

Huffington Post India article “Aliens In Allahabad, Zombies In Zamrudpur: Discovering Indian Science Fiction” ( 10 June 2017)

Sami and I had a brief and intense exchange over email about his interest in science fiction and the publiction of Aliens in Delhi.  Here is an extract:

  1. Who were the authors you featured in your thesis?

I worked on select (SF) novels/short stories of Anil Menon, Amitav Ghosh, Ruchir Joshi, Shovon Chowdhury, Rimi Chatterjee, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Manjula Padmanabhan, Vandana Singh, Ashok Banker, Mainak Dhar, Suraj Clark Prasad, and Jugal Mody.

  1. Who were your PhD guides?

Prof. GJV Prasad and Prof. Saugata Bhaduri at JNU

  1. Why did you start writing sci fi stories?

I couldn’t resist! I could see eventualities concretizing in my brain, working out and extrapolating from the current material realities…I love doing that. The question of ‘What if?’ really interests me. And SF I think gives me the best mode of narration to express myself. Not to say that writing and thinking about SF gives me a massive kick!

  1. How did the deal with two publishers happen?

I got two simultaneous offers, within ten days of each other. The first (contract) wanted paperback rights, and the other digital. I opted for both.

  1. Two Books, Two editors

I sent almost the same MS to both these publishers, and editors from respective houses worked on the MS simultaneously. It’s still the same book, but there are minor differences, such as a different sentence here, a different one there, not to mention different copy-editing. But the essence and general narrative is the same.

  1. Due dates of publication

Paperback, brought out by Niyogi, already out.

Digital version by Juggernaut in July 2017

  1. If you had to translate this novel into any other language which version would you use?

Both would do!

  1. How many years did it take to write this novel?

Almost four and a half years. The first draft was written in October-December 2012. Then I let the novel stew in my brain for some time. Then endless drafts and revisions. I kept reworking it till 2015, when I was finally satisfied with it.

  1. Who are the SF writers you admire?

Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, Shovon Chowdhury, Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who

  1. Why did you start writing sci fi stories?

I could see eventualities concretizing in my brain, working out and extrapolating from the current material realities…and SF I think gives me the best mode of narration to express myself. Not to say that writing and thinking about SF gives me a kick!

  1. What is that you wish to explore the most in your SF writing?

Space (interplanetary exploration), time (alternate realities/time travel) and ET life (preferably hostile to humans). I love exploring these themes through pulp.

11 June 2017 


Ruskin Bond

Last year I spotted Ruskin Bond at a literary festival but it was impossible to see him clearly. It was also the first time I saw an author in India encircled by large security men, more like bouncers seen outside clubs. They not only towered over Ruskin Bond but were very well built and were an extraordinary sight to behold. A testimony too the fan following Ruskin Bond has in India. He needed protection from his fans. Children flocked to him in droves. Parents prostrated themselves in front of the literary festival oragnisers to allow their children into the hall even though it was filled to capacity. Astounding indeed when you realise that Ruskin Bond prefers his solitude, tucked away up in his beloved hill town of Mussorie.

On 19 May 2017, Ruskin Bond turns 83. To celebrate it his publishers have scheduled a bunch of publications. Puffin India has released Looking for the Rainbow — a memoir he has written for young readers describing the time he spent with his father in Delhi. It was during the second world war. His father was with the Royal Air Force ( RAF), stationed at Delhi. Ruskin Bond’s parents were divorced and his mother was about to get married for the second time. His father decided Ruskin Bond could stay with him for a year in Delhi where he had some rooms rented — at first off Humayun Road and then later nearer to Connaught Place. Ruskin Bond remembers this time spent in Delhi fondly even later when he was sent off to boarding school in Simla. In fact decades later he recalls with a hint of sadness that Mr Priestly, his teacher, did not approve of young Ruskin poring over his dad’s letters so suggested he keep them away for safekeeping. At end of term when Ruskin Bond went to ask for his letters his teacher was clueless. Now in his eighties forgiving and generous as is his want Ruskin Bond remarks that Mr Priestly probably “meant well” but all that remains of that pile of letters is the one that the young boy spirited away — and still retains all these years later. Looking for Rainbow is a beautiful edition made richer by Mihir Joglekar’s illustrations.

Looking for Rainbow serves as a wonderful introduction and is probably the slim pickings of the larger project memoir Ruskin Bond will eventually publish with Speaking Tiger Books. It is as his publisher, Ravi Singh, told me the longest book Ruskin Bond has ever written — nearly a 100,000 words. It is “hugely readable. Moving, too, in parts.” Lone Fox Dancing is scheduled for June 2017. Earlier this year Scholastic India released a biography of his written by Shamim Padamsee in their Great Lives series.


His long-standing publisher, Rupa, with whom Ruskin Bond has a special relationship for decades now has also brought out two volumes of his works. The Wise Parrot is a collection of folktales retold by Ruskin Bond. He says in the introduction:

I may be no Scherazade, and that is a relief, for it would be rather difficult for me to think of stories knowing my head may be chopped off the next day, yet I have found some ancient legends that are as enthralling as hers and presented them here. There are creatures who have lived in our collective imaginations for ages. There are stories of wit and stories of immense stupidity. And in all this, what shines forth is the power of human imagination that has thrived for millions of years. From the first cave paintings, to today’s novels, the thrill of telling a story has never died down. And here’s wishing that it may live long, bringing people, animals, fairies and ghosts to life forever. 

The Elephant and the Cassowary is an anthology of his favourite stories about wild animals and birds and the jungle. The title story is a perennial favourite and is utterly delightful. A master storyteller and a voracious reader like Ruskin Bond when become a brand name like no other have the luxury of also being tastemakers. As well-known prolific scifi writer and anthologist Isaac Asimov says in his splendid memoir I.Asimov : [An anthology] performs the same function as a collection does, bringing to the reader stories he may be glad to have a chance to read again or stories he may have missed altogether. New readers are able to read the more notable stories of the past.” Another anthology that Ruskin Bond has put together and is being released this week  by Viking, an imprint of Penguin, is Confessions of a Book Lover. Both these anthologies between them contain previously published works by writers such as Rudyard Kipling, F.W. Champion, Henry Astebury Leveson, Joseph Conrad, Laurence Sterne, H.G. Wells, William Saroyan, Stacy Aumonier, and J.B. Priestley. Anthologies are a splendid way to discover new material even though some people think otherwise. Ruskin Bond has it right with these two eclectic anthologies. They jump centuries but the underlying principle of a good story is what matters. It is no wonder then to discover the delightful publishing connection between legendary publisher Diana Athill and Ruskin Bond. She gave him his first break as a writer while still at Andre Deutsch. She certainly knew how to spot talent!

Happy birthday, Mr Bond!

17 May 2017 



Karen Jay Fowler, ” We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves”

Karen Jay Fowler, ” We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves”

WAACBOLanguage is such an imprecise vehicle I sometimes wonder why we bother with it. 

( p.85, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves)

Karen Jay Fowler’s award-winning novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves , is about the Cooke family. It consists of the parents who are research psychologists and their three children — Lowell, Rosemary and Fern. A normal family except for a minor difference, Fern is a chimpanzee who has been brought up with Rosemary from infancy as twins. It is an experiment the parents conduct, funded by their university and it entailed having a “village” of grad students living with them at home to help. For the first five years of the girls lives, all is well. Then Rosemary is sent off to her grandparents, when she returns she discovers her sister is nowhere to be seen, her parents have moved into a new home, with no extra bedrooms and no grad students. Her brother too vanishes only to send postcards periodically and one brief visit, many years later. Rosemary begins telling this story when she is a college student and completes it when she is a kindergarten teacher for some years. The story spans over thirty years. As the narrator, Rosemary Cooke, says:

My brother and my sister have led extraordinary lives, but I wasn’t there, and I can’t tell you that part. I’ve stuck here to the part I can tell, the part that’s mine, and still everything I’ve said is all about them, a chalk outline around the space where they should have been. Three children, one story. (p. 304)

It is not surprising to discover that this novel has been shortlisted for the ManBooker Prize 2014. The story is a sensitive understanding of sibling relationships, loneliness of a woman and the ethics of scientific experiments–anthropomorphize a chimp and what are the human complications/repercussions of conducting such an experiment.  This is a story based primarily on Winthrop Kellogg’s work at Indiana University, but also of many others; most notably Jane Goodall’s work with the Gombe chimpanzees. Jane Godall, 1965In an interview with the Book Slut ( Oct 2013), the author says “I did hear from a daughter in the Kellogg family, I didn’t realize that there was another child. She was born about the time the experiment ended, so she has no memory of it herself, nor would her brother, who was only nineteen months old when the experiment ended. But she feels strongly that it completely deformed her family, that experiment that was so much briefer than the one I put in my book. She emailed me and said she realized I must have based this on her father’s work. One of the things she said that had happened to them, something I did not think about in my book and did not anticipate, was that they got hate mail and death threats from fundamentalists. …She wished to tell me how horrible it was to be part of the experiment, and what it did to her brother, what it did to her family. Although it’s not clear to me — to go back to my daughter’s original question — whether the damage to the family was done by the experiment itself or by having the kind of father who would do an experiment like this and who, therefore, was the kind of father who did other things as well; clearly, not a great father. It was a shock too, because I knew that the boy, Donald, who was involved in the experiment, had died quite some time ago. And I did not know there was another child. So I wrote about this family and it did not occur to me that any of them would be reading it.”

Karen Jay Fowler also refers to Keith and Catherine Hayes experiment at raising Viki ( a chimp) in the same manner as a human infant. “…Mr. Hayes said that the significant, the critical finding of their study, the finding everyone was choosing to ignore, was this: that language was the only way in which Viki differed much from a normal human child.” ( p.288) Karen Jay Fowler is known for her science fiction writing, her strong sense of storytelling. She has brought to the fore in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by telling an extraordinarily beautiful story, but also making one think ( as good scifi should do!) about experiments conducted on animals in the name of research and what does it mean for animal rights. Coincidentally, the August 2014 issue of the National Geographic has an essay where Jane Goodall celebrating her 80th year reflects on her career of getting to know unforgettable chimps. ( ).

Read this book. Just as all good science fiction blurs the lines between reality and experimentation and continue to be influential such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451  and Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics, so will We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves — it will dominate conversations about literature, science, animal rights, literary fiction for many years to come.


An interview with Karen Jay Fowler, Book Slut, October 2013 ( )

Is your process for writing a novel dramatically different from writing a short story?

Yes, it is dramatically different. When I write a story I can keep the whole thing in my head. I usually pop backward from the climax so I know what I want the climax to be, how I want it to work, what I want the effect on the reader to be. It’s just a much more conscious kind of creation where I’m very aware of the reader, I’m very aware of what I think the readers experience is going to be and try to make it what I want. And then, of course, readers are obstreperous and go and have all kinds of experience that I did not intend, but I like that too.

With novels, I’m much more muddled, muddling my way through them. What I do like about novels is being able to spend that extended period of time with the characters. I get to know those characters in a much more deep and attached way. I’ve never missed one of the characters of my short stories when I finished the short story — I wish I were still thinking about her, I wish I were still making her up. But I do have that experience with a novel. I am very sad to say goodbye to Rosemary and Fern. I liked them both a lot.

In conversation with Karen Jay Fowler, The American Reader ( )

Carmen Maria Machado: Your fiction tends to move between (for lack of a better word) genres. What do you find so compelling about the borderlands between fantasy, realism, historical fiction, and science fiction?

Karen Joy Fowler: I think I like places where the rules are still visible, but need not apply. I get a lot of energy from having conventions I can push against.

And I’ve long felt that reality is so strange that realism really isn’t up to the task of adequately presenting it. The world is a whole lot more horrible than I imagined as a child. But it is also considerably funnier. I try to make do with that.

I always say that I write history as it might have been reported in the National Enquirer. And I guess I’m more interested in the fact that someone believes he’s been abducted by aliens than I am in exploring actual alien plots and connivings. An interest in the abductees as opposed to the aliens seems to me to be a borderland concern.

Karen Jay Fowler We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves Serpent’s Tail, London, 2014. ( Distributed in India by Hachette India.) Pb. pp. 340. Rs. 499  

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