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A brief history of intelligence: evolution, AI and the five breakthroughs that made our brains
Bennett M., Mariner Books, Boston, MA, 2023. 432 pp. Type: Book (978-0063286344)
Date Reviewed: Jun 27 2024

Scientists have long explored the intelligence quotient among animals and specifically humans. The book presents five breakthroughs in 21 chapters, with a separate introduction to these breakthroughs and an extensive conclusion. The introduction gathers “predictions” from The Jetsons cartoon, ChatGPT as a product of artificial intelligence (AI), the emergence of a brain in a creature, and the breakthroughs. Chapter 1 introduces deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)-like molecules, photosynthesis, respiration, three strategies (waiting, killing, and parasitic), errors related to our understanding of the nervous system, and electrical and chemical neural communications.

Three chapters cover the first breakthrough: “Steering and the First Bilaterians.” Chapter 2 explains bilateral symmetry, the first brainy creatures called nematodes, and the first vacuum-cleaner robot (Roomba). Chapter 3 categorizes emotions (and their effects) into good or bad moods, and the effects of neuromodulators such as dopamine and serotonin in brain functioning. Chapter 4 discusses Russian Nobel Laureate Ivan Pavlov’s work on conditional reflexes and summarizes the first breakthrough.

“Reinforcing and the First Vertebrates” is the second breakthrough, covered in five chapters. Chapter 5 describes the creatures of the Cambrian period and Edward Thorndike’s experiments on learning abilities in animals via trial and error learning (also referred to as reinforcement learning). Chapter 6 looks at Marvin Minsky’s work on reinforcement learning, Richard Sutton’s temporal difference learning, and the partnership between AI and neuroscience. Chapter 7 relates smell recognition to pattern recognition and explains different sensory problems related to smell, vision, and sound. A very short chapter 8 elaborates on reinforcement learning and its involvement with curiosity. Another short chapter (9) identifies mapping capabilities among vertebrates and summarizes the second breakthrough.

Breakthrough number three, “Simulating and the First Mammals,” is also covered in five chapters. Chapter 10 reviews the Devonian and Permian-Triassic extinction events and the survival instincts of the animals in those periods. Chapter 11 explains perception through generative models and prediction as a behavior in early bilaterians, vertebrates, and mammals. Chapter 12 highlights the experiments done on mice that predicted different choice-making abilities in them. Chapter 13 details AlphaZero, an AI system by Google’s DeepMind, in playing the game of chess and the Chinese board game Go. It describes the brain functions in making predictions and choices based on given circumstances. Chapter 14 defines the physiology of the motor cortex, the system that controls movement in humans as well as in animals, and further summarizes the third breakthrough.

The fourth breakthrough, “Mentalizing and the First Primates,” is presented in four chapters. Chapter 15 conceptualizes politicking and discusses the four common social structures found in mammals: solitary, pair-bonding, harems, and multi-male groups. Chapter 16 discusses new spaces in the brain for additional knowing areas. Chapter 17 formulates imitative learning skills and discusses the AI-enabled self-driving car ALVINN. Chapter 18 talks about identifying future needs as an ability of the brain and includes a summary of the fourth breakthrough.

The fifth and last breakthrough, “Speaking and the First Humans,” comprises four chapters dealing with communicative abilities. Chapter 19 discusses inhibitive communications learning among early bilaterians, vertebrates, primates, and humans. Chapter 20 looks to differentiate and find similarities between language learning and speaking abilities to that of facial expression occurrences. Chapter 21 presents several species of human and their brain capacities and/or capabilities. Chapter 22 discusses large language models (LLMs), specifically GPT-3 and its functionalities, and concludes with a summary of the fifth breakthrough.

The book’s conclusion highlights a supposed sixth breakthrough, which will be helpful to academics, psychologists, and philosophers working in this area. Readers shouldn’t miss the act of imagination described at the start of chapter 14. The book’s focus on metacognition, defined as “the ability to think about thinking,” makes it a worthwhile read. Complementary books on this topic include [1,2,3].

More reviews about this item: Amazon, Goodreads

Reviewer:  Lalit Saxena Review #: CR147784
1) Li, F.-F. The worlds I see: curiosity, exploration, and discovery at the dawn of AI. Flatiron Books, New York, NY, 2023.
2) Hawkins, J. A thousand brains: a new theory of intelligence. Basic Books, New York, NY, 2021.
3) Ariely, D. Misbelief: what makes rational people believe irrational things. Harper, New York, NY, 2023.
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