Max Bennett, "A Brief History of Intelligence: Evolution, Ai, and the Five Breakthroughs That Made Our Brains" (Mariner Books, 2023)


A Brief History of Intelligence: Evolution, Ai, and the Five Breakthroughs That Made Our Brains (Mariner Books, 2023) tells two fascinating stories. One is the evolution of nervous systems. It started 600 million years ago, when the first brains evolved in tiny worms. The other one is humans' quest to create more and more intelligent systems. This story begins in 1951 with the first reinforcement learning algorithm trying to mimic neural networks.

Max Bennett is an AI entrepreneur and neuroscience researcher. His work combines insights from evolutionary neuroscience, comparative psychology, and AI. As each chapter describes how a skill evolved, it also explains whether(!) and how an AI system has managed to implement something similar. A recurring theme is how human brains and neural circuits have influenced AI architecture. The other side of this bi-directional connection is also intriguing. AI has often served as a litmus test, giving a clue how a not well understood neurobiological phenomenon might work, how plausible a hypothesis is.

The organzining principle of this book is a framework of five breakthroughs, which compares evolution to technological innovation. Like a new technology enables several innovative products, a new brain capability enables several new skills. For example, mammals show several new intelligent behaviors compared to their ancestors: vicarious trial and error, episodic memory, and planning. The foundation of all these novelties, is probably the same capability: simulation.

The five breakthroughs are:

  1.  steering in bilaterians
  2. learning from trial and error in vertebrates
  3. simulating in mammals
  4. mentalizing in primates
  5. speaking in humans

    This framework guides the readers through a time travel of 600 million years. We learn about the environment in which these capabilities evolved: Who were the first mammals and why did planning benefit them? We see what contemporary animals can and can't do: Fish aren't as dumb as folklore suggests. And we take a look at AI's baffling achievements and limitations: Why can AI write decent essays but not load a dishwasher?

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    Reka Anna Horvath

    Reka Anna Horvath is a software engineer and neuroscience enthusiast.

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