According to Wikipedia, Ray Kurzweil is a American author, inventor, futurist, and director of engineering at Google. Aside from futurology, he is involved in such fields as optical character recognition (OCR), text-to-speech synthesis, speech recognition technology, and electronic keyboard instruments.
So he is a computer engineer specializing in word recognition technology, with a side interest in bold predictions about future machines. He is not a professional neuroscientist or psychologist or philosopher. Yet here we have a book purporting to reveal—no less—“the secret of human thought.” Kurzweil is going to tell us, in no uncertain terms, “how to create a mind”: that is to say, he has a grand theory of the human mind, in which its secrets will be finally revealed.
These are strong claims indeed, and one looks forward eagerly to learning what this new theory will look like. Perhaps at first one feels a little skeptical that Kurzweil has succeeded where so many have failed, but one tries to keep an open mind—hoping the book will justify the hype so blatantly brandished in its title. After all, Kurzweil has honors from three US presidents (so says Wikipedia) and was the “principal inventor of the first CCD flatbed scanner” and other useful devices, as well as receiving many other entrepreneurial awards. He is clearly a man of many parts—but is ultimate theoretician of the mind one of them?
What is this grand theory? It is set out in chapter 3 of the book, “A Model of the Neocortex: The Pattern Recognition Theory of Mind.” One cannot help noting immediately that the theory echoes Kurzweil’s professional achievements as an inventor of word recognition machines: the “secret of human thought” is pattern recognition, as it is implemented in the hardware of the brain. To create a mind therefore we need to create a machine that recognizes patterns, such as letters and words. Calling this the PRTM (pattern recognition theory of mind), Kurzweil outlines what his theory amounts to by reference to the neural architecture of the neocortex, the wrinkled thin outer layer of the brain.....
....... He does in one place speak of dreaming as a “sequence of patterns” and he might try to say the same about thinking. But this faces obvious objections. First, even if that is true, there is no pattern recognition involved when I dream, or when I think about London and my friends and relatives there. So his “model of the neocortex” does not apply. Second, it is quite unclear what this description is supposed to mean. Why is a dream a sequence of “patterns,” instead of just ideas or images or hallucinations? The notion of “pattern” has lost its moorings in the geometric models of letters and faces: Are we seriously to suppose that dreams and thoughts have geometrical shape? At best the word “pattern” is now being used loosely and metaphorically; there is no theory of dreaming or thinking here. Similarly for Kurzweil’s claim that memories are “sequences of patterns”: What notion of pattern is he working with here? Why is remembering that I have to feed the cat itself some kind of pattern?
What has happened is that he has switched from patterns as stimuli in the external environment to patterns as mental entities, without acknowledging the switch; and it is hardly plausible to suggest that dreams and thoughts are themselves geometric patterns that we introspectively recognize. So what is the point of calling dreams and thoughts “patterns”? The truth is that the PRTM does not generalize beyond its original home of sensory perception—the recognition of external patterns in the environment.