Jonathan Cutrell

Thinking Machine

September 22, 2020

My perpetual goal is to build a better thinking machine.

I’ve gone back and forth on this for a long time. What do I want to get better at?

The answer has jumped around a lot over the years.

“I want to learn more unique skills.” “I want to learn more programming languages.” “I want to learn how to be in touch with my emotions.” “I want to learn about history… or philosophy.” “I want to learn algorithms and do a bunch of leetcode.” “I want to learn woodworking.” “I want to learn about nutrition.”

This is a very short list in comparison to what I actually “want” to learn.

But none of these captures fully what I want to consistently invest in.

I want to build a better thinking machine.

A short diversion about thinking

I have this model in my head (I assume it is not novel) of how thinking works.

You start with some kind of shape carved out in your brain-stone by millions of years of evolution, and that shape gets opened up over the course of the first 25 or so years of your life.

As you experience new things, those experiences are like water flowing over that shape. Sometimes the water flows fast, others slow. But it always changes the underlying shape.

And as that shape changes, the flow of the water changes as well. It’s a symbiotic relationship: the flow is changed by the shape, and the shape is changed by the flow.

What’s more - we can observe all of this, and even redirect the water flow. (This doesn’t happen without some difficulty or unexpected results, but nevertheless, we can think about thinking.

I want to build a better thinking machine.

In a meditation Sam Harris published as a part of his Waking Up course, he mentioned the idea that our minds are the only tool we have.

This stuck with me, and I’ve been pondering this quite a bit.

If our minds are the only tool, then what are we doing when we work on our minds? This self-sharpening relationship is interesting on a few dimensions.

The water/shape relationship, self-sharpening - all of this reinforces the idea that any investment we make in our minds as thinking machines will have a compounding effect.

(I’m very motivated to seek compounding effects.)

What exactly makes a good machine?

A few qualities I’m seeking out here:

  • Plasticity - this protects the possibility of continuous improvement. Imagine the erosion of the water just stops. Now, no matter what information or experiences hit your mind, your mind stays the same. This is a point-blank limiting factor.
  • Flexibility - I would rather be able to think well about novel subjects than think perfectly about one.
  • Practicality - I don’t want to get stuck in the loop of perpetual study with no measurable impact based on my personal values.
  • Collaborative perspective - One thing is for certain: we cannot develop complete thinking machines on our own. Our biases may or may not be influenced, but seeking collaborative input will always yeild more balanced results in the long run, assuming a random selection of individuals.
  • Full-body thinking - I am guilty of being too cerebral at times. I’d like to develop thinking as a part of my bodily experience rather than trying to create a supercomputer sitting on my shoulders.

Some things I’m trying

  • Meditation - my goal with meditation is to clearly observe my thoughts. Rather than being caught in the flow of water through the shape of my mind, I’d like to watch that flow as an observer.
  • Diversity of experience - seeking new experiences (both in the physical world, and in the media I consume)
  • Physical labor - reconnecting with the physicality and experience of developing and collaborating with the world around me
  • Revisiting and pushing old skills forward - following well trodden paths and attempting diversions to re-develop skills I had once felt were solidified

Frankly, I don’t know what will work and what won’t. But of all the things I’d like to learn, I believe learning how to think more clearly is an evergreen goal I can get behind.


Written by Jonathan Cutrell, Director of Engineering at PBS and podcast host at Developer Tea. You can follow him on Twitter at @jcutrell.