In a sense this is a straightforward generalization of the scheme for visual perception that we discussed earlier in this chapter. But the point is that with such a setup detailed changes in the input to the first layer of cells only rarely end up having an effect on output from the last layer of cells.
It is not difficult to find systems in which different inputs often yield the same output. In fact, this is the essence of the very general phenomenon of attractors that we discussed in Chapter 6—and it is seen in the vast majority of cellular automata, and in fact in almost any kind of system that follows definite rules.
But what is somewhat special about the setup above is that inputs which yield the same output tend to be ones that might reasonably be considered similar, while inputs that yield different outputs tend to be significantly different.
And thus, for example, a change in a single input cell typically will not have a high probability of affecting the output, while a change in a large fraction of the input cells will.
So quite independent of precisely which features of the original data correspond to which input cells, this basic mechanism provides a simple way to get a representation—and thus a hash code—that will tend to be the same for pieces of data that somehow have enough features that are similar.
So how would such a representation in the end be used? In a scheme like the one above the output cells would presumably be connected to cells that actually perform actions of some kind—perhaps causing muscles to move, or perhaps just providing inputs to further nerve cells.
But so where in all of this would the actual content of our memory reside? Almost certainly at some level it is encoded in the details of connections between nerve cells.
But how then might such details get set up?
There is evidence that permanent changes can be produced in individual nerve cells as a result of the behavior of nerve cells around them. And as data gets received by the brain such changes presumably do occur at least in some cells. But if one looks, say, at nerve cells involved in the early stages of the visual system, then once the brain has matured past some point these never seem to change their properties