Monday, February 19, 2007

Jeff Hawkins hacks the human brain - February 1, 2007

Jeff Hawkins hacks the human brain - February 1, 2007

The creator of the PalmPilot and the Treo isn't just making another gadget. He's attempting to fuse silicon and gray matter to produce the ultimate intelligent machine.
Business 2.0 Magazine
Erick Schonfeld, Business 2.0 Magazine editor-at-large
February 7 2007: 6:15 PM EST

(Business 2.0) -- Jeff Hawkins was just another junior engineer at Intel in 1979 when he stumbled across an issue of Scientific American magazine that would illuminate a path to what would become his life's work.

It had nothing to do with the two great breakthroughs - the PalmPilot and the Treo - for which Hawkins would later become celebrated as one of the great technological and design geniuses of recent times. The issue was devoted to the human brain, and it featured an essay by DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick bemoaning the lack of a grand theory explaining how the roughly 3 pounds of gelatinous tissue each of us carries around in our skulls could possibly do all the fantastically complex tasks it does.
Jeff Hawkins wants to create the world's first truly intelligent computer.
Dubinsky, Hawkins's longtime business partner, runs operations so he can focus on brainstorming.
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Hawkins read it, put the magazine down, and thought to himself, "I have to work on this." Then and there, he set a goal of not just devising such a theory but using it to build a machine that, simply put, can think like a human.

People thought he was nuts. He tried to enroll in doctoral programs at MIT, then as now a hotbed of artificial intelligence; they wouldn't take him. He got into a biophysics doctoral program at the University of California at Berkeley but gave up after he was told he couldn't work on his brain-meets-machine interests because no one on the faculty would sponsor that kind of research.

Hawkins drifted back to the computer industry, but the brain obsession never waned. "In 1986, I laid out a plan, and it included making enough money to do what I wanted to do," Hawkins recalls. With the PalmPilot, first introduced in 1996, and the Treo, unveiled in 2001, Hawkins went about making his money.

Yet even as he was perfecting his groundbreaking inventions and trying to help manage the roller-coaster corporate fortunes of his companies, Hawkins quietly began puzzling out an overarching theory of how the brain works. Once in a while, he would pop up at some conference and hint that he was onto something epic - "the biggest idea I've ever had," as he once put it - but coyly refuse to give many details. There were whispers in Silicon Valley that Hawkins's project, whatever it was, was at best a distraction and quite possibly a technological white whale.

Now Hawkins is finally ready to open up about what he's been chasing. And what he says makes clear that his quest may well lead to a tremendous technical advance with far-ranging implications. Hawkins believes that his latest startup, called Numenta, is on its way to creating the first truly intelligent computer - a thinking machine that, in essence, learns the same way the human brain does.
Video: "We're not building humans," says Hawkins

Hawkins, now 49, founded Numenta in 2005 and brought in longtime business partner and Palm (Charts) veteran Donna Dubinsky as CEO. Numenta, Hawkins stresses, has nothing to do with the field known as artificial intelligence. What he has in mind is far more supple and elegant.

Rather than being inspired by biology, AI uses brute computing power and logic to make computers seem intelligent through their behavior. When IBM's (Charts) Deep Blue finally beat chess grand master Gary Kasparov a decade ago, it wasn't because it was smarter than he was. It was just faster.

Even today, computers don't have intuition. They have trouble recognizing images, understanding language, and dealing with ambiguous information. Humans have no trouble doing those things. We are intelligent, and computers are not.

Numenta's approach is radically different. Computers running Numenta software will not be programmed like regular computers. Rather, algorithms that Numenta has come up with allow machines to learn from observation, just as a child learns by observing the world around her.

Numenta is developing a new computer memory system that it says can remember the patterns of the world presented to it and use them, the way a human does, to make analogies and draw conclusions. If it works as Hawkins expects, the applications and business opportunities will be stunning. They could range from the mundane - helping radiologists or airport security officers to read X-ray images, predicting machine failures in factories, improving manufacturing yields at chip plants - to the mind-boggling: predicting tornadoes and stock prices, making smart cars, unraveling the mysteries of the cosmos. "I know this has to work because this is how the brain does it," Hawkins says.

Even with his track record, it's tempting to dismiss Hawkins's enthusiasm as overheated. "No one yet knows how human brains work," cautions Marvin Minsky, a venerated researcher who co-founded MIT's AI lab in 1959.

Nonetheless, some very impressive people have bought in. Bill Atkinson, one of the software engineers who designed the original user interface for the Mac computer, declares, "What Numenta is doing is more fundamentally important to society than the personal computer and the rise of the Internet." Atkinson pulled himself out of semiretirement to become one of the first outside developers of Numenta software.

What a fascinating article! A must Read!

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