January 9, 2005
News & Opinion: Jeff Hawkins "On Intelligence"
Six years ago I had an IT class as part of my MBA program. Each student in the class had to pick a topic to cover and present to the class. Since my background was Electrical Engineering, the class itself was pretty boring for me. I was already familiar with most of what was covered, but I searched through the textbook for a topic interesting enough to research. The last chapter in the book was about the future of IT, and had a few blurbs about artificial intelligence. I chose that as my topic and I was hooked. Since that day I have read dozens of books and hundreds of research articles from fields like neuroscience, philosophy of mind, AI, computer science and linguistics. In all that time, I have not come across a framework for explaining intelligence as comprehensive and powerful as the one Jeff Hawkins proposes in "On Intelligence." Hawkins, inventor of the Palm Pilot and founder of several companies, has been thinking about brains for 25 years. I first read about his theory of brain operation in an article several years ago and was not impressed. But in this book he has laid out an extensive, comprehensive, plausible theory for how our brains create intelligence. To sum it up in one sentence, Hawkins believes that our cortex is essentially a hierarchical memory system that continually predicts the future and compares prediction to reality, modifying memories each time the prediction and memory dont match. The surprising thing about this statement is that it is independent of sensory input. There is a common cortical algorithm that operates in the same way no matter where you look in the neocortex. Hawkins believes that the neocortex is layered such that each layer can fire in advance when it recognizes patterns below. Over time, complex input patterns become learned, and thus are simplified and represented by the firing of one neuron at a higher level instead of by the firing of many neurons at the lower level. This is what happens when you learn something new. Learning a foreign language, learning to read music, learning a new skill at work, it is all the same process. Our brain gets better and better at identifying the inputs that occur frequently so that it can conserve energy. Once the lower level patterns are identified with ease, the higher level patterns can emerge and be identified. For example, an introductory accounting student has trouble understanding the balance sheet or income statement by itself. But once those are mastered and understood, the student can move on to understand the relationships among the various financial statements. The brain no longer struggles to understand the statements individually. Eventually, he or she will be able to read and understand the financial health of a company in ways that most people cannot. The brain is so used to the incoming patterns of financial data that it handles them easily and with little effort, allowing the cortex to focus its real work on the more complex relationships that exist. So who should read this book? Everybody. There are certain texts that go down in history because of the impact they have on our worldview. I think On Intelligence will be such a book. The advances in our understanding of the human brain will have implications for any area in which the human mind operates. The results of brain research will change the way we view Art, Business, Science, Politics, and pretty much everything else too. Its an easy read, except for the chapter How the Cortex Works. But even that is worth digging in and digesting. This book is time and money very well spent.