Jeff Hawkins Is Finally Ready to Explain His Brain Research

Jeff Hawkins of Numenta says scientists must explain human intelligence before they can build artificial intelligence. Credit: Anastasiia Sapon for The New York Times

Here is an excerpt from an article by Jeff Hawkins for The New York Times. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain  subscription information, please click here.

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REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — In the global race to build artificial intelligence, it was a missed opportunity.

Jeff Hawkins, a Silicon Valley veteran who spent the last decade exploring the mysteries of the human brain, arranged a meeting with DeepMind, the world’s leading A.I. lab.

Scientists at DeepMind, which is owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, want to build machines that can do anything the brain can do. Mr. Hawkins runs a little company with one goal: figure out how the brain works and then reverse engineer it.

The meeting, set for April at DeepMind’s offices in London, never happened. DeepMind employs hundreds of A.I. researchers along with a team of seasoned neuroscientists. But when Mr. Hawkins chatted with Demis Hassabis, one of the founders of DeepMind, before his visit, they agreed that almost no one at the London lab would understand his work.

Mr. Hawkins says that before the world can build artificial intelligence, it must explain human intelligence so it can create machines that genuinely work like the brain. “You do not have to emulate the entire brain,” he said. “But you do have to understand how the brain works and emulate the important parts.”

At his company, called Numenta, that is what he hopes to do. Mr. Hawkins, 61, began his career as an engineer, created two classic mobile computer companies, Palm and Handspring, and taught himself neuroscience along the way.

Now, after more than a decade of quiet work at Numenta, he thinks he and a handful of researchers working with him are well on their way to cracking the problem.On Monday, at a conference in the Netherlands, he is expected to unveil their latest research, which he says explains the inner workings of cortical columns, a basic building block of brain function.

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Jeff Hawkins is a scientist whose life-long interest in neuroscience led to the creation of Numenta with Donna Dubinsky and its focus on neocortical theory. His research focuses on how the cortex learns predictive models of the world through sensation and movement. In 2002, he founded the Redwood Neuroscience Institute, where he served as Director for three years. The institute is currently located at U.C. Berkeley. Previously, he co-founded two companies, Palm and Handspring, where he designed products such as the PalmPilot and Treo smartphone. In 2004 he wrote On Intelligence, a book about cortical theory.

Hawkins earned his B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Cornell University in 1979. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2003.

I highly recommend On Intelligence: How a New Understanding of the Brain Will Lead to the Creation of Truly Intelligent Machines.

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