Brad Feld

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Books: On Intelligence

Mar 26, 2005
Category Books

There was plenty of buzz last week about the new company – Numenta – that Jeff Hawkins (inventor of Graffiti and the PalmPilot, Visor, and Treo products) and Donna Dubinsky (CEO of Palm and Handspring) have started.  It was coincidental that I was reading Hawkins book – On Intelligence – which describes his theory of intelligence, the working of the brain, and how he thinks it will lead to the creation of truly intelligence machines.

I haven’t spent any time studying neural science, the brain (my biggest effort was probably not very successfully grinding through the Scientific American issue on Better Brains), or any of the contemporaneous efforts at “next generation Artificial Intelligence” (I was at MIT in the 1980’s during the peak of the last wave of AI research and subsequent commercialization attempts – I fondly remember being amazed at Symbolics – they are still around in a new incarnation called Symbolics Technology – Macsyma has been hard to kill off) .

So – I don’t know much about brain research, theories of intelligence, the biology behind it, or much of anything else.  As a result, I thought On Intelligence was superb. I don’t expect that it’s right (nor does Hawkins) – he’s clear that it’s a framework and work in process (as it should be).  I found it extremely accessible, very provocative, and mostly internally consistent (which is important whenever you are trying to learn about something you know very little about – it can be wrong, but at least it hangs together in a way you can understand it.)

The book and theory is based on the work being done at the Redwood Neuroscience Institute, of which Hawkins is the founder and director.  Beyond just doing research, part of RNI’s mission is to “encourage people to enter and pursue this field of research.”  Hawkins is consistent in his message in the epilogue of his book where he says “I am suggesting we now have a new more promising path to follow.  If you are in high school or college and this book makes you want to work on this technology, to build the first truly intelligent machines, to help start an industry, I encourage you to do so.  Make it happen.  One of the tricks of entrepreneurial success is that you must jump head first into a new field before it is one hundred percent clear you can be successful.  Timing is important. If you jump too early, you struggle.  If you wait until the uncertainty lifts, it’s too late.  I strongly believe that now is the time to start designing and building cortical-like memory systems.  This field will be immensely important both scientifically and commercially.  The Intels and Microsofts of a new industry built on hierarchical memories will be started sometime within the next ten years.  It is challenging doing new things, but it is always worth trying.  I hope you will join me, along with others who take up the challenge, to create one of the greatest technologies the world has ever seen.”

Hawkins thoughts and writing are fused with his obvious entrepreneurial energy.  He approaches things as an ultimate pragmatist (unlike so many scientists, his examples and analogies are extremely understandable – very reminicient of Richard Feynman), an outsider (he acknowledges that mainstream brain research has huge problems with many of the things he is saying), and recognizes that any fundamental breakthrough typically requires a paradigm shift in thinking about the specific domain.

If you are an entrepreneur who likes to challenge yourself intellectually with things you know nothing about, you’ll love this book.  If you are a brain researcher or scientist, you’ll probably be frustrated, but it’ll stretch you in good ways.  If you are a brain expert, you’ll probably hate it.  In any case, it’ll be fun to watch what Hawkins, Dubinsky, Numenta, and RMI do next – remember, they’re the ones that brought you the Palm Pilot / Handspring Treo based on the revolutionary notion that humans should learn to write different (e.g. Graffiti), not the ones that brought you the Go Whatever or the Apple Newton who thought that the computer should be able to recognize your handwriting.