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

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From the inventor of the PalmPilot comes a new and compelling theory of intelligence, brain function, and the future of intelligent machines

Jeff Hawkins, the man who created the PalmPilot, Treo smart phone, and other handheld devices, has reshaped our relationship to computers. Now he stands ready to revolutionize both neuroscience and computing in one stroke, with a new understanding of intelligence itself.

Hawkins develops a powerful theory of how the human brain works, explaining why computers are not intelligent and how, based on this new theory, we can finally build intelligent machines.

The brain is not a computer, but a memory system that stores experiences in a way that reflects the true structure of the world, remembering sequences of events and their nested relationships and making predictions based on those memories. It is this memory-prediction system that forms the basis of intelligence, perception, creativity, and even consciousness.

In an engaging style that will captivate audiences from the merely curious to the professional scientist, Hawkins shows how a clear understanding of how the brain works will make it possible for us to build intelligent machines, in silicon, that will exceed our human ability in surprising ways.

Written with acclaimed science writer Sandra Blakeslee, On Intelligence promises to completely transfigure the possibilities of the technology age. It is a landmark book in its scope and clarity.

LanguageEnglish
Release dateApr 1, 2007
ISBN9781429900454
On Intelligence: How a New Understanding of the Brain Will Lead to the Creation of Truly Intelligent Machines
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Author

Jeff Hawkins

Jeff Hawkins, co-author of On Intelligence, is one of the most successful and highly regarded computer architects and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. He founded Palm Computing and Handspring, and created the Redwood Neuroscience Institute to promote research on memory and cognition. Also a member of the scientific board of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories, he lives in northern California.

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Rating: 4.021739130434782 out of 5 stars
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  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    4/5
    This book gives you insights about how the brain works. It helped me to get a deeper understanding on subjects like creativity, managing information, and on taking decisions.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    5/5
    Uno de los libros más excitantes que he leído extremadamente motivador para cualquiera, en especial para los jóvenes y nuevos científicos, este libro debiera ser parte integral en la formación de los aspectos tecnológicos de los colegios.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    5/5
    Very clearly written, Jeff Hawkins is able to explain complex concepts about the brain in an accessible conversational tone. Truly transformed the way I think about brains and intelligence.
  • Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
    3/5
    This book includes many detailed descriptions of the author's hypotheses on how the brain functions, with insufficient diagrams to make it easy to follow.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    5/5
    Very insightful and hard to believe this book was published more than 16 years ago in 2004. It brings a fresh perspective on the current debate about the dangers of AI and how likely we are to make machines that are super-intelligent. It does a great job of demystifying human intelligence and explaining why it has been so hard to replicate in computers. I suspect it will turn out to be quite prescient and one of the more important books on the subject. I was particularly impressed with the author's personal journey vis-a-vis his interest in brains and how he was willing to challenge conventional wisdom and the way the AI industry approached the problem. My only gripe is that after introducing the reader to the problem of invariant representation as one of the greatest scientific mysteries of our time, the author didn't dwell much on the nature of the problem, why it is so difficult and how over the coming years or decades it may be solved.
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    4/5
    Hawkins develops a powerful theory of how the human brain works, explaining why computers are not intelligent and how, based on this new theory, we can finally build intelligent machines.The brain is not a computer, but a memory system that stores experiences in a way that reflects the true structure of the world, remembering sequences of events and their nested relationships and making predictions based on those memories. It is this memory-prediction system that forms the basis of intelligence, perception, creativity, and even consciousness.In an engaging style that will captivate audiences from the merely curious to the professional scientist, Hawkins shows how a clear understanding of how the brain works will make it possible for us to build intelligent machines, in silicon, that will exceed our human ability in surprising ways.
  • Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
    1/5
    This book was like an uncle, the eccentric uncle who your parents don't like to hang out with, and with whom *you* don't like to hang out with, much, who will tell you how smart he is, how everyone else is so dumb, how super intelligent he is, how so very dumb everyone else is, and they're dumb because it's just so *obvious* they're dumb, but then you hear one thing he says and you think, "Hey, that might be an interesting thought..." but then you remember it's your crazy flipping uncle and he starts telling you the same story, but this time by naming all the synonyms he can name for 'discourse,' just a straight list of them, and not for nothing he knows *a lot* of synonyms for the word 'discourse.'Or maybe, let's think of it another way, like it's a song, only the song only repeats itself over and over and over again. The notes are all the same set of three, and they are repeated endlessly. Occasionally different words are sung over the same three notes, but mostly they're the same, usually in the same order.Imagine, because you're not as smart as the author, that the book is like a mighty river at the bottom of a valley that you hold in higher regard than a crummy little stream at the top of a mountain. Now just because, stupid, the river is actually *physically* lower than the stream it doesn't mean that your regard for it is necessarily lower."Can we trust that the world is as it seems? Yes. The world really does exist in an absolute form very close to how we perceive it." I'm just going to toss that out there, not going to back it up, but I said it, so there it is.I think this book could have been interesting (and far, far shorter if he didn't feel the need to make three or four or five or more different comparisons to try and explain how we perceive things), but the author and I just didn't get on pretty early, and I found myself desperate to get to the end, just to get it over with. And I did. Thank goodness.

    1 person found this helpful

  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    4/5
    Except for one excruciatingly difficult chapter on brain structure a great book, full of interesting ideas and an intriguing view of the future.
  • Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
    3/5
    Started off with a great over view of the neocortex. His functional analysis is intriguing but ultimately I believe that his details are not in the best tradition of the science of neurology.
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    4/5
    Not what I expected, but pleasantly so: I thought the book would describe "computing machines", but, instead, it proposes an overarching theory that states that prediction is the primary purpose of the cortex. Theoretical evidence is given by Hawkins and seems to fit quite well with recent discoveries in neuroscience. In any case, he proposes ways to test his hypothesis and underlying support.Finally, he suggest how this theory may lead to "intelligent" machines that can be taught patterns and sequences and then allowed to discover new patterns and predictions. The sensory input from which to discover patterns and make predictions does NOT have to be limited to our 5 "human-senses", but can consist of additional or different senses, such as infrared detection, weather sensor data input, and so forth.Hence, this book can be treasured for both the insights it provides for a model of how the real human brain works, and how this model may lead to new intelligent machines, even if proven to be not completely correct.
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    4/5
    Hawkin's book is very interesting, especially for those interested in figuring out what the mind does when it thinks, and why it seems that the computational model of intelligences falls a bit short. Hawkins's idea is this: intelligence cannot be reduced to computing (as that discounts novel ideas and creativity). It cannot be reduced, either, to intelligent behavior, as one can be intelligent without doing anything but thinking. Hawkins suspects that intelligence is much more about the ability to make predictions - to intake factual information, remember it, and use it in future instances to be able to predict situaitons. As a teacher, I think that Hawkins makes a lot of sense, as his definition jibes with what we test on intelligence tests. We test factual retention (which is the first part of Hawkins theory), the ability to recognize patterns (the ability to recall relevent facts at appropriate times), and the ability to complete patterns (predict using relevant data). Hawkins also talks a lot about how this faculty resides in the very thin neocortex which, coincidentally, we have much more of than other mammals. He does a good job at describing how the neocortex works and, while it is necessarily wattered down, is quite thorough nonetheless. For those interested in figuring out what intelligence may consist of, and who are dissatisfied with current seemingly incomplete attempts, this is a very good book to read.
  • Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
    3/5
    I liked the fairly straightforward description and explanation of the premise - that intelligence comes from a memory-prediction architecture that is hierarchical. However, in trying to speak to a general, mainstream audience, I think the author may have aimed too low . It seemed to me that a lot of the examples were overly simple and tiresome, in some cases. At times, it also felt like it was more of a common-sense persuasive argument than hard-core science. All in all, though, it was a quick read, and it motivated me to look for more detailed accounts elsewhere.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    5/5
    Fairly easy read but still contains some deep ideas about the mind. He argues that the mind is not, as popularly believed, a giant computer, but rather a huge memory system. Specifically an “auto-associative” memory that is able to retrieve complete memories based on only partial memories given as input, much like we can recall entire songs given only the first few notes. This in itself is not a new idea, but the way the author ties it all together is new. He avoids too much detail and neuroscience jargon so it is very accessible to the general science reader. Chapter 6 on how the cortex works is the most difficult section and occupies about a quarter of the book. By difficult I mean it will take some concentration and a fairly close reading in order to not get lost. The authors do a splendid job explaining a complicated topic and I found the book a very enjoyable read.Here is a quote to give you a feeling for the writing: "I realized that if someone had invented the concept of a computer with a graphical user interface and a spreadsheet application, and presented it to me on paper, I would have rejected it as impractical. I would have said it would take forever to do anything. It was a humbling thought because it did work. It was then that I realized my intuitive sense for the speed of the microprocessor and my intuitive sense for the power of hierarchical design were inadequate. There is a lesson here about the neocortex. It isn't made of superfast components and the rules under which it operates are not that complex. However, it does have a hierarchical structure that contains billions of neurons and trillions of synapses. If we find it hard to imagine how such a logically simple but numerically vast memory system can create our consciousness, our languages, our cultures, our art, this book, and our science and technology, I suggest it is because our intuitive sense of the capacity of the cortex and the power of its hierarchical structure is inadequate. The neocortex does work. It isn't magic. We can understand it. And like a computer, ultimately we can build intelligent machines that work on the same principles". (pg. 175)
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    4/5
    This is a clever book written by the founder of Palm Computing, who also happens to have postgraduate training in neuroscience and who funds a nice neuroscience institute in the US that is dedicated to understanding neocortex and instantiating it in silicon. It's co-written by a very good NYT science writer, so you know it's going to be very readable. He tries to take a few fairly simple general principles of the organization of neocortex and to parlay them into a general theory of how this part of the brain produces intelligence. Much of what he says is not as 'revolutionary' as you might believe if you're an outsider to the field, but it is still a book that tells a nice story, and even the specialist will enjoy it and be inspired by it.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    5/5
    eff Hawkins is the man who was the architect of the PalmPilot, the Treo, and invented Graffiti, an alphabet for inputing data to a computer with a stylus. But this book is about his other love, the deciphering of the code that makes the human brain work. There is nothing like a big, important puzzle to get the blood working, and mine was powerfully pulled along . With the human genome project's sequencing of human DNA nearly completed, understanding the brain has got to be the most important scientific undertaking one can think of. Hawkins easily persuades us that there is a burning need for a "top down" model for the brain that can play a role something analogous to the Central Dogma of molecular biology, which guides and organizes research, prioritizing the myriad of possible tasks into something like that required for the logistics of a conquering army's march through an alien land. He also persuaded me that he has some important insights of that model that I found tantalizing, new and exciting. His central model concerns the role of the cortex in producing intelligence. He makes the case for a central dogma he calls "the memory-prediction framework." This idea says that the cortex is a machine for making predictions for temporal sensory patterns based on memories of past patterns. The prediction algorithm carried out in the cortex is the same for all of the senses of vision, touch, hearing, etc., which accounts for, among other things, the basic physiological uniformity of the cortex, and the plasticity of the brain in adapting to such problems as blindness or deafness. He argues that since the "clock" of the brain operates at a tick-rate on the order of 5 milli-seconds, and most of the functions of the brain (e. g. recognizing that a picture of a cat shows a cat) are carried out in less than 100 ticks. From the time that light enters the eye, to the time it takes to signify recognition takes less than a second. A computer would take billions of instruction steps, and even the fastest parallel computer available would not do it in less than millions of steps. So the brain doesn't really "compute" the answer, it retrieves it from memory, which requires far fewer steps than the computation. Sounds good to me. His explication of the memory-prediction framework is clear and accessible even to the uninitiated like me, though I found some of it in the middle pretty heavy going. But this is something like reading Watson and Crick's paper on the structure of DNA. The part about turning the diffraction diagram and other insights into a workable model was a little above my head, but I could still see the importance of the answer, and how it addressed the problem of replication and how it gave clues as to how to "read the genes." I can only grasp part of what Hawkins has done, and I can see that there is still a long way to go. But I can still jump up and down about it!
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    5/5
    I believe this book is a watershed achievement. Hawkins manages to convey in one highly readable book very credible answers to these questions:1) What is intelligence anyway?2) What is unique about the human brain that enables us to be highly intelligent?3) Why has previous research into Artificial Intelligence yielded only minor successes?4) Can we apply what we have learned from neuroscience to make truly intelligent machines?5) Would such machines be able to be "creative" in the same way we are?The book will be most appealing to people who are interested in Cognitive Science, but I expect that many people who want a greater understanding the human mind will also benefit greatly from the book.

Book preview

On Intelligence - Jeff Hawkins

PROLOGUE

This book and my life are animated by two passions.

For twenty-five years I have been passionate about mobile computing. In the high-tech world of Silicon Valley, I am known for starting two companies, Palm Computing and Handspring, and as the architect of many handheld computers and cell phones such as the PalmPilot and the Treo.

But I have a second passion that predates my interest in computers—one I view as more important. I am crazy about brains. I want to understand how the brain works, not just from a philosophical perspective, not just in a general way, but in a detailed nuts and bolts engineering way. My desire is not only to understand what intelligence is and how the brain works, but how to build machines that work the same way. I want to build truly intelligent machines.

The question of intelligence is the last great terrestrial frontier of science. Most big scientific questions involve the very small, the very large, or events that occurred billions of years ago. But everyone has a brain. You are your brain. If you want to understand why you feel the way you do, how you perceive the world, why you make mistakes, how you are able to be creative, why music and art are inspiring, indeed what it is to be human, then you need to understand the brain. In addition, a successful theory of intelligence and brain function will have large societal benefits, and not just in helping us cure brainrelated diseases. We will be able to build genuinely intelligent machines, although they won’t be anything like the robots of popular fiction and computer science fantasy. Rather, intelligent machines will arise from a new set of principles about the nature of intelligence. As such, they will help us accelerate our knowledge of the world, help us explore the universe, and make the world safer. And along the way, a large industry will be created.

Fortunately, we live at a time when the problem of understanding intelligence can be solved. Our generation has access to a mountain of data about the brain, collected over hundreds of years, and the rate at which we are gathering more data is accelerating. The United States alone has thousands of neuroscientists. Yet we have no productive theories about what intelligence is or how the brain works as a whole. Most neurobiologists don’t think much about overall theories of the brain because they’re engrossed in doing experiments to collect more data about the brain’s many subsystems. And although legions of computer programmers have tried to make computers intelligent, they have failed. I believe they will continue to fail as long as they keep ignoring the differences between computers and brains.

What then is intelligence such that brains have it but computers don’t? Why can a six-year-old hop gracefully from rock to rock in a streambed while the most advanced robots of our time are lumbering zombies? Why are three-year-olds already well on their way to mastering language while computers can’t, despite half a century of programmers’ best efforts? Why can you tell a cat from a dog in a fraction of a second while a supercomputer cannot make the distinction at all? These are great mysteries waiting for an answer. We have plenty of clues; what we need now are a few critical insights.

You may be wondering why a computer designer is writing a book about brains. Or put another way, if I love brains why didn’t I make a career in brain science or in artificial intelligence? The answer is I tried to, several times, but I refused to study the problem of intelligence as others have before me. I believe the best way to solve this problem is to use the detailed biology of the brain as a constraint and as a guide, yet think about intelligence as a computational problem—a position somewhere between biology and computer science. Many biologists tend to reject or ignore the idea of thinking of the brain in computational terms, and computer scientists often don’t believe they have anything to learn from biology. Also, the world of science is less accepting of risk than the world of business. In technology businesses, a person who pursues a new idea with a reasoned approach can enhance his or her career regardless of whether the particular idea turns out to be successful. Many successful entrepreneurs achieved success only after earlier failures. But in academia, a couple of years spent pursuing a new idea that does not work out can permanently ruin a young career. So I pursued the two passions in my life simultaneously, believing that success in industry would help me achieve success in understanding the brain. I needed the financial resources to pursue the science I wanted, and I needed to learn how to affect change in the world, how to sell new ideas, all of which I hoped to get from working in Silicon Valley.

In August 2002 I started a research center, the Redwood Neuroscience Institute (RNI), dedicated to brain theory. There are many neuroscience centers in the world, but no others are dedicated to finding an overall theoretical understanding of the neocortex—the part of the human brain responsible for intelligence. That is all we study at RNI. In many ways, RNI is like a start-up company. We are pursuing a dream that some people think is unattainable, but we are lucky to have a great group of people, and our efforts are starting to bear fruit.

The agenda for this book is ambitious. It describes a comprehensive theory of how the brain works. It describes what intelligence is and how your brain creates it. The theory I present is not a completely new one. Many of the individual ideas you are about to read have existed in some form or another before, but not together in a coherent fashion. This should be expected. It is said that new ideas are often old ideas repackaged and reinterpreted. That certainly applies to the theory proposed here, but packaging and interpretation can make a world of difference, the difference between a mass of details and a satisfying theory. I hope it strikes you the way it does many people. A typical reaction I hear is, It makes sense. I wouldn’t have thought of intelligence this way, but now that you describe it to me I can see how it all fits together. With this knowledge most people start to see themselves a little differently. You start to observe your own behavior saying, I understand what just happened in my head. Hopefully when you have finished this book, you will have new insight into why you think what you think and why you behave the way you behave. I also hope that some readers will be inspired to focus their careers on building intelligent machines based on the principles outlined in these pages.

I often refer to this theory and my approach to studying intelligence as real intelligence to distinguish it from artificial intelligence. AI scientists tried to program computers to act like humans without first answering what intelligence is and what it means to understand. They left out the most important part of building intelligent machines, the intelligence! Real intelligence makes the point that before we attempt to build intelligent machines, we have to first understand how the brain thinks, and there is nothing artificial about that. Only then can we ask how we can build intelligent machines.

The book starts with some background on why previous attempts at understanding intelligence and building intelligent machines have failed. I then introduce and develop the core idea of the theory, what I call the memory-prediction framework. In chapter 6 I detail how the physical brain implements the memory-prediction model—in other words, how the brain actually works. I then discuss social and other implications of the theory, which for many readers might be the most thoughtprovoking section. The book ends with a discussion of intelligent machines—how we can build them and what the future will be like. I hope you find it fascinating. Here are some of the questions we will cover along the way:

Can computers be intelligent?

For decades, scientists in the field of artificial intelligence have claimed that computers will be intelligent when they are powerful enough. I don’t think so, and I will explain why. Brains and computers do fundamentally different things.

Weren’t neural networks supposed to lead to intelligent machines?

Of course the brain is made from a network of neurons, but without first understanding what the brain does, simple neural networks will be no more successful at creating intelligent machines than computer programs have been.

Why has it been so hard to figure out how the brain works?

Most scientists say that because the brain is so complicated, it will take a very long time for us to understand it. I disagree. Complexity is a symptom of confusion, not a cause. Instead, I argue we have a few intuitive but incorrect assumptions that mislead us. The biggest mistake is the belief that intelligence is defined by intelligent behavior.

What is intelligence if it isn’t defined by behavior?

The brain uses vast amounts of memory to create a model of the world. Everything you know and have learned is stored in this model. The brain uses this memory-based model to make continuous predictions of future events. It is the ability to make predictions about the future that is the crux of intelligence. I will describe the brain’s predictive ability in depth; it is the core idea in the book.

How does the brain work?

The seat of intelligence is the neocortex. Even though it has a great number of abilities and powerful flexibility, the neocortex is surprisingly regular in its structural details. The different parts of the neocortex, whether they are responsible for vision, hearing, touch, or language, all work on the same principles. The key to understanding the neocortex is understanding these common principles and, in particular, its hierarchical structure. We will examine the neocortex in sufficient detail to show how its structure captures the structure of the world. This discussion will be the most technical part of the book, but interested nonscientist readers should be able to understand it.

What are the implications of this theory?

This theory of the brain can help explain many things, such as how we are creative, why we feel conscious, why we exhibit prejudice, how we learn, and why old dogs have trouble learning new tricks. I will discuss a number of these topics. Overall, this theory gives us insight into who we are and why we do what we do.

Can we build intelligent machines and what will they do?

Yes. We can and we will. Over the next few decades, I see the capabilities of such machines evolving rapidly and in interesting directions. Some people fear that intelligent machines could be dangerous to humanity, but I argue strongly against this idea. We are not going to be overrun by robots. It will be far easier to build machines that outstrip our abilities in high-level thought such as physics and mathematics than to build anything like the walking, talking robots we see in popular fiction. I will explore the incredible directions in which this technology is likely to go.

My goal is to explain this new theory of intelligence and how the brain works in a way that anybody will be able to understand. A good theory should be easy to comprehend, not obscured in jargon or convoluted argument. I’ll start with a basic framework and then add details as we go. Some will be reasoning just on logical grounds; some will involve particular aspects of brain circuitry. Some of the details of what I propose are certain to be wrong, which is always the case in any area of science. A fully mature theory will take years to develop, but that doesn’t diminish the power of the core idea.

When I first became interested in brains many years ago, I went to my local library to look for a good book that would explain how brains worked. As a teenager I had become accustomed to being able to find well-written books that explained almost any topic of interest. There were books on relativity theory, black holes, magic, and mathematics—whatever I was fascinated with at the moment. Yet my search for a satisfying brain book turned up empty. I came to realize that no one had any idea how the brain actually worked. There weren’t even any bad or unproven theories; there simply were none. This was unusual. For example, at that time no one knew how the dinosaurs had died, but there were plenty of theories, all of which you could read about. There was nothing like this for brains. At first I had trouble believing it. It bothered me that we didn’t know how this critical organ worked. While studying what we did know about brains, I came to believe that there must be a straightforward explanation. The brain wasn’t magic, and it didn’t seem to me that the answers would even be that complex. The mathematician Paul Erdös believed that the simplest mathematical proofs already exist in some ethereal book and a mathematician’s job was to find them, to read the book. In the same way, I felt that the explanation of intelligence was out there. I could taste it. I wanted to read the book.

For the past twenty-five years, I have had a vision of that small, straightforward book on the brain. It was like a carrot keeping me motivated during those years. This vision has shaped the book you are holding in your hands right now. I have never liked complexity, in either science or technology. You can see that reflected in the products I have designed, which are often noted for their ease of use. The most powerful things are simple. Thus this book proposes a simple and straightforward theory of intelligence. I hope you enjoy it.

1

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

When I graduated from Cornell in June 1979 with a degree in electrical engineering, I didn’t have any major plans for my life. I started work as an engineer at the new Intel campus in Portland, Oregon. The microcomputer industry was just starting, and Intel was at the heart of it. My job was to analyze and fix problems found by other engineers working in the field with our main product, single board computers. (Putting an entire computer on a single circuit board had only recently been made possible by Intel’s invention of the microprocessor.) I published a newsletter, got to do some traveling, and ha