Thinking Ahead – Jeff Hawkins’ “On Intelligence”

This first appeared in GSABusiness.

On Intelligence
By Jeff Hawkins
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Times Books (October 3, 2004)
ISBN: 0805074562

Thinking Ahead – Jeff Hawkins’ On Intelligence
Book Review by Phil Yanov

For many entrepreneurs, the passion for their business is fueled by a loftier goal than the wealth garnered from its operations. For Jeff Hawkins, inventor of the Palm Pilot and the handwriting recognition system Graffiti, the goal has been a lofty one indeed. Jeff Hawkins wants to know how the brain works and he has spent twenty years of his life doing the research.

“On Intelligence” from Times Books presents Hawkins’ new unified theory of real intelligence. It is Hawkins’ hope and premise that if we actually can understand how the brain works to create intelligence in human beings then we will be able to take these principles and use them to build computers that think the way we do. He definitely has his work cut out for him.

Trying to understand how the neo cortex works sounds like a difficult task and one that would involve a large number of long words. It does. However, Hawkins largely avoids the problem. He deftly simplifies his model of how the brain works and through the course of the book’s eight chapters makes a potentially difficult topic quite approachable in much the same way Carl Sagan brought astronomy to the masses.

Hawkins opens the book by explaining why artificial intelligence has not lived up to its promise. Twenty years after computerized speech recognition became available it still does not work to our satisfaction. He identifies the major trends in artificial intelligence and neural networks and explains why they have failed to deliver substantial results outside of very highly specialized environments. His explanations are clear and to the point. As Hawkins founded both Palm Computing and Handspring and invented the Treo Smartphone, he knows exactly what technology can and can not do.

Hawkins explains that his theory proposes that the human brain is a pattern recognition machine that breaks complicated topics into smaller chunks of time related events and then compares it to known experiences. He portrays the brain as a series of stored patterns all existing in the neo cortex, a neuron packed organ about the size of a dinner napkin, all crumpled up inside our skulls. His simple analogies to dinner napkins, playing cards, hierarchies and feedback loops explain how we can recognize a song even though we are hearing it in a different key than the first time we heard it, and that we can recognize a friend’s face in a crowd despite changing angles, lighting conditions, apparent size, and distance. Hawkins explains that the human computer instantly recognizes the significant difference between a person standing at the front door with a wrapped birthday gift and another with a crowbar, and that no computer built would even have much of a chance of figuring out that the crowbar was not part of the person. The Real Intelligence that Hawkins seeks is not to be found be amplifying artificial intelligence. They are different approaches entirely.

After the preliminary work of explaining his model, Hawkins does lead the reader through one chapter stuffed with schematics, charts, and jargon. The reading becomes difficult for a few pages as the cortex is divided into layers and their various functions described. The payoff for completing this chapter is a better understanding of how our brains decide to form new memories and how subdivision of information within our cortex makes hopelessly difficult tasks possible. The material might be dense in places, but Hawkins does his best to bring it to the reader in common terms.

Hawkins then concludes the book with brilliant chapters on consciousness, creativity, and the future of intelligence. Without becoming deeply philosophical, he discusses the intelligence of animals, the significant shifts of biological memory systems over millions of years and how design professionals can develop systems that integrate more smoothly with the way our brains work. He finishes with speculation on the future of real intelligence and how it might improve automotive safety, weather prediction, and medical research.

“On Intelligence” seems positioned to become a landmark book in the popularization of the study of human brain as a path to understanding real intelligence. Hawkins opens the book with “I want to build truly intelligent machines” and then gives you an explanation of just how much progress has been made in the field. If Hawkins doesn’t build intelligent machines in his lifetime, then surely a student inspired by his work will.

Search for: On Intelligence, by Jeff Hawkins

About Phil Yanov

Phil Yanov is a Technologist, Columnist and Public Radio Commentator.

He is the founder of Tech After Five as well as the founder and President of the GSA Technology Council and the IT Leadership Council.

His personal technology column appears in Greenville Business Magazine and the Columbia Business Journal.

He co-hosts the Your Day technology shows heard on NPR radio stations across South Carolina and is a frequent contributor to technology stories appearing on radio and television.