PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - MARCH 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 7
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BOOK NOTES: Getting Smart

By Wray Herbert

A NEW BOOK EXAMINES HOW KNOWLEDGE OF THE BRAIN'S WORKINGS CAN HELP US BUILD SMART MACHINES.

On Intelligence: How a New Understanding of the Brain Will Lead to the Creation of Truly Intelligent Machines
By Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee; Times Books, 2004

Most readers of this magazine know that AI stands for "artificial intelligence," and that there is a vast academic field, decades old, devoted to researching and developing AI, otherwise known as "smart machines." Well, introduce yourselves to RI. RI stands for "real intelligence," and it is the coinage of Jeff Hawkins, author of a new book, co-authored with New York Times science writer Sandra Blakeslee, called On Intelligence: How a New Understanding of the Brain Will Lead to the Creation of Truly Intelligent Machines.

The title, though cumbersome, is a concise summary of the theory Hawkins offers up for consideration by the scientific community. An electrical engineer by training and a computer architect by reputation, Hawkins is probably best known for inventing the original Palm Pilot and Handspring. But what many don't know is that he also created the Redwood Neuro-science Institute in order to encourage research on fundamental brain functions like memory and cognition. Indeed, Hawkins says that his computer engineering achievements have really been offsprings of his true passion: understanding the basics of how brains work, and why the human brain is more intelligent than those of other species.

On Intelligence offers his grand theory. In a nutshell, Hawkins argues that AI doesn't make sense. The whole enterprise is based on the notion that the way to make a smart machine is to make a fast machine. But machines are already faster than human brains and they still can't compute simple everyday things, like whether to grab your umbrella on your way out if the weather is threatening. Or, to quote Hawkins directly: "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?" For that kind of "real" intelligence, Hawkins says, you need something far more sophisticated than more and more computations of incoming data.

What is needed, Hawkins argues persuasively, is a machine that does what human brains do so well. They tap into memory and use stored knowledge to predict the future. Memory and prediction are the core elements of RI theory, and the neuroscience underlying this theory focuses on the neocortex. Every creature, from a lowly snail to a theoretical physicist, uses recall of past experience to determine how it will behave in the present. Yet humans have such an evolved and flexible neocortex that they can make adjustments in real time, not in evolutionary time, like the snail. At least that's the theory. And, Hawkins is quick to concede, it is a rudimentary theory at this point, still in need of testing.

Indeed, Hawkins's Redwood Neuroscience Institute is the only neuroscience center dedicated to studying the neocortex and RI theory. Others will surely challenge and try to disprove Hawkins's ideas. But after reading On Intelligence, one gets a clear sense that that is what Hawkins would welcome.

Wray Herbert is a freelance writer on culture and society, and is based in Washington, D.C.

 

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THE MECHANICS OF A CAREER - By Thomas K. Grose
A CLICK AWAY - By Barbara Mathias-Riegel
YOU CALL THIS SCHOOL? - By Pierre Home-Douglas
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UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT - Engineers seeking advancement are getting degrees in engineering management. - By Alice Daniel
BOOK NOTES: Getting Smart
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