Redefining Smart


How a New Understanding of the Brain

Will Lead to the Creation of

Truly Intelligent Machines

By Jeff Hawkins with Sandra Blakeslee

Times Books -- 261pp -- $25

Conventional wisdom is a red flag to Jeff "Trip" Hawkins: By defying it, he has achieved spectacular success. As the founder of two groundbreaking technology companies, Palm and Handspring, he virtually created the era of hand-held computers with the launch of the first Palm Pilot in 1996. The wealth he accumulated as a result -- over $100 million -- allowed him to follow a similar iconoclastic approach in tackling his greatest passion: the study of the brain.

The result is On Intelligence: How a New Understanding of the Brain Will Lead to the Creation of Truly Intelligent Machines, written with New York Times science writer Sandra Blakeslee. The book is a manifesto for a theory based on an elegantly simple premise: that intelligence is rooted in the brain's ability to access memories rather than in its ability to process new data.

Hawkins is sure to ruffle feathers in the neuroscience and artificial-intelligence fields, given that he dismisses years of research in both camps. But he says he welcomes debate -- and recognizes that he could well end up being proved wrong. Even if debunked, the book serves a valuable purpose by encouraging new ways of thinking about intelligence and efforts to build intelligent computers.

Hawkins complains that thinking machines do not exist because scientists have been sidetracked. Too many subscribe to the widespread view that the brain is essentially a powerful computer, constantly processing and integrating incoming data. Many computer experts believe that thinking machines will arrive once there are processors as powerful and as integrated as human neurons. There is a problem with this brain-as-computer analogy, however: Computers are already faster than brains. A neuron can manage 200 operations per second; a modern computer can race through 1 billion per second.

Processing speed doesn't matter in the brain, says Hawkins, because the basis of thought is not data manipulation but memory retention and prediction. The brain, he says, accesses previous experiences, compares them with existing circumstances, and predicts what is most likely to happen next. When a ball is thrown, for example, we know from experience where it is most likely to land and move our hands to that spot. It's a simple action, but it has proved nearly impossible to build a robot smart enough to perform it. "The brain doesn't compute the answers to problems," he says. "It retrieves the answer from memory." Intelligence, posits Hawkins, is essentially the capacity to remember and then predict patterns in the world.

This so-called prediction model of intelligence has been hinted at by neuroscientists, and Hawkins includes a bibliography crediting his predecessors. But, he insists, these disparate bits and pieces have never been placed into a coherent theory. "This," he says sweepingly, "is the goal of this book."

Hawkins' confidence does not spring from recent dabbling. His interest in neuroscience was first sparked in 1979, a few months after he graduated from Cornell University with a degree in electrical engineering. The September issue of Scientific American that year was devoted to the brain and included a highly influential article by Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. Crick wrote that the study of the brain "is conspicuously lacking a broad framework of ideas," words that inspired Hawkins. "My lifelong desire to understand brains and build intelligent machines was brought to life."

Hawkins spends much of On Intelligence explaining, in highly readable fashion, how the brain works. And unlike many much drier books on the subject, the author leavens the neuroscience with his own quirky professional history. Sometimes it's too quirky -- the book has a certain breezy, Hawkins-centric style that can be off-putting. But he seems quite serious in his goal of inspiring others to try some new thinking about intelligence. So serious, in fact, that two years ago he founded the Redwood Neuroscience Institute to promote research on memory and cognition. Perhaps a clue to his next company?

Corrections and Clarifications The review of On Intelligence: How a New Understanding of the Brain Will Lead to the Creation of Truly Intelligent Machines ("Redefining smart," Books, Nov. 8) confused the book's author, Jeff Hawkins, founder of Palm and Handspring, with Trip Hawkins, game developer and co-founder of Electronic Arts and founder of 3DO.

By Catherine Arnst

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