On Intelligence : How a New Understanding of the Brain Will Lead to the Creation of Truly Intelligent Machines
From the inventor of the PalmPilot comes a new and compelling theory of intelligence, brain function, and the future of intelligent machines.
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October 17, 2004
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Excerpt from On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins
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 had a chance to meet customers. I was young and having a good time, although I missed my college sweetheart who had taken a job in Cincinnati.
A few months later, I encountered something that was to change my life's direction. That something was the newly published September issue of Scientific American, which was dedicated entirely to the brain. It rekindled my childhood interest in brains. It was fascinating. From it I learned about the organization, development, and chemistry of the brain, neural mechanisms of vision, movement, and other specializations, and the biological basis for disorders of the mind. It was one of the best Scientific American issues of all time. Several neuroscientists I've spoken to have told me it played a significant role in their career choice, just as it did for me.
The final article, "Thinking About the Brain," was written by Francis Crick, the codiscoverer of the structure of DNA who had by then turned his talents to studying the brain. Crick argued that in spite of a steady accumulation of detailed knowledge about the brain, how the brain worked was still a profound mystery. Scientists usually don't write about what they don't know, but Crick didn't care. He was like the boy pointing to the emperor with no clothes. According to Crick, neuroscience was a lot of data without a theory. His exact words were, "what is conspicuously lacking is a broad framework of ideas." To me this was the British gentleman's way of saying, "We don't have a clue how this thing works." It was true then, and it's still true today.
Crick's words were to me a rallying call. My lifelong desire to understand brains and build intelligent machines was brought to life. Although I was barely out of college, I decided to change careers. I was going to study brains, not only to understand how they worked, but to use that knowledge as a foundation for new technologies, to build intelligent machines. It would take some time to put this plan into action.
In the spring of 1980 I transferred to Intel's Boston office to be reunited with my future wife, who was starting graduate school. I took a position teaching customers and employees how to design microprocessor-based systems. But I had my sights on a different goal: I was trying to figure out how to work on brain theory. The engineer in me realized that once we understood how brains worked, we could build them, and the natural way to build artificial brains was in silicon. I worked for the company that invented the silicon memory chip and the microprocessor; therefore, perhaps I could interest Intel in letting me spend part of my time thinking about intelligence and how we could design brainlike memory chips. I wrote a letter to Intel's chairman, Gordon Moore. The letter can be distilled to the following:
Dear Dr. Moore,
I propose that we start a research group devoted to understanding how the brain works. It can start with one person me and go from there. I am confident we can figure this out. It will be a big business one day.