On Intelligence

Front Cover
Macmillan, Apr 1, 2007 - Computers - 272 pages
30 Reviews

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.


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I have read many books regarding the question of what is human consciousness and how do our minds work. This book is one of the most comprehensive and interesting. Jeff thinks that our intelligence arises from being able to link our consciousness with previously stored memories and so be able to make predictions about the world. This idea makes a certain amount of sense; however, he has no idea, and nobody else does either, yet, how this happens. In fact, no one has been able to figure out how consciousness is created yet. Can an artificial intelligence be intelligent without being conscious? I should think that the answer is, yes, to a certain extent. Nevertheless, even if the software gave the appearance of consciousness, it would not really be conscious and thus, I think, its capacity for intelligence would be limited. Jeff's book is basically a call-out to really smart people everywhere to build an intelligent machine using his ideas. That's fine but, personally, I don't think that we will build an intelligent machine using just algorithms. I think we need to find out more about the physiology of the human brain and how it works. Then, just like in Star Trek, the intelligence will actually be created using human or some other creature's neurons. If we can figure out what the genetic program is for growing a brain, what is to stop us from growing whatever kind of brain we like? Anyway, if you don't know much about the research into intelligence, then this book would be a good starting point for you. 

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This theory completely encompasses the variety within the human mind. He offers us a framework that allows for the diversity of the way we think of ourselves. I believe if we are open enough to see the merit the Jeff Hawkins work, we will understand ourselves and others much more.
Having said that, he is the first to admit that there are undoubtedly errors within the theory, and I occasionally found myself thinking, "no, there's more to it than that". but as an overall theory it is spot on. He has come from good background texts, some of which are opposed to the idea of artificial intelligence, but the fact that he agrees with some of these contradictory texts just reinforces his theories and he brings together a number of viewpoints to provide a new coherent testable hypothesis.
Artificial Intelligence is on it's way, if this work is ignored it will only be a behavioural intelligence that lacks understanding but performs intelligent behaviour. With this work I think we will see machines that understand the nature of things the same way as our brain understands the nature of things and hopefully can be put to good use and in an ethical way.



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Page 6 - 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.

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About the author (2007)

Jeff Hawkins 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.

Sandra Blakeslee has been writing about science and medicine for The New York Times for more than thirty years and is the co-author of Phantoms in the Brain by V. S. Ramachandran and of Judith Wallerstein's bestselling books on psychology and marriage. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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