“On Intelligence” by Jeff Hawkins



On Intelligence” fulfills Jeff Hawkins‘ dream to encapsulate a basic theory of intelligence in a straightforward plainly written book. Written with science writer Sandra Blakeslee, “On Intelligence” combines Mr Hawkins’ motivational autobiography, a review of natural and artificial intelligence, and a philosophical discussion delivered in a no-nonsense, unembellished, yet stimulating narrative.

At its core, “On Intelligence” postulates that all higher cognitive functions are built on a single relatively simple algorithm replicated across the neocortex. This hypothetic “basic cortical algorithm” is described as a predictive autoassociative hierarchical network. Left to its own devices, such a neural network should spontaneously generate stable invariant representations of regularities in the environment giving birth to perception, behavior, thoughts, consciousness, and imagination. If we could only mimic Nature and build such a network in silicon, we should be able to make computers that learn, think, and imagine. Mr Hawkins admits that most of these ideas are not original and his contribution is to organize them into a coherent hypothetical framework.

How credible is Mr Hawkins’ hypothesis? How do we know the brain does this? How do we know that such an artificial model would exhibit animal-like intelligence? Mr Hawkins’ answer is: be optimistic — we are way overdue for some kind of a general theory of the brain. In a break from scientific form, Mr Hawkins does not seek out contradictory evidence. The autobiographical sections carry an air of a quixotic struggle against the errors and prejudices of the scientific and corporate establishments of the past and present, who lack the audacity to imagine that a comprehensive theory of intelligence could be within reach. In its more technical sections, the book identifies specific cortical structures responsible for these computations in rather computational than biological terms. No experimental evidence and no working computer models are described or reviewed critically. Instead, the key premises derive from introspection and personal interviews with authorities on the subject, e.g. “I had spoken to several … experts and asked them to explain…” Mr Hawkins mixes experimentally supported findings with speculation and swiftly decides standing controversies without identifying them as such, leaving a casual reader with an exaggerated impression of how much is understood about cognition. In this way, the book often reads rather like marketing material for a specific approach than a thoroughly researched thesis presenting latest scientific findings.

Every neuroscientist strives to intuit a fundamental principle behind the ocean of facts about the nervous system and every computer scientists dreams of creating systems that could develop intelligence. Yet Nature is slow to give up its recipes. By helping envision what the answers could be, “On Intelligence” stands to inspire the budding scientist and engineer with the confidence to probe into the most daunting natural phenomenon that is intelligence. And it is for its enthusiasm and inspiration that “On Intelligence” earns my four stars.


2 Responses to ““On Intelligence” by Jeff Hawkins”

  1. […] 28, 2009 In “On Intelligence”, Jeff Hawkins makes an apt metaphor for the complexity of the brain: The brain is incredibly […]

  2. […] “On Intelligence” by Jeff Hawkins Mr Hawkins’ dream to encapsulate a basic theory of intelligence in a straightforward plainly written book is fulfilled in On Intelligence. Jeff Hawkins Videos – TED Talks Jeff Hawkins is a bit of a legend in mobile computing circles. He’s the founder of Palm, Handspring and invented the first really successful PDA, the Palm Pilot. Jeff also has a major interest in Brain Science. […]

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