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In some ways, Hawkins and the Pilot are a typical Silicon Valley story-years of hardscrabble technical work followed by a sudden leap into the financial stratosphere. Indeed, Hawkins soon did what successful computer pioneers often do: he left Palm in 1998 to create another new company. The secretive enterprise, called Handspring, has said only that it plans next year to introduce new hardware products based on Pilot software.

In other ways, though, Hawkins’ story is different. Soon after graduating from Cornell’s engineering school in 1982, he landed at Grid Systems, one of the first companies to make laptop computers. But all the while he was falling under the spell of another, wholly different field: neuroscience. His fascination grew so intense that in 1985 he abruptly left Grid and enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley as a graduate student in the field. Two years later, he returned to Grid with equal abruptness-but carried with him some ideas from neuroscience that he thought could have a big impact in the computer world. Indeed, the PalmPilot, which recognizes patterns written by a pen or stylus, is a direct spinoff from Hawkins’ work in theoretical neuroscience. Grid’s corporate parent, Tandy, became one of the original investors in Palm, which is now owned by 3Com.

Charles C. Mann, a frequent contributor to TR, started his interview with Hawkins by asking why he quit graduate school.
HAWKINS: I hated academia. I just couldn’t take the culture. I would make appointments with professors and they wouldn’t show up-and wouldn’t even apologize. So I went back into business.

TR: What triggered your decision?
HAWKINS: I wrote a PhD thesis proposal to the chairman of the graduate group in neurobiology. He said, “This is great. But there’s nobody at Berkeley who is doing this work, and you have to work for a professor, so you can’t do it.” He recommended spending four years getting my doctorate in neurobiology, doing research in a related but different area. And then maybe as a postdoc, I could work on what I wanted to. But I had left my job to pursue specific ideas I had about intelligence and neurobiology, not to pursue someone else’s research.

TR: Why didn’t you study this when you were young, and it would have been OK to be a grad student?
HAWKINS: I grew up in a family of engineers. My father is an engineer, my brothers are engineers. I was a happy-go-lucky kid who just went with the flow. In my family, that meant becoming an engineer.

TR: It doesn’t sound like your heart was in computers. But you still went back to them after quitting Berkeley.
HAWKINS: I asked myself what I should do with my understanding of neurobiology and intelligence. I decided that I would go back to work and hopefully achieve some wealth and notoriety from my computer work. I would then use those resources to promote my ideas about neural function in a scientific and popular fashion. I created Palm Computing and Handspring primarily so that in the not-too-distant future I will be in a position to develop and promote my ideas about intelligence and how certain parts of the brain work.

TR: So you’re not at Handspring to be in business?
HAWKINS: I love handheld computers and I love building businesses, but those are not the main reasons I do what I do. I plan to use the money that I am making to fund research on the human brain.

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Tagged: Computing, Biomedicine

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