Jeff Hawkins, the chief technology officer of Palm, was the founder of Palm Computing, where he invented the PalmPilot, and also the founder of HandSpring, where he invented the Treo. But Palm and creating mobile devices are only a part-time job for Hawkins. His true passion is neuroscience. Now, after many years of research and meditation, he has proposed an all-encompassing theory of the mammalian neocortex. “Hierarchical Temporal Memory” (HTM) claims to explain how our brains discover, infer, and predict patterns in the phenomenal world. If Hawkins is right, he has succeeded where professional neuroscientists have failed. This year, he founded the company Numenta, which hopes to develop technology based on his theory. I talked to him at Technology Review’s Emerging Technologies Conference at MIT.
Jason Pontin: How unconventional is this new model of yours, “Hierarchical Temporal Memory.” If I asked a brain scientist, what would they say?
Jeff Hawkins: Some would say it’s important stuff. There are very famous neuroscientists who read a book I wrote last year, called On Intelligence, and who wrote some complimentary things. But, to be candid, there are also people who don’t feel that way. They don’t say I don’t know neuroscience. What they object to is the audacity of someone saying he can solve such a big problem as a global theory of the brain. They say: “It’s not that simple.” Many neuroscientists don’t believe that the neocortex works on a common algorithm. They don’t know what it works on, but they have a problem believing that vision is the same thing as hearing.
JP: It does seem wildly improbable. You are proposing that the neocortex is a “belief propagation network” – a kind of machine that generates more or less accurate ideas about the world? How could such a thing evolve?
JH: It’s not that difficult. Nothing in nature just springs into being. The neocortex evolved from structures that existed before. A reptile has a sophisticated brain. The neocortex added value to that brain. It allowed early mammals to see just a little bit into the future. The mammal could say, “I recognize this spot. I know there’s food just around the corner.” And it was so successful, so quickly, that the neocortex developed very fast. The brain just kept on adding circuits. But why is the neocortex a belief propagation network? I don’t know! It just is.