by Chris Furmanski
Even though we find ourselves at the start of the 21st century, computers that can make decisions with breadth and creativity that humans do are still the subject of science fiction rather than the reality of modern science. In On Intelligence, a recently released book from the founder of Palm Computing, Jeff Hawkins lays out an impressive blueprint for making intelligent machines a reality.
With resume bullets like inventor of the PalmPilot and CTO of PalmOne, a popular-science book about the future of computing certainly seems like an obvious choice for Hawkins. But as soon as you open up the sharp, electric-blue dust-cover, youll realize On Intelligence was probably the last thing youd expect from a Silicon-Valley techie. Missing are detailed technology roadmaps and ethereal speculations about fantastical improbable futures. Instead, On Intelligence adeptly intertwines lay-English summaries of decades of research from neurophysiology, computer science, cognitive psychology, and even includes some well-placed philosophical sidebars that mesh into an approachable and well-written narrative addressing the plausible future of computing.
In a nutshell, On Intelligence is Hawkins popular-science proposal for building intelligent machines. The basic premises go something like this: (1) to build intelligent machines, we must understand human intelligence; and (2) to understand human intelligence, we must understand how the brain works.
From these intuitive assumptions, On Intelligence launches into an in-depth description of brain function, physiology, and cognitive psychology, which ultimately provides quite an education. Hawkins doesnt shy away from the daunting task of defining intelligence, imagination, consciousness, perception, and reality using a single general theory. Dare I say, that is not an easy thing to do. Now I wont spoil Hawkins broad-brush-stroked Memory-Prediction Framework, which is the core of the book, but his theory is an interesting, almost Ockhams-Razor synthesis which certainly fits nicely in the pursuit of next-generation intelligent machines.
Hawkins concludes the book up with a brief overview of how his theoretical framework could be applied to a range of intelligent machines in the near future. Thankfully, Hawkins future is not deluded with fantastic visions of Schwarzenegger-esque Terminators; instead, it intelligently concentrates on the numerous pragmatic applications (e.g., smart cars or machines that think about theoretical physics) that are realizable in the next 10 or so years. I was a little surprised to find that only the last chapter of the book was been dedicated to Hawkins application of his theory. It felt a little like the end of Tarantinos Kill Bill Vol 1; boom, its over, and the audience wants more. Hawkins probably could have gotten away with making all of the same arguments just as effectively without quite so much emphasis on human cortical physiology.
In the end, if you have a basic science or technical background and are interested in an explanation of how the human brain works, then On Intelligence is certainly for you. And even if you dont know your cerebellum from your cerebral cortex, dont be intimidated; one the books strong suits is the clarity of its writing, and Hawkins on-going use of good metaphors to simplify otherwise complex theories is fantastic.
And dont think On Intelligence is just a great neurophysiology lesson. Hawkins mixes in well-timed (auto)biographical material (the book is co-written by science writer Sandra Blakeslee) to make it readable by readers with a wide range of interests and backgrounds. In retrospect, I think it was the biographical snippets of how Hawkins quest to understand the human brain molded his entrepreneurial successes that I found most interesting. For example, On Intelligence give us glimpses of Hawkins invention of Graffiti (Palms writing language) during his graduate research at Berkeley, and he shares some of his pursuits of artificial intelligence while at Intel working for the illustrious Gordon Moore. And as more of these historical vignettes come to light, Hawkins convinces us that he was not just a successful technologist, but is also someone that holds a deep-seeded, life-long passion for neuroscience--- so maybe On Intelligences heavy focus on brain physiology starts to seem less out of place.
Speaking personally, having spent almost 15 years in the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience, as well as having the opportunity to work on bleeding-edge artificial intelligence, I have to say Hawkins philosophy and general approach are right on the mark. That said, veterans of many of these multidisciplinary fields might find Hawkins theory not quite as ground breaking as advertised--- though the list of testable predictions in the appendix made the empiricist in me smile.
To make sure I wasnt letting my closeness to field blind my assessment of the book, I polled a few of my friends and colleagues that dont share my affinity for cognitively-inspired computing. As I expected, the general consensus was very positive and everyone I talked to would recommend On Intelligence to their friends. One psychologist I know remarked that Hawkins too often paints the world with generalities and falls into portraying the progress of psychology as more bleak than it really is. An executive I know thought On Intelligence has probably thrust Hawkins to forefront of the artificial intelligence community in the popular presss eyes-- if CNN is going to do a story on the super intelligent computers, they probably call Hawkins first. A marketing acquaintance I know would have liked to see more illustrations in the context of the physiology descriptions, but all and all, everyone that it was thumbs up.
So, on one hand, Hawkins does a fantastic job of explaining how the human brain works in a way that is clear, well organized, and not jargon laden. The real question is, will the general public find On Intelligence engaging cover to cover? Maybe more to the point, will popular-science readers be scared away by Hawkins rather lengthy neurophysiology lesson when they were probably expecting something completely different from the inventor of the original PalmPilot?
It may just be that On Intelligences is a betweener --- it may go into too much detail about neurophysiology for the average reader and yet may still lack sufficient detail to be awe-inspiring for experts in the field. In the grand scheme of popular-science, On Intelligence may not have the controversial impact of Hernstein and Murrays The Bell Curve, and probably wont have the mass appeal of Sacks The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
But as the once disparate fields of computer science and cognitive neuroscience become more aligned, On Intelligence could eventually replace Minskys The Society of Mind as the contemporary bible of modern artificial intelligence. In the final analysis, Hawkins On Intelligence is a clearly written book that would certainly be a worthy companion for science-savvy readers looking to learn about the human brain and the future intelligent machines. Enjoy!
October 18, 2004
At last week's BIO Emerging Company Investor Forum in San Francisco I found out that more than one million people across a wide variety of neurological disorders suffer from episodes of uncontrollable laughing and/or crying called the pseudobulbar affect (also known as emotional lability).
It is estimated that 50% of ALS patients, 10% of MS patients, 15% of Alzheimer's patients, and 11% of patients one year after having a stroke suffer from this emotional disorder.
Avanir Pharmaceuticals' CEO Gerald Yakatan shared the clinical trial progress they are making on their targeted emoticeutical, Neurodex, to treat this disorder.
Currently in phase III trials, Neurodex is an excellent example of how our increased understanding of the brain is making it possible to treat specific aspects of mental disorders that cut across different diseases. It also highlights a growing trend in treating mental illness with multiple drugs (see: polypharmacy). For example, an Alzheimer's patient in 2010 will likely be prescribed a "drug cocktail" that includes an emoticeutical like Neurodex, a cogniceutical from Saegis Pharmaceuticals and a sensoceutical to treat age-related sensory decline like hearing loss.
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October 12, 2004
The role of organized philanthropy in mental health in the United States can be traced to the early 1900s when the Rockefeller Foundation and the Milbank Memorial Fund helped establish the National Committee for Mental Hygiene in 1909. Several decades later in 1942, the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation used extensive connections in Congress to inspire the legislation that authorized establishment of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
According to a study published in Health Affairs last year, foundation funding for mental health grew in the 1990s, but the rate of growth was far below that for total foundation giving or giving for health. Grants for mental health and substance abuse increased from $108 million in 1991 to $218 million in 2000. During this period the leading funders in mental health included: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, who from 19962000 gave $41.3 million in mental health grants; Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), Annie E. Casey Foundation, Theodore and Vada Stanley Foundation, and Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation.
The leading recipients of mental health grants included research institutions such as UCLA, Baylor College of Medicine, and the Kennedy Krieger Institute (affiliated with the Johns Hopkins University). Other leading recipients were organizations that both fund research and advocate for increased research funding for different types of brain disorders and mental illnesses (such as the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, the Alzheimers Disease and Related Disorders Association, and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill Research Institute).
While the 2003 Health Affairs article was asking an important question, I don't think their analysis was complete or up-to-date. The following is a short list of recent donations made by foundations to accelerate brain research: $25m for UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute along with $5m for Schizophrenia research; $350m for MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research; $100m for Paul Allen's Brain Atlas.
These amounts begin to show that foundations are, in fact, pouring money into mental health. Even so, the amount of money is still a drop in the bucket when compared to the size of the growing global mental health epidemic.
For the past three years I have been working full time on a project that will dramatically accelerate the flow of capital towards the research and development of better tools for mental health. Please email me if you are interested in learning how you can play a role in this very important venture.
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October 11, 2004
Christopher Reeve (Sept. 25, 1952 - Oct. 11, 2004)
"Look, I've flown, I've become evil, loved, stopped and turned the world backward, I've faced my peers, I've befriended children and small animals and I've rescued cats from trees," Reeve told the Los Angeles Times in 1983, just before the release of the third "Superman" movie. "What else is there left for Superman to do that hasn't been done?"
"I refuse to allow a disability to determine how I live my life. I don't mean to be reckless, but setting a goal that seems a bit daunting actually is very helpful toward recovery," Reeve said after his 1995 horse-riding accident that caused his paralysis.
--- Christopher Reeve's inspiration is beyond words.
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October 8, 2004
While Bobby McFerrin's brilliant suggestion "Don't worry, be Happy" works as an anti-depressant for some, many of us require some additional help at some point in our lives. Chronic, mild depression affects over 5% of adults while major depression impacts almost 10% of us at some point in our lives.
The reduction of the social stigma associated with depression along with the development of more effective emoticeuticals has improved the lives of millions of people. Despite this, only one in three people with a significant depression seeking specific treatment for their condition.
While there is still no cure for depression, there is one thing I have found to be an extremely effective way to improve one's outlook: laughter. Despite the seriousness of depression, this picture of the "anti-depressant highway" made me laugh. So did the Onion's poke piece "Zoloft for Everything."
As Eleanor Roosevelt once said.... "...there is no beginning or end...yesterday is history...tomorrow is mystery...today is a gift, that's why they call it the present." Visit infinitecat.com for today's present or check out this proposal to create a new DSM category for political apathy disorder. Happy Friday boing boing.
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October 4, 2004
The 2004 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded yesterday to Richard Axel and Linda Buck for their work on the neurobiology of smell. While previous Nobel's have been awarded to scientists who discovered how sight (1981) and sound (1961) are perceived, figuring out the human nose took longer because it required modern DNA technology to find the microscopic cells and track the proteins.
As Nature described, "Together they discovered a large gene family, comprised of some 1,000 different genes (some 3 percent of our genes) that give rise to an equivalent number of olfactory receptor types. These receptors are located on the olfactory receptor cells, which occupy a small area in the upper part of the nasal epithelium and detect the inhaled odorant molecules. They also worked out the neural circuitry that passes the signal on to the higher parts of the brain, which deal with more complex matters, such as automatic recall of a childhood memory or, more pragmatically, deciding whether to discard a whiffy meal or move closer to a potential mate."
Understanding the neurobiology of our senses have recently lead to a new set of neuropharmaceutical companies focused treating age-related sensory decline and sensory loss. Some of the leading sensoceutical companies include Eyetech Pharmaceuticals, Sound Pharmaceuticals and Pain Therapeutics.
I wonder when they'll figure out how to make everything taste good too.
Update 10/08: In 2000, Sentigen Holdings Corp. licensed the right to the olfactory discoveries from Columbia University. Patents are pending. (source: WSJ 10/04)
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The University Illinois at Chicago recently announced the installation of the most powerful human brain imaging system to date. While most fMRI systems in use today are powered 1.5-tesla or 3.0-telsa magnets, this new high resolution fMRI system has a 9.4-tesla magnet, built by GE Healthcare (a tesla is a large measuring unit of magnetic strength).
As I've mentioned many times, advances in neuroimaging are critically important in order to understand the workings of the human brain, detect diseases before their clinical signs appear, develop targeted drug therapies for illnesses and to provide a better understanding of learning disabilities. While I might not go as far as Dr. Keith Thulborn, director of the UIC Center for Magnetic Resonance Research, who claimed that this technological leap forward is as revolutionary to the medical community as the transition from radio to television was for society, I would suggest that this definitely a step toward our emerging neurosociety. Also, it looks like the neuroimaging group at University College London will now have some real competition.
Correction Update 10/10: Thanks to a reader a India for pointing out that in my haste to post this piece named the correct university in the first sentence. It is not the University of Chicago, but The University Illinois at Chicago.
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