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Jeff Hawkins hacks the human brain (Cont.)

Erick Schonfeld, Business 2.0 Magazine editor-at-large

To understand how Numenta's software works, it helps to first understand Hawkins's concept of the brain. Hawkins is actually interested only in the neocortex, the outer, pink part of the brain where he believes intelligence resides. "Intelligence is about creating a model of the world and making predictions," he says.

He views the neocortex as a memory system that constantly adapts and reorganizes its connections to create that model. "When you come across new things every moment of your waking life," he says, "it looks at previously stored experience and predicts what will happen next."

The different regions of the neocortex all do pretty much the same thing, Hawkins believes. They store spatial and temporal patterns that can represent things like language, music, and vision. In Hawkins's view, all the human senses work the same way: Data from the world goes in as patterns of firing neurons, memories of the patterns are formed, and every piece of new information is matched to a stored sequence of patterns. In other words, there is one general brain algorithm that recognizes and interprets all those blips on the brain.

To many neuroscientists, this is a gross oversimplification. Hawkins is the first to admit that he has not done any firsthand neuroscience research. "People have been working on these problems for 50 years. There is hardly a new idea here," he concedes. "But what's missing is a concrete theory about how it all hangs together."

And not all experts think the big picture he paints is necessarily wrong. "His ideas are grounded strongly in neural anatomy and physiology," says Bob Knight, a neuroscientist at Berkeley (which, ironically, now houses Hawkins's research institute). The theory is sound, if a little lacking in specific details and experimental proof. Moreover, Knight concludes, "there is no doubt that if we knew how the brain worked, we would have the most unbelievable computer ever known to man."

Hawkins's early obsession with the brain was clear to anyone who knew where to look. A provision in Palm's founding documents, for instance, stated that Hawkins would be spending some of his time on neuroscience. But his rare utterances about Numenta - at PC Forum in 2005, he gave his first brief talk to a small crowd using a plastic brain model and a red dinner napkin as props - hid the seriousness with which he took the quest to create thinking machines.