Jeff Hawkins hacks the human brain (Cont.)

Erick Schonfeld, Business 2.0 Magazine editor-at-large

A Web retailer has expressed interest in using an HTM to model consumers' clicking and purchasing behavior on its site so it could build a more effective product recommendation engine. "We talked to another Web-based company that has a problem with pornographic images being posted to its site," Dubinsky says. And a consulting firm thinks an HTM could help it to model companies. "Businesses are hierarchically organized," Hawkins says, "and there are a bunch of things you can measure - such as the flow of materials or the flow of dollars."

For Hawkins, the ultimate applications will be those that allow us to acquire new knowledge in areas of science such as quantum mechanics and biology. "What is exciting to me," he says, "is the prospect of building intelligent machines that sit comfortably in the realms of science where we have difficulty thinking. It will be like having a dedicated Einstein working around the clock on these problems."

That day, of course, is still far in the future. Even the earliest commercial Numenta applications are at least 18 months away. Hawkins is hoping the scheduled research release of the software in the first quarter of this year will help harness the collective brainpower of the scientific coder set and dramatically speed the advance of the technology.

"We're trying to figure out how to get as many people to work on this as possible," he says. Still, caution is in order. "This is a grand experiment that is being done with great hopes," Saal says. "But it is very speculative, and we are not yet in a position to say these applications will work." Some researchers take a dimmer view. Noted AI scientist Aaron Sloman labels Hawkins "overconfident" and charges him with "unwittingly ignoring most of the complexity" of the brain.

Moreover, there are deep moral dilemmas inherent in Hawkins's vision of intelligent machines, starting with the primal fears behind plots for everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Terminator: Man makes machines smart, smart machines whale on man. While Numenta's machines aren't designed to self-replicate or have any desires, they could be taught to make independent decisions and direct other machines to act on them - even if those actions weren't in the interests of the humans they're supposed to serve.

Hawkins thinks such concerns are overblown. "People worried that the steam engine would lead to giant killer robots," he says. For him, the answers his thinking machines could provide far outweigh any hypothetical harm they might do, and he spends little mental energy on doomsday scenarios.

In fact, he's already homing in on his next challenge. As usual, it's big: the nature of time and the universe. "What's the universe really made of, and how did it get here?" he asks. Innumerable scientists are trying to answer the same questions, but Hawkins thinks they're going about it all wrong. He believes he can shed light on why the expansion of the universe seems to be accelerating. "I had an insight in my late 20s that I've been stewing on," Hawkins offers. "An expanding universe is the same as a universe where the rate of time is speeding up." Now, could a machine ever come up with such an insight?

Actually, Hawkins has no doubt that, someday, it could.

Erick Schonfeld blogs about the latest ideas in technology at The Next NetTop of page

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