Jeff Hawkins and the Brain

The creator of the PalmPilot and the Treo is at it again. But his latest startup, Numenta, isn't just making another gadget. It's attempting to fuse silicon and gray matter to produce the ultimate intelligent machine.

Erick Schonfeld, Business 2.0 Magazine editor-at-large

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Jeff Hawkins was just another junior engineer at Intel in 1979 when he stumbled across an issue of Scientific American magazine that would illuminate a path to what would become his life's work.

It had nothing to do with the two great breakthroughs - the PalmPilot and the Treo - for which Hawkins would later become celebrated as one of the great technological and design geniuses of recent times. The issue was devoted to the human brain, and it featured an essay by DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick bemoaning the lack of a grand theory explaining how the roughly 3 pounds of gelatinous tissue each of us carries around in our skulls could possibly do all the fantastically complex tasks it does.

Jeff Hawkins wants to create the world's first truly intelligent computer.
Dubinsky, Hawkins's longtime business partner, runs operations so he can focus on brainstorming.

Hawkins read it, put the magazine down, and thought to himself, "I have to work on this." Then and there, he set a goal of not just devising such a theory but using it to build a machine that, simply put, can think like a human.

People thought he was nuts. He tried to enroll in doctoral programs at MIT, then as now a hotbed of artificial intelligence; they wouldn't take him. He got into a biophysics doctoral program at the University of California at Berkeley but gave up after he was told he couldn't work on his brain-meets-machine interests because no one on the faculty would sponsor that kind of research.

Hawkins drifted back to the computer industry, but the brain obsession never waned. "In 1986, I laid out a plan, and it included making enough money to do what I wanted to do," Hawkins recalls. With the PalmPilot, first introduced in 1996, and the Treo, unveiled in 2001, Hawkins went about making his money.

Yet even as he was perfecting his groundbreaking inventions and trying to help manage the roller-coaster corporate fortunes of his companies, Hawkins quietly began puzzling out an overarching theory of how the brain works. Once in a while, he would pop up at some conference and hint that he was onto something epic - "the biggest idea I've ever had," as he once put it - but coyly refuse to give many details. There were whispers in Silicon Valley that Hawkins's project, whatever it was, was at best a distraction and quite possibly a technological white whale.

Now Hawkins is finally ready to open up about what he's been chasing. And what he says makes clear that his quest may well lead to a tremendous technical advance with far-ranging implications. Hawkins believes that his latest startup, called Numenta, is on its way to creating the first truly intelligent computer - a thinking machine that, in essence, learns the same way the human brain does.

Hawkins, now 49, founded Numenta in 2005 and brought in longtime business partner and Palm (Charts) veteran Donna Dubinsky as CEO. Numenta, Hawkins stresses, has nothing to do with the field known as artificial intelligence. What he has in mind is far more supple and elegant.

Rather than being inspired by biology, AI uses brute computing power and logic to make computers seem intelligent through their behavior. When IBM's (Charts) Deep Blue finally beat chess grand master Gary Kasparov a decade ago, it wasn't because it was smarter than he was. It was just faster.

Even today, computers don't have intuition. They have trouble recognizing images, understanding language, and dealing with ambiguous information. Humans have no trouble doing those things. We are intelligent, and computers are not.

Numenta's approach is radically different. Computers running Numenta software will not be programmed like regular computers. Rather, algorithms that Numenta has come up with allow machines to learn from observation, just as a child learns by observing the world around her.

Numenta is developing a new computer memory system that it says can remember the patterns of the world presented to it and use them, the way a human does, to make analogies and draw conclusions. If it works as Hawkins expects, the applications and business opportunities will be stunning. They could range from the mundane - helping radiologists or airport security officers to read X-ray images, predicting machine failures in factories, improving manufacturing yields at chip plants - to the mind-boggling: predicting tornadoes and stock prices, making smart cars, unraveling the mysteries of the cosmos. "I know this has to work because this is how the brain does it," Hawkins says.

Even with his track record, it's tempting to dismiss Hawkins's enthusiasm as overheated. "No one yet knows how human brains work," cautions Marvin Minsky, a venerated researcher who co-founded MIT's AI lab in 1959.

Nonetheless, some very impressive people have bought in. Bill Atkinson, one of the software engineers who designed the original user interface for the Mac computer, declares, "What Numenta is doing is more fundamentally important to society than the personal computer and the rise of the Internet." Atkinson pulled himself out of semiretirement to become one of the first outside developers of Numenta software.

The company also has four corporate partners developing their own applications: a major automaker, two defense contractors, and a software firm that monitors electrical surges in factories. Numenta plans to release a beta version of its software, along with a set of development tools and "learning algorithms," under a research license early this year.

Targeted at research scientists and hard-core programmers, the license will allow people to play around with the software for free until they're ready to create a commercial product. "We want as many people experimenting with the technology as possible," Hawkins says.

He knows that he needs to build a community of developers around Numenta with financial incentives to help his technology succeed, just as he did at Palm. He toyed with making Numenta a nonprofit, like his Redwood Neuroscience Institute from which the company sprang, but ultimately decided against it. "If you have a technology and people think they can make money from it, you will get thousands of people working on it," he explains. "I'm an impatient guy. I want to start seeing these machines working."

At his core, Jeff Hawkins is a designer in the grandest sense of the word. Whether it's a handheld computer or the human brain, he takes a big-picture, holistic approach. "When you look at the PalmPilot," he points out, "there was nothing new in it. Everything had existed in a prior product. The trick was to know what to include, what to exclude, and what we were trying to accomplish with it."

Hawkins is driven by his constant dissatisfaction with the way things are. Handwriting-recognition software was horrible, so he invented the Graffiti writing system used in the original Palm. An avid sailor, he recently commissioned a naval architect to build him a small, gaff-rigged schooner. The type of schooner he has in mind has two masts and, for the past 300 years, has required at least two people to operate it.

But Hawkins wants to be able to sail alone, so he designed a way to pull up the sails with one line instead of the usual two. "He can look at a problem and think about how to take all the constraints in the world and form the right thing out of them," Dubinsky says.