Jeff Hawkins hacks the human brain (Cont.)

Erick Schonfeld, Business 2.0 Magazine editor-at-large

Hawkins himself was largely stumped about how to convert his theory into something a computer could understand until Dileep George came to visit him at his brain research institute one morning in 2003. At the time, George was a Stanford grad student; like Hawkins, he was an electrical engineer who had gone back to school to learn about the brain. After being laughed at by other neuroscience grad students for suggesting that it might be possible to create a computational model of the neocortex, George started hanging out at the institute. "I very much liked the ideas Jeff proposed," George says. Then he did something that surprised even Hawkins. "I took the way the brain works," he says casually, "and converted it to algorithms."

The algorithms were quick and dirty at first. Most of the neuroscientists at the institute criticized George's approach as too simplistic. But Hawkins saw a kindred spirit. "This is great," he enthused to the grumbling group. "Dileep is taking my ideas seriously!" George kept refining his math, and the software became better and better. Then he cooked up a visual-recognition problem he calls Pictures to test the system.

While any child can identify a drawing of a cat or dog the first time it's seen, computers find the same task nearly impossible. George made line drawings of simple objects such as a dog, a cat, a bee, and a helicopter. He loaded up his algorithm and trained the computer by animating the digital drawings. Once the computer was trained and could identify the objects, George started to show it variations of the drawings it had never seen.

Slowly it started to put the drawings in the right categories and even gave a probability of how sure it was of its answer. Most computers today would find such a simple image-recognition problem unsolvable. Harry Saal, a Numenta board member and a founder of Network General, which was bought by McAfee (Charts), recalls the first time he saw George's Pictures. "That this could be demoed on a stupid little laptop floored me," he says. "It was the first indication that what Jeff had was more than just a theory."

Numenta was founded soon thereafter, and the software has progressed considerably. The company is developing what Hawkins calls a "hierarchical temporal memory" system. Today the HTM runs as software on a variety of Linux computers, but eventually it could be hardwired into silicon. The system mimics the structure of the neocortex. "The HTM has to really learn from its data the way we learn growing up as children," explains Subutai Ahmad, Numenta's vice president for engineering.