Q&A With Jeff Hawkins, Intelligence Expert

There is a Q&A available with Jeff Hawkins, AI-expert and inventor of the Palm Pilot.

Jeff has been thinking about intelligence, and how it works, for many years now. He has a company named Numenta, which is aiming to understand intelligence, and then use it in commercial products.

It is this kind of work that will ultimately allow us to build intelligent machines, and initiate the Singularity.

Recently, Jeff has come up with a new theory of intelligence. He even thinks he’s figured out how conscioussness works.

Jason Pontin interviews him. Here’s a fragment of the interview.

JP: … You are proposing that the neocortex is a “belief propagation network” — a kind of machine that generates more or less accurate ideas about the world? How could such a thing evolve?

JH: It’s not that difficult. Nothing in nature just springs into being. The neocortex evolved from structures that existed before. A reptile has a sophisticated brain. The neocortex added value to that brain. It allowed early mammals to see just a little bit into the future. The mammal could say, “I recognize this spot. I know there’s food just around the corner.” And it was so successful, so quickly, that the neocortex developed very fast. The brain just kept on adding circuits. But why is the neocortex a belief propagation network? I don’t know! It just is.

JP: Is the higher consciousness — what philosophers sometimes call “self-consciousness” — a byproduct of HTM?

JH: Yes. I think I understand what consciousness is now. There are two elements to consciousness. First, there is the element of consciousness where we can say, “I am here now.” This is akin to a declarative memory where you can actively recall doing something. Riding a bike cannot be recalled by declarative memory, because I can’t remember how I balanced on a bike. But if I ask, “Am I talking to Jason?” I can answer “Yes.” So I like to propose a thought experiment: if I erase declarative memory, what happens to consciousness?” I think it vanishes.

But there is another element to consciousness: what philosophers and neuroscientists call “qualia:” the feeling of being alive. Qualia mean different things to different people, but the way I like to think about them is to ask, “Why does anything feel like anything?” And I think I understand this a little, too. Qualia have to do with the world itself: I perceive the world in a certain way because that’s the way the world really is.

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