The Future of Intelligence

An Excerpt From On Intelligence, By Jeff Hawkins

Like a supersmart diplomat, intelligent machines may play a role in reducing conflict and human suffering. You might think intelligent machines would need emotions to foresee patterns involving human behavior, but I don’t think so. We are not born with a set culture, a set of values, and a set religion; we learn them. And just as I can learn to understand the motivations of people with values different from mine, intelligent machines can comprehend human motivations and emotions, even if the machine doesn’t have those emotions itself.

We could make senses that sample minute entities. It is theoretically possible to have sensors that could represent patterns in cells or large molecules. For example, an important challenge today is to understand how the shape of a protein molecule can be predicted from the sequence of amino acids that comprise the protein. Being able to predict how proteins fold and interact would accelerate the development of medicines and the cures for many diseases. Engineers and scientists have created three-dimensional visual models of proteins, in an effort to predict how these complex molecules behave. But try as we might, the task has proven too difficult. A superintelligent machine, on the other hand, with a set of senses specifically tuned to this question might be able to answer it. If this sounds far-fetched, remember that we wouldn’t be surprised if humans could solve the problem. Our inability to tackle the issue may be related, primarily, to a mismatch between the human senses and the physical phenomena we want to understand. Intelligent machines can have custom senses and larger-than-human memory, enabling them to solve problems we can’t.

With the proper senses and a slight restructuring of the cortical memory, our intelligent machines might live and think in virtual worlds used in mathematics and physics. For example, many endeavors in math and science require understanding how objects behave in worlds that have more than three dimensions. String theorists, who study the nature of space itself, think about the universe as having ten or more dimensions. Humans have great difficulty thinking about mathematical problems in four or more dimensions. Perhaps an intelligent machine of the correct design could understand high-dimensional spaces in the same way that you and I understand three-dimensional spaces, and therefore be adept at predicting how they behave…

…The point in these musings is to illustrate that there are many ways brainlike machines could surpass our own abilities, and in dramatic ways. They might think and learn a million times faster than we can, remember vast quantities of detailed information, or see incredibly abstract patterns. They can have senses more sensitive than our own, or senses that are distributed, or senses for very small phenomena. They might think in three, four, or more dimensions. None of these interesting possibilities depend on intelligent machines mimicking or acting like humans, and they don’t involve complex robotics… Our intelligent machines will be amazing tools and will dramatically expand our knowledge of the universe.

Jeff Hawkins is an engineer, serial entrepreneur, scientist, inventor, and author. He was a founder of two mobile computing companies, Palm and Handspring, and was the architect of many computing products such as the PalmPilot and Treo smartphone.  In 2002 he founded the Redwood Neuroscience Institute, a scientific institute focused on understanding how the neocortex processes information. The institute is now located at U.C. Berkeley. In 2005 he co-founded Numenta, a startup company building a technology based on neocortical theory. It is his hope that Numenta will play a catalytic role in the emerging field of machine intelligence. Hawkins was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2003.





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*All of the excerpts on my blog are from books that have stayed with me for some reason—because the concept was awe inspiring, changed how I view the world, was beautifully expressed, or all three. ‎I personally curate all of the book excerpts, and I always obtain the author’s final approval before posting their work on my blog.