Oppenheimer lecture features tech inventor

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By The Staff

If Professor Henry Higgins had been a 21st Century engineer and entrepreneur from Silicon Valley, he may have sung “Why can’t a computer be more like a brain?” instead of pondering musically the mysteries of Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.”

Jeff Hawkins won’t sing, but he will take on that puzzling question when he delivers the 39th Oppenheimer Memorial Lecture on July 27 at 7:30 p.m. in the Duane Smith Auditorium in Los Alamos.

The talk is free and open to the public.

In “Why Can’t a Computer Be More like a Brain?” Hawkins will provide his own creative insights and ideas about how the brain operates and what intelligence is.

Hawkins made his mark in the computing world as the inventor of the Palm Pilot and the Treo, but in 2002 he founded the Redwood Neuroscience Institute and has since devoted himself to developing a theoretical understanding of the brain.

He and other RNI researchers believe that scientists have sufficient data now about brain activity to build an underlying, encompassing theory of how the brain performs high-level cognitive tasks.

Hawkins has proposed such a theory. He argues that what the brain does exceptionally well is identify patterns among the myriad sensory inputs it receives. And, critically, it can use its memory of those patterns to anticipate events in the surrounding world.

Hawkins and his colleagues focus their attention on the brain’s neocortex, the structure responsible for high-level thought and perception.

Hawkins believes the neocortex processes sensory data in a hierarchical manner, with the signal passing through successive collections of neurons capable of increasingly complex processing.

He calls this model Hierarchical Temporal Memory and he and his colleagues have built software that allows anyone to build a hierarchy of nodes that can be trained to look for patterns within input signals.

Hawkins himself was stymied in his early attempts to study brain function. After earning his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Cornell University in 1979 he opted to pursue a scientific career; his interest was in studying how the brain processed information from the viewpoint of mathematics and information theory.

At the time, though, he could not find acceptance in the academic community. Few neuroscientists then were interested in the pursuit of a large-scale theoretical framework of brain function. That led Hawkins to the computing field and his engagement with Palm Computing and Handspring, two companies whose success enabled him subsequently to support his scientific research interests.

Hawkins in 2005 founded a new company called “Numenta,” which intends to develop technology based on the Hierarchical Temporal Memory model that can solve problems in pattern recognition and machine learning.

“My goal at Numenta is to put my brain theory into practice,” said Hawkins when Numenta was founded. “We have the opportunity to build  intelligent memory systems to solve difficult problems in computer science and artificial intelligence for which no other known  solutions exist, such as general machine vision, language understanding, and robotics.”

Hawkins was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2003 “for the creation of the hand-held computing paradigm and the creation of the first commercially successful example of a hand-held computing device.”

His theories on brain function may in time have an even larger impact on the world.

Henry Higgins might even be transported to singing now (to the tune of “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”): Why is thinking something computers never do?

And why is their logic always so fried?

Shepherding electrons is all they ever do.

Why don’t they find the patterns that are outside?