On intelligence, by Jeff Hawkins
#1  Francesco 11-19-2004, 08:05 PM
In a recent thread I got into troubles trying to explain what was "The emperor's new mind" about. Well, it seems it wasn't enough for me, as I try now to review "On intelligence", by Jeff Hawkins.
Ballistic pointed out this book to me. Before reading his post (in that same thread) I hadn't heard anything about Hawkins. This is the man behind the desing of the PalmPilot, Visor and Treo devices. That information sufficed to interest me in that book. I waited and waited until it was available in electronic format and bought it right away. This is the first eBook I ever buy, and I preferred the electronic format for one thing: IMMEDIATE delivery (beat that, paper books! LOL). This was an impulsive buy. I left the DRM concerns aside, I'll deal with that later. Just like with DVDs: as long as the bits are there, someone will find a way.
In this book, Hawkins explains his approach to the way the brain works. His approach, as he mentions right from the beginning, is built upon several previous theories. The objective is to provide a general frame to relate all the disperse works of people studying the brain from different fields in biology. His plan is to understand the brain from a biological point of view, before attempting to simulate its works artificially.
After the prologue, he moves onto explaining why he believes artificial intelligence is doomed and that no matter how fast and powerful a computer might be built, AI in its current approach will never be close to our intelligence. He call his theory "real intelligence". I admire this man.
The most important idea in this book is the concept of intelligence proposed: intelligence is not only the way the mind processes the data received by the senses, but also the ability to predict what will be perceived. The brain constructs the reality around by perceiving and predicting simultaneously. Perception and prediction are very similar phenomena going in opposite directions.
Prediction is built upon memories, or invariant representations, as he calls them. Invariant representations might be compared to Plato's ideals: abstractions of all the forms in the world (cups, staircases, etc.). Forms, situations, words, sounds, etc.
I have to say he convinced me right from chapter one that intelligence can be built. I said it couldn't be done. I guess I'm too easy.
This prediction theory has had a big influence in me, and now I relate every working of my brain to it. It's really funny.
The book is written very clearly, and you don't need any specific background to understand it. Heck, this is a book by the same guy who invented the PalmPilot! It means it's simple and straighforward.
I drifted away many times from the book, thinking about my own experiencies and hypothesis, and that talks very well about a book, I believe. It made me think a lot.
If you want more info about "On intelligence", you might want to check its site:,it contains an excerpt, bios, a forum to discuss your opinions, and a form you can fill to contact the authors (the book was coauthored by Sandra Blakeslee).
On "The art of seeing", Aldous Huxley proposes an exercise consisting in looking at letters, at various distances and one at a time, trying to "memorize" the way they look. The result is not an increased chance to guess the letters you see, but an actually improved sight. This fits so well into the prediction model I had to tell the author. I did, and am still waiting a reply. Isn't Internet a sweet thing?
One last word, I was ultimately inspired by the Read/Write Web to post this review, whose author recently posted a link to his site. The concept behind Read/Write Web is that recently, the web finally became what it should be: a communication channel not only to receive information, but to publish it as well (from the point of view of the common user, of course). And that's what I just did.

#2  Bob Russell 11-19-2004, 11:04 PM
Very nice post, Francesco. Makes me think about some new things in a different way also. (Ballistic does have a way of coming up with a lot of good stuff, doesn't he?!) And you're right, the web is now alive as a two-way communication.

We're hoping, as editors at MobileRead, to encourage more of our many visitors to consider posting. Not as a chore, but for the enjoyment of it. Whether it is a simple post or a really thoughtful one like this, it benefits us all.

And, I hope you don't mind... I'm going to publish it on our front page to share it with a bigger audience.

#3  Brian 11-20-2004, 10:19 PM
Outstanding review Francesco, and thanks for the kind words by you and Bob.

While I haven't finished the book yet (hardcover), I agree with everything you say about the way the book gets you to think about how you, well, think(!), perceive, predict and remember. It is a very well written book and the use of analogies really helps keep the complicated/technical parts readable. This is truly a must-read for anyone interested in the future of computing, intelligent machines, and the study of human intelligence and the brain.

There is one advantage to having a hardcover: I was able to get it signed by Mr. Hawkins when I went to see him speak at MIT's Technology and Culture Forum earlier this month. I am very glad I went: I got to see and hear him talk about "On Intelligence" and his memory-prediction theory of cortical intelligence. He was very excited and enthusiastic about his work and the work of the Redwood Neuroscience Institute. He's very bullish about the prospect of accomplishing his goal of understanding cortical intelligence, and the implications for business, technology, and computing, as well as the societal and cultural implications are enormous. He's truly a brilliant guy, and very down to earth. If he's able to accomplish his goal and prove his theory and understand intelligence, I think he'll be a very likely candidate for a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

On a side note: Jeff briefly discussed user interfaces in reponse to a question from an audience member. According to Jeff, well designed GUI/UIs are simple, hierarchical, repeatable, and logical, making tasks, navigation, and conventions easily learned and memorized. Go figure .


#4  Francesco 11-23-2004, 04:38 PM
Quote ballistic
There is one advantage to having a hardcover: I was able to get it signed by Mr. Hawkins when I went to see him speak at MIT's Technology and Culture Forum earlier this month.
Beat that, eBooks!

Thanks, Bob and Ballistic, for your comments!

#5  Colin Dunstan 11-26-2004, 12:45 AM
Heh who says you cannot DIGITALLY sign an e-book Now, that is something new to think about

#6  ricmac 12-09-2004, 05:23 PM
Great review Francesco! I'm honoured that my weblog inspired you to write it I for one would much rather read reviews by enthusiastic people who genuinely care about what they read - than stuffy reviewers at the NY Times!

That book sounds really interesting - where did you download it from? I never knew the author designed the Palm Pilot, so now I'm really curious.



#7  TadW 12-09-2004, 06:05 PM
I agree that Francesco's review was very inspiring!

I hope I find time soon to add my own personal reviews here as well.

#8  Francesco 12-09-2004, 06:46 PM
Quote Morpheus
Heh who says you cannot DIGITALLY sign an e-book Now, that is something new to think about
Hey, what about NotePad... LOL.

#9  Francesco 12-09-2004, 08:14 PM
Quote ricmac
... where did you download it from? I never knew the author designed the Palm Pilot, so now I'm really curious.
Thank you for your comments.
I downloaded it from hey, here's the link:

Thanks. You know what? I didn't had the time either. What I did (inspired by Jeff Kirvin and Ignatz) was to buy a wireless keyboard and type a little every night. Actually, I'm trying to be more proactive in every area of my life, and posting a review was a long over due task. I have to work on doing it more often.

Update: You can find On intelligence for download at Amazon at a lower price. MS Reader edition, though.

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