Don Norman: Designing For People

Nielsen Norman Group

On intelligence.

Jeff Hawkins has always wanted to be a brain scientist, even if his day job was to invent and improve upon the Palm PDA and the Treo Phone. He funded the Redwood Neuroscience Institute to allow him to pursue his dream, This book is his first major publication. It's a trade book, short on details, but I believe he is putting forth an important point of view. Hawkins suggests that the cortex is a predictive mechanism, and its six layers are complex pattern recognizers and prediction mechanisms, where perception and action are tightly intertwined (inseparable), and the memory is associative (a small part can match the whole), stored in relative coding (which is why it is size, position, and temporally invariant, among other invariants.

The main theme is that the brain is an expectations machine -- always generating expectations (a feed-forward process), and matching those expectations with reality.

I think there is much to be said for his point of view. It forces a dynamic, active view of mental states which is quite different from the static, states of processing view of traditional cognitive theorizing. I like it and think that it has the possibility to lead to significant advances in our understanding an din our ability to model brain processes.

But be warned. The book is low on details, so there is considerable hand-waving. The heart of the book is Chapter 6. It won't take long to read the first five chapters —they are useful, but light. Chapter six is the meat. And then you should stop. I believe his speculations about about consciousness and creativity and about the future of intelligent machines are both nonsensical as well as a dangerous overhyping of otherwise good ideas. Hawkins complains that people in AI and Neural Networks overhyped their potential. Hah: this book is certainly their equal in that regard.

Hawkins concentrates almost entirely on the cortex. You will find little about other brain areas here and nothing about the emotional system. Jeff is a pure cognitivist. All the action takes place in the cortex, and all has to do with prediction.

In a private conversation, Hawkins agreed that the book lacks important details, but he told me that his non-profit research institute (The Redwood Neuroscience Institute) has developed those ideas further and that he is starting a new company to exploit them. "This," said Jeff, "is the future of computing." (The company is has now been announced: Numenta.)

Still, I believe the major thrust of the book is very important. I think the problems are a lot more difficult than he thinks, even if I believe that his approach is an important step forward. Watch and see.

Link to book at