On Intelligence – An Interview with Jeff Hawkins

Susan Gerbic

Jeff Hawkins is the cofounder of Numenta, a neuroscience and AI company. Previously, he was the Director of the Redwood Neuroscience Institute and was cofounder of Palm Computing and Handspring He is the author of the book On Intelligence. Jeff will be speaking at CSICon on Friday October 18 at 10 a.m. His lecture is titled “How the Brain Learns and How it Sometimes gets it Wrong.”


Susan Gerbic – Very nice to meet you Jeff. Thank you for taking a few minutes to talk to me. You are a theoretical neuroscientist. What relationship do you see between brain theory and skepticism?

Jeff Hawkins – The brain is responsible for everything humans do. By studying how the brain works we can reveal the mechanisms underlying learning, knowledge, and beliefs. Our research focuses on a part of the brain called the neocortex. The neocortex learns a model of the world, and our beliefs about the world are based on this model. Our discoveries have revealed how the cells in your brain learn this model of the world, and how the brain sometimes gets that model wrong. In other words, we study the neuroscience of beliefs and false beliefs. Skepticism, at its core, is understanding that our brains can form false beliefs.

Gerbic – I was reading about your history and was struck by the number of obstacles you had to overcome in your career. It seems that you encountered obstacles in both your groundbreaking work in mobile computing and in your neuroscience research. Is this typical? How can we help others with great ideas get the backing they need to make things happen?

Hawkins – No matter what your field of expertise, if you want to accomplish significant things, you will encounter obstacles. My advice to others is to read the biographies of people who made significant contributions to humanity. Pay attention to the many challenges they faced and how they dealt with them. When I was young, the obstacles people put in front of me were bothersome. Now I view unexpected obstacles as part of the process of doing interesting and important things.

Gerbic – Can you describe what it is you do at your current company and how it’s different than what other scientists are doing?

Hawkins – Neuroscience is one the largest fields of science today. There are tens of thousands of neuroscientists working on varied problems. I run a lab, which is pretty unique. We are theorists. That means we start with the data that experimental labs publish and we publish theories to explain their data. We are also somewhat unique in that we focus on the neocortex, which in humans occupies about 75 percent of the brain and is the organ most associated with intelligence. We develop and publish theories that explain how the neocortex works.

Gerbic – I find this all interesting but really over my head, so I reached out to my good friend Kyle Polich who hosts the popular Data Skeptic podcast. I asked him for a question I might ask. Kyle responded with, “Now is a VERY exciting time related to a technology called Deep Learning. To truly understand it takes a fair amount of training.  Maybe you could ask him about how the average person should be skeptical of such complex systems?” 

Hawkins – Deep Learning refers to the technology underlying the current surge in artificial intelligence. Deep Learning is only marginally related to how brains work. I don’t see many reasons to be skeptical of the technology of Deep Learning, but I think we should be skeptical of how the technology is applied. We are discovering that businesses and governments are not being open in how they are applying these technologies.

Gerbic – I see you are involved in some secular organizations. How do you see this relating to your scientific work?

Hawkins – A large part of my philanthropic work is related to secular causes. I support and advise several organizations such as the Secular Student Association, the Freethought Equality Fund, and the Secular Coalition for America. As I mentioned a moment ago, the core of my research is about how we humans understand the world and how that understanding can be fundamentally incorrect. I see false beliefs as an existential threat to the long-term survival of humanity. Collectively we have to figure out how to move humanity to a future where we reject dogma on principle.

My dream for the future is that every young child is taught how their brain works and how we can form false beliefs of the world. If we all knew this, we would all be skeptics.

Gerbic – Thank you again for answering my questions. I look forward to meeting you in person. Remember, on Saturday night we will have a 1950s-themed Halloween party.

Susan Gerbic

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and writes for her column, Guerilla Skepticism, often. You can contact her through her website.