A New Take on Human Intelligence

What does slugger Barry Bonds have in common with renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking?

Their brains work in much the same way.

At least that's consistent with a fascinating new theory about the nature of intelligence.

For many centuries humans have wondered about what it is inside their noggins that makes them so much smarter than other animals. Some of the brightest intellects have struggled, and failed, to define intelligence.

Is it some abstract gift that simply makes us smart? Is there a mind, separate from the brain, that allows us to add two and two, and reflect upon the cosmos, and compose operas? Are we unique on the planet, or do other mammals also have intelligence, though less sharply tuned?

Our lack of understanding of what it is that allows us to understand is underscored by the inane definitions of intelligence found in almost any reference book. My computer's built-in encyclopedia defines it as the "capacity to learn or to understand." The massive dictionary that sits beside my desk defines it as "mental ability."

Gee, thanks.

Historically, the study of intelligence belongs in the domain of psychologists, and more recently, neuroscientists. So it may be a little unsettling to learn that one of the freshest attempts to get a handle on intelligence comes from outside both those fields.

Going Out on a Limb

Jeff Hawkins is a computer wizard who is best known as the founder of both Palm Computing and Handspring, but in recent years he has become obsessed with the human brain. He doesn't cut it open, and he doesn't peer inside with any of the nifty new gadgets that have allowed scientists to pinpoint which areas of the brain "light up" when stimulated. Instead, he just thinks about it.

All that thinking has resulted in a book, "On Intelligence," which Hawkins has co-authored with Sandra Blakeslee, who writes about science for The New York Times, and in the interest of full disclosure, is an old friend of mine.

Hawkins is a little out on a limb, because there isn't a lot of evidence to back up his theory, and he could turn out to be dead wrong, but at least he has provided what he describes as a "new framework" for understanding intelligence.

Briefly put, Hawkins thinks intelligence is nothing more than memory, and the ability to predict.

Hawkins, who longs for the day when he and his colleagues will be able to produce an artificial "brain" that can think better than humans and not be encumbered with all the baggage, like emotions, that can distort our reasoning. He doesn't think these futuristic computers will ever look like us, or feel like us, or be the chummy robots shown in sci-fi flicks.

But they might be able to run our air traffic control systems, or explore other planets and do so with extraordinary intelligence.

But first, he says, computer scientists have to throw out much of what they have believed and adopt his theory. The human brain doesn't work like a computer. So scientists are on the wrong track if they think they're going to build a super fast computer that can think like Stephen Hawkings. Or even Barry Bonds.

Of Memories and Predictions

It all came to him in April 1986 when he was sitting in his Northern California office, just thinking, of course.

"I was contemplating what it means to 'understand' something," he writes.

As he glanced around his office he saw things he was familiar with, furniture, books, that kind of stuff. And suddenly, he says, he had an "aha moment."

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