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Light blogging: Jeff Hawkins on the state of neuroscience June 11, 2007

Posted by Johan in Connectionism, Neural Networks, Neuroscience.
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The video below is a nice introduction to some theoretical issues in neuroscience. It comes from a non-science conference, so it should be quite easy to keep up with even if you know little about neuroscience. More about the lecturer and his theories below the video.

Jeff Hawkins is a somewhat controversial figure in neuroscience. Most famous for his work with Palm where he took part in creating the first handheld computers, he has recently got himself (and his considerable assets) into neuroscience. As the lecture outlines, this wasn’t his first foray into the area, but still – the guy has no Ph.D. and would clearly not be taken seriously by anyone if he didn’t bring his bags of money along for the ride.

Hawkins argues that what’s lacking is a theoretical framework. We have lots of data, but little in the way of theory. This is where Hawkins seeks to contribute, most famously with his hierarchical temporal model of memory. The Wikipedia article is a bit thin (though note the criticisms of the work) – Memoirs of a Postgrad has a far better summary of the theory here. The theory is that the brain is basically a big memory system that uses past experiences to make predictions about the future – this is Hawkins’ definition of intelligence. So in this view, we literally learn from experience.

The lecture above also gives you a glimpse into why Hawkins’ efforts have been less than well received by neuroscientists. Around the 7-minute mark, he happily asserts that we need no more data, we need a theory. Thus, the lack of a theoretical basis in neuroscience is because of a lack of theoretical effort, not because we simply don’t know enough about the brain to make sense of it all yet. It’s easy to see how some neuroscientists get a little provoked by such remarks. It doesn’t help when he essentially compares the paradigm of current researchers to the pre-Galileo, pre-Evolution worldviews by drawing analogies to prior scientific revolutions like the heliocentric solar system, plate tectonics and evolution. According to Hawkins, neuroscience is bordering on a similar revolution, and it will be theoretical – there will be no empirical discovery, just a “heureka” moment when someone figures out how all the current mysteries add up.

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