Obvious problems are those that everyone knows the answer to, but are really difficult to solve.
Consider the following:
- “We need an electric car that performs like a gas-powered car.”
- “We need a super-fast web search engine that works.”
- “We need super-fast internet connections to our homes.”
- “We need high speed wireless internet everywhere.”
- “We need a phone/PDA/MP3 player that’s small, easy to use, and has a long battery life.”
- “We need a computer that can predict the stock market.”
If you solved any of these problems you would be in the position to make billions of dollars (as some companies have done). But the technical hurdles are, of course, tremendous.
A few years ago I often heard people saying “We have cell phones and PDAs, when is someone going to combine them?” Everyone knew this was a good idea. The solution was obvious but the technology wasn’t there until Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky founded Handspring and turned the PDA market – a market they single-handedly created just 6 years earlier – on its ear.
This was round two for Hawkins and Dubinsky. Their earlier venture was a niche tech company you may have heard of, a small shop called Palm Computing. They had released another “obvious” device no one could build called the Palm Pilot 1000 in 1996, and owned the PDA market for many years before leaving the company in 1998, after which it was wrestled to the ground and slapped around with its own hand by Microsoft.
So they left Palm, founded Handspring, and sold it back to Palm in June of 2003 for $170 million in stock. Two swings, two home runs. If they would take my money I’d invest in their next company.
Which brings me to their next company, Numenta (let’s hear it for smooth segues). A few years ago Hawkins wrote a book called On Intelligence, that’s an insanely brilliant look at the structure of the human brain through the eyes of a computer scientist. Numenta, founded by Hawkins and Dubinsky, is using Hawkins’ model of the neocortex to build a new type of memory system called Hierarchical Temporal Memory (HTM). The ultimate goal is to create machines capable of performing tasks that have never before been possible to any practical degree: flexible image recognition, video image recognition, predicting complex systems based on past behaviors, and an infinite number of others. These are all obvious problems people have been talking about for years.
Given their track record, Hawkins and Dubinsky are set to wreak some serious havoc on the world of computer science. Solving obvious problems once again.