Numenta: Solving Obvious Problems

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.

More info on Hawkins’ model of the neocortex

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#1 http:// on 11.30.06 at 9:03 am

This is from his article on Wikipedia. What a great example of success through rejection =) > Since he read a special issue of Scientific American on the brain, Hawkins has always been interested in studying how brains work. Initially, he attempted to start a new department on the subject at his then-employer Intel, but was refused. He also unsuccessfully attempted to join the MIT AI Lab. He eventually decided he would try to find success in the computer industry and then try to use it to support his serious work on brains (as he himself stated in his book “on Intelligence”).

#2 dave thieben on 11.30.06 at 1:51 pm

“We need a phone/PDA/MP3 player that’s small, easy to use, and has a long battery life.” small tangent here: I just got a Sony Ericcson W810i, and it is almost everything you described. a little light on the PDA features, but it excels at the rest.

#3 admin on 11.30.06 at 6:39 pm

Absolutely, Seng. Jeff Hawkins talks about being rejected from grad school because he wanted to look at the brain from a different perspective than the thinkers of the day. And Dave – thanks for the comment. Aside from not having a thumb-board, the W810i looks pretty sweet. And the price is right: $-24.99 after rebate if you sign up for service. That’s not a typo, it appears they will actually pay you $24.99 if you buy this phone.

#4 Dox O'Ryan on 01.10.07 at 6:44 pm

I found On Intelligence to be an incredible book also. I have a blog yesterday on the topic that I thought might add to the conversation. It’s at, but here it is for convenience (with apologies for filling your comments page!)…. On Intelligence II: Does Hierarchy Shape Matter? In my first entry on Jeff Hawkins’ On Intelligence, I said it became a filter for an unbelievable number of the things I notice and wonder about…and yet I haven’t added new entries about it. Truth is, it’s mostly because I fear it may seem so bizarre to use a single set of ideas as a filter for so many things, that you’ll find my selection of blog topics even more oddly random than you already do. But it’s time. To kick it off, I’ll briefly mention step 1: The Hawkins Memory-Prediction model of the brain focuses on hierarchy. Ignoring the details, parts of your brain get information (typically from the senses) and if it matches what they expect, they do nothing. If it doesn’t, they pass the information up the hierarchy. It’s sort of like an entry-level worker escalating a new problem to his or her boss. And like the CEO (which, in a sense, you are), you don’t have time or mental cycles to stay on top of what’s happening at the low levels in the hierarchy, so you generally keep track of what’s being passed up the chain. You could say, “Your brain–and therefore, you–only notice something if it differs from expectation.” Simple, elegant, and able to explain many of our perceptions. OK, step 2. The more accurate the predictions are at the lower levels of the hierarchy, the less they have to pass upward. How do the predictions get more accurate? By experiencing information more often, predicting something, and checking results. Practice makes perfect. They get “smarter.” Suffice to say this works identically for observing something–as in knowing immediately whether a dirty, brown rock is a clump of dirt, a piece of quartz, or a diamond OR for doing something–like playing a sonata on a violin or designing a brilliant ad for a new soft drink (is there such a thing?). Step 3. If a talented person spends 18 hours a day playing the violin, the violin-connected parts of their brain will be very smart. The lower levels of the hierarchy won’t need to escalate messages often. When this happens, the theory claims, the upper levels of the hierarchy don’t just take a vacation. Instead, they think higher thoughts. They look for connections between the things the lower levels are doing. It’s like a lucky manager leading such a great team that she gets to spend time focusing on long-term strategy, integration between functions, or new ways to think about everyday tasks. The hierarchy of the dedicated violinist becomes very “deep.” It has many levels because what is complicated and “escalated” one day becomes rote and simple the next. Of course, our master violinist will probably be a lousy diamond finder. Now things get interesting (at least for me ;-). Imagine another person who is a dilettante. He dabbles in a thousand things, paying attention in the moment, but gaining no expertise. The theory would say his brain is constantly passing messages upward. Little is rote. The lower levels have mastered little, so escalation is the norm. You could say this person’s brain hierarchy is extremely flat. Poor guy, right? But along the way, he is certainly creating connections and, if the theory is right, his dabbling brain is still making constant predictions. And he’s really fun at parties. And since the brain doesn’t “know” when it’s playing the violin and when it’s looking at dirty rocks, it seems clear that experiences in one field will start to inform predictions in others. I’m not speculating that if you look at enough rocks you’ll be able to play the violin. But if your brain only has random data, it’s going to use it the best way it can. So here’s my quandary: Of these two people, who would you trust to build your kid a treehouse? Or set up your Tivo? Or make you dinner? Or join your bowling team? If you had them both on your team doing something neither had done before, would you assign them to different types of tasks? Too ridiculous a question? Ok, then how about just this: What would you encourage for your child? What do you wish was encouraged for you when you were young? (Assuming this sort of thing can be encouraged at all.) Will a flat hierarchy drive more diverse connections and relationships? Will a deep hierarchy–more practiced in “thinking about thinking”–provide more abstract, in-depth considerations in other fields?

#5 admin on 01.10.07 at 8:39 pm

Thanks for sharing, Dox.