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Friday, 26 August 2011

Turning Point for AI

Something happened in 2010 inside the Artificial Intelligence (AI) industry. If you're familiar with Jeff Hawkins' work around Hierarchical Temporal Memory (HTM), you'll also know that he founded a brain research institute and a for-profit company. The institute is the Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience. The company is Numenta.

These entities were founded using the money Hawkins made from selling the shares in his company, Palm. As a side note, I think the amount of drive you need to create a multi-billion dollar company in order to do what you really want, study the brain, is quite breathtaking. However, I'm also pretty sure that that accomplishment will be completely overshadowed by the things that are about to come out of the AI work that he has pioneered over the past decade.

Numenta was co-founded by Hawkins, and Dileep George with the aims of 1) producing a commercially viable API that can be used to solve human cognition problems and 2) pushing results and findings back into the Redwood Institute.

At some point in 2010, Dileep decided to leave Numenta to start his own company, Vicarious Systems. According to Dileep himself in this email extract, everyone is still on good terms and Numenta is in a place where they can continue without him.

"...I did agonize a lot before deciding to take a leave from Numenta, but after taking the decision I do feel it was the right one. Yes, everything is friendly between me and the team. I made sure that Numenta will be fine without me and I am ready to help if needed. Jeff and Donna were supportive of my decision to take a break and explore..."

I wrote to the founders of Vicarious Systems, and was told that they do intend to push research findings back into the Redwood Institute, just as Numenta does.

At about this time, activity from Numenta dropped off. A new API was hinted at on the Numenta website, but as yet, nothing has been released. Activity in the Numenta forums also dropped.

I went to have a look at the Redwood Institute. If you're willing to hack away at LinkedIn, you can come away with some interesting insights.

For example, lots of the primary researchers in the Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience are also involved in a company called IQ Engines. IQ Engines is a Software as a Service (SaaS) for image processing. You send in an image, the service will give you back a JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) description of the component pieces of that image.

Going back into LinkedIn and looking at the company activity graphs for IQ Engines and Numenta you can see that both of these companies began ramping up in late 2010.


IQ Engines

Numenta has recently created some interesting job postings. One for a Product Manager, and a contract for a user experience designer as they presumably gear up to release the hinted at new API to the community.

So what happened mid 2010?

It would seem that it was not a rift, as everyone is, at least in appearance, giving signals that all the parties involved are still friends, and information will still be shared back to academia.

Maybe there was a breakthrough? Something that made everyone involved with Jeff Hawkins realize that now was the time to set up a company and make a bunch of cash...

And there is lots of potential cash to make. With the advent of a reliable human cognition in computer form, everything that humans are capable of (and an unimaginable number of things that humans can't do) could be done with software and machines that you can sell.

As William Gibson famously said, "The future is already here - it's just not very evenly distributed." I think this is beautifully illustrated by the fact that there is a very interesting space where HTMs are being used and that is in the area of quantum computing. D-Wave systems, based in Vancouver, have produced the first commercially available quantum computer which has been demonstrated by Google to very quickly train HTM networks for image recognition.

A quick summary of quantum computing: Because of weird quantum effects that are little understood, massively parallel operations can be performed which enables quantum computers to accomplish a task an order (or many orders) of magnitude faster than traditional computers. However, as the CEO of D-Wave, Vern Brownell says, "One of the things I’m learning about quantum computing is that if anyone says they understand it, I think they’re probably mistaken."

All in all, I think the rate at which change is coming will astound us all. Lets see what comes out of Numenta in the next few months.

If you forced my hand, here's the order in which I see it happening.
  1. Software solutions to existing predictive analytic problems and human cognition problems (eg. is this picture a dog or a cat?)
  2. Military robotics. Robots that can do complex (non-)human tasks.
  3. Chip based intelligence for replacement of any human based activity deemed profitable.
  4. Unknown period ending in
  5. Human enslavement
But I think it will be a happy enslavement. We'll most likely end up in what we think of as a luxury resort being waited on hand and foot. Just like our DNA is cared for by our cells, or our cells are cared for by our body, or our body is cared for by our lizard brain, or our lizard brain is looked after by the cortex. The AI will look after us like we look after our body. Sometimes an arm is expendable, but we regret having to cut it off.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Great article - definitely will be interesting to see what changes happen over the next little while. Predictive algorithms are the next big thing now that everyone is sharing their data with everyone else - we need the ability the actually process the mass of data out there.


  3. Wonderful blog & good post.Its really helpful for me, awaiting for more new post. Keep Blogging!

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