"When you are born, you know nothing." This is the kind of statement you expect to hear from a philosophy professor, not a Silicon Valley executive with a new company to pitch and money to make. A tall, rangy man who is almost implausibly cheerful, Hawkins created the Palm and Treo handhelds and cofounded Palm Computing and Handspring. His is the consummate high tech success story, the brilliant, driven engineer who beat the critics to make it big. Now he's about to unveil his entrepreneurial third act: a company called Numenta. But what Hawkins, 49, really wants to talk about -- in fact, what he has really wanted to talk about for the past 30 years -- isn't gadgets or source codes or market niches.
Every day brings considerable AI news, from breakthrough capabilities to dire warnings. A quick read of recent headlines shows both: an AI system that claims to predict dengue fever outbreaks up to three months in advance, and an opinion piece from Henry Kissinger that AI will end the Age of Enlightenment. Then there's the father of AI who doesn't believe there's anything to worry about. Meanwhile, Robert Downey, Jr. is in the midst of developing an eight-part documentary series about AI to air on Netflix. AI is more than just "hot," it's everywhere.
Once you start poking around in the muck of consciousness studies, you will soon encounter the specter of Sir Roger Penrose, the renowned Oxford physicist with an audacious--and quite possibly crackpot--theory about the quantum origins of consciousness. He believes we must go beyond neuroscience and into the mysterious world of quantum mechanics to explain our rich mental life. No one quite knows what to make of this theory, developed with the American anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff, but conventional wisdom goes something like this: Their theory is almost certainly wrong, but since Penrose is so brilliant ("One of the very few people I've met in my life who, without reservation, I call a genius," physicist Lee Smolin has said), we'd be foolish to dismiss their theory out of hand. Penrose, 85, is a mathematical physicist who made his name decades ago with groundbreaking work in general relativity and then, working with Stephen Hawking, helped conceptualize black holes and gravitational singularities, a point of infinite density out of which the universe may have formed. He also invented "twistor theory," a new way to connect quantum mechanics with the structure of spacetime. His discovery of certain geometric forms known as "Penrose tiles"--an ingenious design of non-repeating patterns--led to new directions of study in mathematics and crystallography. The breadth of Penrose's interests is extraordinary, which is evident in his recent book Fashion, Faith and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe--a dense 500-page tome that challenges some of the trendiest but still unproven theories in physics, from the multiple dimensions of string theory to cosmic inflation in the first moment of the Big Bang.
Less Hal and more Her, responding warmly to the feelings of others may no longer be a uniquely animal quality. Empathetic responses are being integrated into artificial intelligence and robotics, raising sticky ethical questions. The shift can be subtle or overt -- from emotionally appropriate gestures from your smartphone's voice assistant, to comforting robotics in clinical situations. For instance, Danielle Krettek, the founder of Google's Empathy Lab, said her work has contributed to some of the Google Assistant's apparent ability to attune to your mood. "When you say, 'I'm feeling depressed', instead of giving you a description of what depression is, it [might say], 'you know what, a lot of people feel that.
News concerning Artificial Intelligence (AI) abounds again. The progress with Deep Learning techniques are quite remarkable with such demonstrations of self-driving cars, Watson on Jeopardy, and beating human Go players. This rate of progress has led some notable scientists and business people to warn about the potential dangers of AI as it approaches a human level. Exascale computers are being considered that would approach what many believe is this level. However, there are many questions yet unanswered on how the human brain works, and specifically the hard problem of consciousness with its integrated subjective experiences.