"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.
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.
To showcase the latest in artificial intelligence, Microsoft recently hosted an "underground" tour, two days' worth of virtual reality demos, product prototypes, programming and platform innovation, research news and philosophical musings on the future of AI from technological, social and business perspectives. AI progress can be attributed to a number of factors, including advancements in processing power, powerful new algorithms, data availability, cloud computing, and machine and deep learning capabilities. One of the more compelling milestones that furthered the cause for many applications was Microsoft's achievement late last year of error rates that are on par with, if not better than, human benchmarks – under 5.9 percent for speech recognition and 3.5 percent for image recognition. Autonomous cars, smart homes, automated assistants, translation apps, virtual and augmented reality were all represented over the course of the event as part of the AI spectrum. But the most compelling discussions were those that went beyond technical wizardry (which was impressive in itself) to explore the social and cultural impacts of AI.
In his 1990 book The Age of Intelligent Machines, the American computer scientist and futurist Ray Kurzweil made an astonishing prediction. Working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) throughout the 1970s and 1980s and having seen firsthand the remarkable advances in artificial intelligence pioneered there by Marvin Minsky and others, he forecast that a computer would pass the Turing test – the test of a machine's ability to match or be indistinguishable from human intelligence – between 2020 and 2050.