Neuroscience Maverick Funds His Own Research

(p. B4) Mr. Hawkins has been following his own, all-encompassing idea for how the brain works. It is a step beyond the projects of most neuroscientists, like understanding the brain of a fruit fly or exploring the particulars of human sight.
His theory starts with cortical columns. Cortical columns are a crucial part of the neocortex, the part of the brain that handles sight, hearing, language and reason. Neuro-(p. B4)scientists don’t agree on how the neocortex works.
Mr. Hawkins says cortical columns handle every task in the same way, a sort of computer algorithm that is repeated over and over again. It is a logical approach to the brain for a man who spent decades building new kinds of computing devices.
All he has to do is figure out the algorithm.
A number of neuroscientists like the idea, and some are pursuing similar ideas. They also praise Mr. Hawkins for his willingness to think so broadly. Being a maverick is not easily done in academia and the world of traditional research. But it’s a little easier when you can fund your own work, as Mr. Hawkins has.
. . .
In 1979, with an article in Scientific American, Francis Crick, a Nobel Prize winner for his DNA research, called for an all-encompassing theory of the brain, something that could explain this “profoundly mysterious” organ.
Mr. Hawkins graduated from Cornell in 1979 with a degree in electrical engineering. Over the next several years, he worked at Intel, the computer chip giant, and Grid Systems, an early laptop company. But after reading that magazine article, he decided the brain would be his life’s work.
He proposed a neuroscience lab inside Intel. After the idea was rejected, he enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. His doctoral thesis proposal was rejected, too. He was, suffice to say, an outlier.
. . .
U.S. Robotics acquired Palm in 1996 for $44 million. About two years later, Mr. Hawkins and Ms. Dubinksy left to start Handspring. Palm, which became an independent company again in 2000, acquired Handspring for $192 million in stock in 2003.
Around the time of the second sale, Mr. Hawkins built his own neuroscience lab. But it was short-lived. He could not get a lab full of academics focused on his neocortical theory. So, along with Ms. Dubinsky and an A.I. researcher named Dileep George, he founded Numenta.
The company spent years trying to build and sell software, but eventually, after Mr. George left, it settled into a single project. Funded mostly by Mr. Hawkins — he won’t say how much he has spent on it — the company’s sole purpose has been explaining the neocortex and then reverse engineering it.

For the full story, see:
Cade Metz. “A New View of How We Think.” The New York Times (Monday, Oct. 15, 2018): B1 & B4.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Oct. 14, 2018, and has the title “Jeff Hawkins Is Finally Ready to Explain His Brain Research.”)

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