‘AI will not destroy humanity’ – Jeff Hawkins foresees the age of AI

Jiemian News speaks with Jeff Hawkins, author of A Thousand Brains founder of Palm, the world's largest handheld computer manufacturer. We discuss AI ethics and ChatGPT and how Hawkins sees the future shaping up.

Photo provided to Jiemian News

Photo provided to Jiemian News

By SIMA Linwei


With artificial intelligence (AI) and ChatGPT at the forefront of all technological minds, Jeff Hawkins, author of A Thousand Brains and the founder of Palm, the world's largest handheld computer manufacturer, is renowned for his visionary thinking.

Palm revolutionized mobile computing and has left a lasting impact on the phone industry. With his extensive experience with AI and the workings of the human brain, few are better equipped to comment on how the new era of AI, AR, MR and VR may unfold. 

His book, A Thousand Brains, explores advances in AI technology that are closely intertwined with the human brain.

In this interview, we discuss AI ethics and ChatGPT technology, through Hawkins's unique perspective.

About ChatGPT

Jiemian News: What are your thoughts on the recent advances in artificial intelligence, particularly with regard to natural language processing?

Hawkins: The recent advances in AI are impressive, but they seem impressive only because so little progress was made in AI for many years. When computers were first invented people were amazed by their speed and accuracy in searching through data and doing mathematics. Over time we got used to computers and no longer marvel at their abilities. However, some problems, such as image recognition and language processing proved difficult for computers, so we came to believe that these problems might never be solved by a computer.

The recent advances in AI are not based on fundamentally new algorithms. Progress is mostly because we can now train AI systems on very large datasets. The largest dataset we have is all the text on the internet. ChatGPT and other language AI systems work well because they can be trained on billions of language samples. Over the coming years, language-based AI will be integrated into our lives as just another application of computers. We will feel as comfortable using them as we do when using a calculator or a smartphone.

Jiemian News: ChatGPT's conversations with humans are impressive, or are they? Is it really AI?

Hawkins: No. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that chatbots such as ChatGPT are intelligent like we are, but they are not. Chatbots only know the statistics of text. Human intelligence is based on moving about in the world, touching things, feeling textures, seeing what happens when we interact with the world, and conversing with our fellow humans. A chatbot can fool you into thinking it knows these things too, but in reality, it can only play back text based on what humans have written. Chatbots don’t understand the world as we do.

Jiemian News: Do you think ChatGPT can generate higher intelligence?

Hawkins: Without being able to move and interact with the world, ChatGPT will forever be limited in what it can do. Chatbots will get better over time at mimicking human language, but they will remain limited in what they understand. To create intelligent machines that understand the way we do requires copying some of the principles that the brain uses.

Brain and General AI

Jiemian News: General AI and specialized AI are the two major directions of AI development. What’s your preferred frame of reference?

Hawkins: Starting at a young age I wanted to know how my brain worked. I couldn’t think of any question that was more interesting or more important, so I dedicated my life to that pursuit. I also believe that to build truly intelligent machines, we need to start with an understanding of the brain. Today there is a lot of confusion about what intelligence is. The progress we have made in understanding the brain, the Thousand Brains Theory, provides a clear understanding of what intelligence is and how we can build intelligent machines.

This doesn’t mean I am against more limited forms of AI, such as ChatGPT. In fact, my company, Numenta, has created technology that greatly lowers the cost of running language models such as GPT. We are excited by how we can not only make these models less expensive but also greatly reduce the energy required to run them. But ultimately, we will build machines that are intelligent in the same way we are, and those machines will work similarly to the brain.

Jiemian News: Why do you say that knowledge representation is the key to general AI?

Hawkins: All AI systems learn by observing some part of the world and storing what they learn. How knowledge is stored inside an AI system is critically important to what the AI system can do. Humans store knowledge in a way that reflects the three-dimensional structure of the world. We learn by moving our bodies, eyes, and limbs. As we move through space, our brain stores what it learns in reference frames that reflect the physical structure of the world and where we were when we learned something. As I explain in my book, A Thousand Brains, the brain’s reference frames explain how we can rapidly learn almost anything and why we are able to solve problems in novel ways.

Jiemian News: The English title of your new book is A Thousand Brains, what exactly does this refer to?

Hawkins: The title, A Thousand Brains, refers to a surprising attribute of our brains. When we learn something, such as what a coffee cup feels and looks like, we actually learn many models of the cup, not just one. Your brain is a distributed modeling system. It contains hundreds to thousands of models of everything you know. We didn’t anticipate this when we started studying the brain, but it is an inevitable conclusion. I explain this in my book.

Jiemian News: In your book, you say that it is possible that the world we perceive is not real, but constructed by our perceptual faculties. Does this mean that we can understand religion and philosophy from a biological and neurological point of view, i.e., that the world is made up of consciousness?

Hawkins: Most people who study the brain, including me, believe that everything we experience, including consciousness, is caused by activity in the brain. There are no magical forces that make cells do things that can’t be explained by biology. So, by studying the brain we can understand how the brain and its cells create religion, philosophy, and our beliefs. I cover all these topics in my book. Some people don’t want to believe that we can be reduced to biology. Personally, I don’t see any problem with this. Humans and human experiences are just as fascinating regardless of whether we can understand them as biological processes.

AI and the Future of Humanity

Jiemian News: We've seen a lot of research into artificial intelligence and a new technological revolution. Where do you think we are headed?

Hawkins: AI will transform the 21st century similarly to how digital computing transformed the past century. The changes that AI will bring will impact all aspects of our lives. We can’t know exactly how this will play out, just as the original architects of computers couldn’t anticipate GPS, smartphones, or the internet. But we can be confident that the world will appear very different in fifty years.

Jiemian News: What are the risks of artificial intelligence? Will it threaten the survival of humanity?

Hawkins: The changes brought about by AI will be largely positive. However, there will be negative consequences, too. Some of the obvious challenges are using AI to spread misinformation and using AI in warfare. I don’t see any direct existential risk through AI. AI will not turn on us and destroy humanity, I explain why in my book.

Jiemian News: Which industries will be replaced by AI first? And what new industries are likely to emerge?

Hawkins: All technological revolutions change the way we live and work. These changes are mostly for the better. Of course, some industries and jobs will be negatively impacted, but more new industries and new jobs will be created. We have seen this trend play out over and over again.

We must help the people who lose jobs due to AI, but more importantly, entirely new industries and intellectually interesting jobs will be created by AI. I am excited to be part of this future.