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  • I do two things:

  • I design mobile computers and I study brains.

  • Today's talk is about brains and -- (Audience member cheers)

  • Yay! I have a brain fan out there.

  • (Laughter)

  • If I could have my first slide,

  • you'll see the title of my talk and my two affiliations.

  • So what I'm going to talk about is why we don't have a good brain theory,

  • why it is important that we should develop one

  • and what we can do about it.

  • I'll try to do all that in 20 minutes.

  • I have two affiliations.

  • Most of you know me from my Palm and Handspring days,

  • but I also run a nonprofit scientific research institute

  • called the Redwood Neuroscience Institute in Menlo Park.

  • We study theoretical neuroscience and how the neocortex works.

  • I'm going to talk all about that.

  • I have one slide on my other life, the computer life,

  • and that's this slide here.

  • These are some of the products I've worked on over the last 20 years,

  • starting from the very original laptop

  • to some of the first tablet computers

  • and so on, ending up most recently with the Treo,

  • and we're continuing to do this.

  • I've done this because I believe mobile computing

  • is the future of personal computing,

  • and I'm trying to make the world a little bit better

  • by working on these things.

  • But this was, I admit, all an accident.

  • I really didn't want to do any of these products.

  • Very early in my career

  • I decided I was not going to be in the computer industry.

  • Before that, I just have to tell you

  • about this picture of Graffiti I picked off the web the other day.

  • I was looking for a picture for Graffiti that'll text input language.

  • I found a website dedicated to teachers who want to make script-writing things

  • across the top of their blackboard,

  • and they had added Graffiti to it, and I'm sorry about that.

  • (Laughter)

  • So what happened was,

  • when I was young and got out of engineering school at Cornell in '79,

  • I went to work for Intel and was in the computer industry,

  • and three months into that, I fell in love with something else.

  • I said, "I made the wrong career choice here,"

  • and I fell in love with brains.

  • This is not a real brain.

  • This is a picture of one, a line drawing.

  • And I don't remember exactly how it happened,

  • but I have one recollection, which was pretty strong in my mind.

  • In September of 1979,

  • Scientific American came out with a single-topic issue about the brain.

  • It was one of their best issues ever.

  • They talked about the neuron, development, disease, vision

  • and all the things you might want to know about brains.

  • It was really quite impressive.

  • One might've had the impression we knew a lot about brains.

  • But the last article in that issue was written by Francis Crick of DNA fame.

  • Today is, I think, the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA.

  • And he wrote a story basically saying, this is all well and good,

  • but you know, we don't know diddly squat about brains,

  • and no one has a clue how they work,

  • so don't believe what anyone tells you.

  • This is a quote from that article, he says:

  • "What is conspicuously lacking" -- he's a very proper British gentleman --

  • "What is conspicuously lacking is a broad framework of ideas

  • in which to interpret these different approaches."

  • I thought the word "framework" was great.

  • He didn't say we didn't have a theory.

  • He says we don't even know how to begin to think about it.

  • We don't even have a framework.

  • We are in the pre-paradigm days, if you want to use Thomas Kuhn.

  • So I fell in love with this.

  • I said, look: We have all this knowledge about brains -- how hard can it be?

  • It's something we can work on in my lifetime; I could make a difference.

  • So I tried to get out of the computer business, into the brain business.

  • First, I went to MIT, the AI lab was there.

  • I said, I want to build intelligent machines too,

  • but I want to study how brains work first.

  • And they said, "Oh, you don't need to do that.

  • You're just going to program computers, that's all.

  • I said, you really ought to study brains.

  • They said, "No, you're wrong."

  • I said, "No, you're wrong," and I didn't get in.

  • (Laughter)

  • I was a little disappointed -- pretty young --

  • but I went back again a few years later,

  • this time in California, and I went to Berkeley.

  • And I said, I'll go in from the biological side.

  • So I got in the PhD program in biophysics.

  • I was like, I'm studying brains now. Well, I want to study theory.

  • They said, "You can't study theory about brains.

  • You can't get funded for that.

  • And as a graduate student, you can't do that."

  • So I said, oh my gosh.

  • I was depressed; I said, but I can make a difference in this field.

  • I went back in the computer industry

  • and said, I'll have to work here for a while.

  • That's when I designed all those computer products.

  • (Laughter)

  • I said, I want to do this for four years, make some money,

  • I was having a family, and I would mature a bit,

  • and maybe the business of neuroscience would mature a bit.

  • Well, it took longer than four years. It's been about 16 years.

  • But I'm doing it now, and I'm going to tell you about it.

  • So why should we have a good brain theory?

  • Well, there's lots of reasons people do science.

  • The most basic one is, people like to know things.

  • We're curious, and we go out and get knowledge.

  • Why do we study ants? It's interesting.

  • Maybe we'll learn something useful, but it's interesting and fascinating.

  • But sometimes a science has other attributes

  • which makes it really interesting.

  • Sometimes a science will tell something about ourselves;

  • it'll tell us who we are.

  • Evolution did this and Copernicus did this,

  • where we have a new understanding of who we are.

  • And after all, we are our brains. My brain is talking to your brain.

  • Our bodies are hanging along for the ride,

  • but my brain is talking to your brain.

  • And if we want to understand who we are and how we feel and perceive,

  • we need to understand brains.

  • Another thing is sometimes science leads to big societal benefits, technologies,

  • or businesses or whatever.

  • This is one, too, because when we understand how brains work,

  • we'll be able to build intelligent machines.

  • That's a good thing on the whole,

  • with tremendous benefits to society,

  • just like a fundamental technology.

  • So why don't we have a good theory of brains?

  • People have been working on it for 100 years.

  • Let's first take a look at what normal science looks like.

  • This is normal science.

  • Normal science is a nice balance between theory and experimentalists.

  • The theorist guy says, "I think this is what's going on,"

  • the experimentalist says, "You're wrong."

  • It goes back and forth, this works in physics, this in geology.

  • But if this is normal science, what does neuroscience look like?

  • This is what neuroscience looks like.

  • We have this mountain of data,

  • which is anatomy, physiology and behavior.

  • You can't imagine how much detail we know about brains.

  • There were 28,000 people who went to the neuroscience conference this year,

  • and every one of them is doing research in brains.

  • A lot of data, but no theory.

  • There's a little wimpy box on top there.

  • And theory has not played a role in any sort of grand way

  • in the neurosciences.

  • And it's a real shame.

  • Now, why has this come about?

  • If you ask neuroscientists why is this the state of affairs,

  • first, they'll admit it.

  • But if you ask them, they say,

  • there's various reasons we don't have a good brain theory.

  • Some say we still don't have enough data,

  • we need more information, there's all these things we don't know.

  • Well, I just told you there's data coming out of your ears.

  • We have so much information, we don't even know how to organize it.

  • What good is more going to do?

  • Maybe we'll be lucky and discover some magic thing, but I don't think so.

  • This is a symptom of the fact that we just don't have a theory.

  • We don't need more data, we need a good theory.

  • Another one is sometimes people say,

  • "Brains are so complex, it'll take another 50 years."

  • I even think Chris said something like this yesterday, something like,

  • it's one of the most complicated things in the universe.

  • That's not true -- you're more complicated than your brain.

  • You've got a brain.

  • And although the brain looks very complicated,

  • things look complicated until you understand them.

  • That's always been the case.

  • So we can say, my neocortex, the part of the brain I'm interested in,

  • has 30 billion cells.

  • But, you know what? It's very, very regular.

  • In fact, it looks like it's the same thing repeated over and over again.

  • It's not as complex as it looks. That's not the issue.

  • Some people say, brains can't understand brains.

  • Very Zen-like. Woo.

  • (Laughter)

  • You know, it sounds good, but why? I mean, what's the point?

  • It's just a bunch of cells. You understand your liver.

  • It's got a lot of cells in it too, right?

  • So, you know, I don't think there's anything to that.

  • And finally, some people say,

  • "I don't feel like a bunch of cells -- I'm conscious.

  • I've got this experience, I'm in the world.

  • I can't be just a bunch of cells."

  • Well, people used to believe there was a life force to be living,

  • and we now know that's really not true at all.

  • And there's really no evidence,

  • other than that people just disbelieve that cells can do what they do.

  • So some people have fallen into the pit of metaphysical dualism,

  • some really smart people, too, but we can reject all that.

  • (Laughter)

  • No, there's something else,

  • something really fundamental, and it is:

  • another reason why we don't have a good brain theory

  • is because we have an intuitive, strongly held but incorrect assumption

  • that has prevented us from seeing the answer.

  • There's something we believe that just, it's obvious, but it's wrong.

  • Now, there's a history of this in science and before I tell you what it is,

  • I'll tell you about the history of it in science.

  • Look at other scientific revolutions --

  • the solar system, that's Copernicus,

  • Darwin's evolution, and tectonic plates, that's Wegener.

  • They all have a lot in common with brain science.

  • First, they had a lot of unexplained data. A lot of it.

  • But it got more manageable once they had a theory.

  • The best minds were stumped -- really smart people.

  • We're not smarter now than they were then;

  • it just turns out it's really hard to think of things,

  • but once you've thought of them, it's easy to understand.

  • My daughters understood these three theories,

  • in their basic framework, in kindergarten.

  • It's not that hard -- here's the apple, here's the orange,

  • the Earth goes around, that kind of stuff.

  • Another thing is the answer was there all along,

  • but we kind of ignored it because of this obvious thing.

  • It was an intuitive, strongly held belief that was wrong.

  • In the case of the solar system,

  • the idea that the Earth is spinning,

  • the surface is going a thousand miles an hour,

  • and it's going through the solar system at a million miles an hour --

  • this is lunacy; we all know the Earth isn't moving.

  • Do you feel like you're moving a thousand miles an hour?

  • If you said Earth was spinning around in space and was huge --

  • they would lock you up, that's what they did back then.

  • So it was intuitive and obvious. Now, what about evolution?

  • Evolution, same thing.

  • We taught our kids the Bible says God created all these species,

  • cats are cats; dogs are dogs; people are people; plants are plants;

  • they don't change.

  • Noah put them on the ark in that order, blah, blah.

  • The fact is, if you believe in evolution, we all have a common ancestor.

  • We all have a common ancestor with the plant in the lobby!

  • This is what evolution tells us. And it's true. It's kind of unbelievable.

  • And the same thing about tectonic plates.

  • All the mountains and the continents

  • are kind of floating around on top of the Earth.

  • It doesn't make any sense.

  • So what is the intuitive, but incorrect assumption,

  • that's kept us from understanding brains?

  • I'll tell you. It'll seem obvious that it's correct. That's the point.

  • Then I'll make an argument why you're incorrect on the other assumption.

  • The intuitive but obvious thing is:

  • somehow, intelligence is defined by behavior;

  • we're intelligent because of how we do things

  • and how we behave intelligently.

  • And I'm going to tell you that's wrong.

  • Intelligence is defined by prediction.