High Order Ignorance

Today was the first day of the 2006 Almaden Institute. The past three years’ Institutes were very interesting, and two of them were even related to my work, so I was looking forward to this year’s edition. The topic is “Cognitive Computing”, and knowing that pretty much exhausted my level of knowledge going in to the first session.

There’s nothing like starting a conference out with a speaker who tells good jokes — and when he’s also a Nobel Prize winner, that’s a bonus. Gerald Edelman‘s talk, From Brain Dynamics to Consciousness: A Prelude to the Future of Brain-Based Devices, was heavy going at times (I had to go diving in Wikipedia to discover what terms like “qualia” meant), but I enjoyed those parts which I understood (which definitely included the jokes).

I didn’t expect to understand much of Henry Markram‘s talk, The Emergence of Intelligence in the Neocortical Microcircuit, but it turned out to be fairly accessible, and loaded with good graphics. His group is trying to simulate networks of about 10,000 neurons, with some early success — they need a BlueGene to do it, though.

I missed about half of the first post-lunch talk, Robert Hecht-Nielsen‘s The Mechanism of Thought, but came in during the discussion of confabulation as a mechanism to generate grammatically correct and plausible sentences. I think it’s a long way from that to Chancellor, though, and so did much of the audience — Hecht-Nielsen claims that it’s possible in the near future, with no major breakthroughs required (at least that’s how I interpreted him).

The second post-lunch talk was from Jeff Hawkins on Hierarchical Temporal Memory: Theory and Implementation, based on the work he describes in On Intelligence. It seemed plausible to me, but I do have a high order of ignorance in this area.

I skipped most of the panel discussion in favor of getting a little work done, but returned to the conference in time for the “moderate” walk to the water tower (I needed some exercise today), and then a tasty dinner and a very interesting talk by Rama on The Uniqueness of the Human Brain, which covered phantom limbs, synesthesia, and the emergence of language. His talk was far better than the typical after-dinner talk at a conference; I’m glad I stayed for it (I did, however, leave before dessert was served).

The Institute continues tomorrow, but I’ll probably only sample it instead of staying for the entire day. My inbox needs attention.