Jeff Hawkins created the first Palm Pilot (PLMO) digital organizer and then went on to create the Handspring Visor line as well as the popular new Treo 600 combination cell phone, e-mail device, and organizer. His new book, On Intelligence, explores the structure of the human brain and how that understanding will help create a new breed of truly intelligent machines.
He recently spoke with BusinessWeek Correspondent Cliff Edwards about convergence, the state of innovation in Silicon Valley, and the technological advances that are exciting to him. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: What are the most interesting areas of innovation?
A: There are three categories that I think are really interesting. Two of them I'm involved in, so you're getting my personal opinion here. I think the world of wireless communications hasn't even started yet. The world will be connected wirelessly with very high-speed data, and how that changes the world is really going to be dramatic.
Another area is the huge gulf in knowledge in biology about the human genome that's been mapped out recently. What they don't tell you is they don't know how that works. They know about the mechanisms. But they've spent all this time trying to figure out how this trait or this cancer gets caused by some gene or so on. If I were to try to correlate genes with people's bodies and diseases, there's a gulf. That's an area that's really ripe for innovation.
And the other one, of course, is I'm very focused on my brain stuff. I think this is going to be as big as the computer industry. That's just a huge area.
Q: Are you talking about artificial intelligence and moving it to the elderly population?
A: I write about this in the book. The whole last chapter is dedicated to how this will play out. When people think of robotics, they think we're going to have these robots like in the movies and they're going to be talking to you and doing things. But the business of intelligent machines is different than people think.
That's how technology usually comes about. The obvious things aren't as successful as the unobvious things. When they invented the microprocessor, no one was thinking of the cell phone, of digital-signal processors, or global-positioning satellites. They were thinking "O.K., I'm going to do calculators, and I'm going to replace logic controllers in things like traffic lights." The same thing is going to happen in the brain business.
Once you understand what intelligence is -- the ability of a machine to make a model of its environment in a very specific way -- then you realize you can apply this to all kinds of problems that are not human-like at all. You can make machines that are fantastically smart in physics or cosmology or mathematics. You can make machines that think in four dimensions, [whereas] humans have great difficulty doing that.
The real interesting stuff is machines that surpass human abilities but aren't human-like at all -- it's all the smarts without the baggage of being a human.
Q: Talk a little about convergence.
A: I don't really like the word convergence. It implies there's some end goal where everything comes to one point. I don't think it's ever so simple as that. I've been a believer for many years in mobile devices -- that is, mobility trumps nonmobility. Voice, Internet data, e-mail, music, everything's going to come together. All mobile. It's all going to be visual, and it's all going to be wireless. Now what happens is that people don't want lots of stuff in their pockets or purses. They want one thing if they can get it.
I started Palm in 1992. We said, "O.K., we're going to make pocketable computers, and that's going to be the center of this universe." I got that wrong. The cell phone turned out to be a much more important application than what we were doing. It wasn't that what we were doing was bad. But where we were selling about 30 million handheld computers, they were selling 1.2 billion cell phones. And so, the cell phone wins. What we're doing with the Treo is we're taking that functionality and bringing it to the cell-phone platform.
The iPod is never going to be as big as the mobile phone, and it'll get absorbed. It may take five years, or it may take four. But why would you want to carry two things when you can carry one that's just as good? That mobile device will be the center of delivery for content.
Q: Are other areas or countries taking lessons from innovation in Silicon Valley?
A: It's funny because I do get people all the time who come to SV, and they want to look. They're asking from Asia: "What's the secret here?" Sometimes they send whole companies over. I don't think there's any magic knowledge. I think it's just a lucky coincidence of resources, which can clearly be found elsewhere. Anywhere has as good a shot of doing this stuff as anywhere else.
Q: Let's talk about serial innovators. What's the secret to success?
A: I don't know if there's a secret to success. I've had a great deal of success myself. I also have had my share of failure. To me, being a great innovator is like batting in baseball. If you're batting .300 or .350 you're doing pretty well. Most people, they never get a hit.
I try to think very hard about what's ultimately going to happen. Ultimately, everything's going to be wireless. Ultimately, everything's going to be portable. I figured that out a long time ago. Ultimately, the brain business is going to be huge. I saw 25 years ago that we could build this stuff, and it's going to be a huge business.
The trick is once you see that very long-term vision, you then ask yourself, "How do I get there step-by-step?" You have to solve a whole bunch of problems, and along the way you have to make money while you're doing it.
Q: Can a company be a big innovator?
A: Companies don't innovate. People do. If you're going to innovate, you have to overcome problems. In a startup company, you're going to have all these people telling you you're wrong. If you're at a big company, you're going to have all these people telling you you're wrong. It takes a lot of nerve and perseverance. You just have to keep going. You have to keep fighting the battles.