Adventures at the Googleplex (Part II)

This is the second part of the "Adventures at the Googleplex" non-blog. As long as I don't write about something that is current, I'm still not a blogger. (I'm fairly sure that is true.) Again, what follows below are unedited ramblings written down very late at night. Possibly slightly inebriated. Quite possibly.

August 5, 2007

"This is day two of SciFoo at Google. It is 12:28am and I desperately want to go to sleep. A full day exposed to this group can wear you down. Even if it is by trivia."

The day started with the self-organized sessions decided upon yesterday. I signed up to see Jeff Hawkins talk, naturally. Well, I signed him up for it, really. And when I come into the room, Jeff points to me to explain, "Well, blame Chris Adami for this".  I am happy to oblige. Jeff launches into his talk (there’s only about thirty listeners, in an auditorium that can hold 120). He is very reserved rather than brash, almost as if he expected rampant opposition by the assembled scientists. But it is clear that he knows more about neuroscience than any of the people in this audience (me included), and he moves on to his implementation of his cortical algorithm as if this was just another obstacle to cross. He is being interrupted to outline his algorithm in more detail. And as he explains it, it slowly, but surely, dawns on me. This is it. This guy actually, unbelievably, against all odds, figured out how the brain works. Now, if you know me, I mean, know me at all, you know that I don’t give praise lightly. But in this case, I’m speechless. I’ve thought about brains for twenty-five years. I applied to graduate school in 1985 to study Artificial Intelligence (and had to settle for Theoretical Physics instead). I’ve been rejected at least as many times as Jeff Hawkins has been. But he had an idea I did not have. (Well, if you read his book, the initial idea was not his either). But who is counting. As far as I’m concerned, I know how the brain works now, and Jeff Hawkins figured it out.

Can he prove it? Well, that’s a longer story. Within his new company, called Numenta, he is trying to develop the most basic implementation of his algorithm, and that is going slowly.  But, from a fundamental point of view, I have rarely experienced such a feeling of gratification. For the last 25 years I have tried to understand the algorithm behind our brain function, and only now I think I understand it, but I am livid, nay, outraged, that I did not think of it before.

Jeff Hawkins, how dare you!

Martha Stewart talks about cuisine on the ISS at SciFoo
I’m sure there were other talks before I get to the one by Martha Stewart. The one where I snapped her picture talking about space cuisine.

Neal Stephenson is next. We sit next to the Google cafeteria/coffee contraptions, where you can have anything you want, and you don’t have to pay for it. Neal is shy. We talk about writing (as if I had written anything of consequence). And talk more about writing. Neal, in the end, is just one of the guys invited to talk to more guys (it’s mostly guys here, I have to say).

It is far too late for me to be able to paint an accurate picture of what it is like to be at SciFoo. I decided to focus on just a few of the people here, and wish, in the aftermath of it, that I would have spent more time with some of the other people I recognized: Freeman Dyson and his son George and daughter Esther, Eric Drexler (that I only talked to during an awkward lunch period when I didn’t know who he was). And finally PZ Myers. We sat on a sofa and chatted. He’s a blogger. The one everyone knows. Titus Brown wants me to say hi to him. 

Post scriptum (January 2013). George Dyson had a photo essay about  Sci Foo 2007, for those who want to reminisce. I can barely remember it, and really only because I wrote these notes.