Dr. Newton Howard is a Professor of Neurocomputation (Neurosurgery and Mathematics) at the University of Oxford, and a Professor of Brain Sciences at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. He is also the Chairman of the Brain Sciences Foundation, a nonprofit organization he founded in 2009 with an aim to improve the quality of life for those with neurological disorders.   

In 2000 while a graduate member of the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Oxford, he proposed the Theory of Intention Awareness (IA). In 2002, he received a second doctoral degree in cognitive informatics and mathematics from the prestigious La Sorbonne in France. He received numerous accolades for his work on cognitive sciences.  

Professor Newton Howard attended and gave a keynote address at the Bangladesh Business Innovation Summit 2019 held last year. During the summit, BBF had the opportunity to interview Professor Howard, the summary of which is provided below.


Can you tell us about some interesting projects from your career?

I was in my early 20’s when I worked on a project at Ford. The project was called ‘Virtual Colliquation’ which was essentially the task of organizing the compression standards as well as building programs to enable Ford Product Development Cycle segments to interact seamlessly and see each other. We teamed with Microsoft to work on the project, which would later be the framework for Skype and other internet calling technologies that we see today. This was in the early ’90s. Ford did not want to pursue the project further as the management felt that it was not in line with their business but had they seen the bigger picture, we’d have been the first to introduce the service.

I’m working on a brain-machine interface/ Deep brain stimulation technology that should be on the market next year. We have been working on the project for 10 years now. I can’t divulge the details but you’ll see when it’s released.


You were the former Director of MIT’s ‘Mind Machine Project’. Can you tell us about how it started?

I was intrigued by the type of activities surrounding AI that was happening at MIT and wondered why things were stagnating on that front. At the time, Marvin Minsky, cognitive scientist and founder of MIT’s AI laboratory, was still around, and together we envisioned what we called ‘Rebooting AI’. The idea was to bring together all the units that are working separately and put them together on a focused effort to bring classic Artificial Intelligence back as well as bring a focused effort on a human-centric approach and understanding the human intelligence. We managed to achieve a certain milestone with that, and the work is still ongoing under different names.


Do you think in the foreseeable future AI will reach a level comparable to human or basic animal cognition?

AI, at the moment, is somewhat overrated in terms of where it is and its capabilities. To put that into perspective, there is a lot of work to be done to make AI comparable to the processing power of an ant, not even a full animal. With that said, we have to realize that intelligence has many forms and there is no one synthetic form that fits all. I believe that the guidelines of the Alan Turing test should not be the only methodology. There are more elaborate ways in terms of achieving a level of intelligence comparable to human intelligence.


Many people fear that they would lose their jobs as machines take over, so what is your take on that?

The presence of AI and automation, in general, will always displace certain members of the population into potentially losing their positions. What it is really doing, however, is pushing them towards a different elevation. We are automating processes that are otherwise simple so that we humans can focus on and discover work that is more demanding and deserving of what our mind can do.

Society has to work as a collaborative system that would put into place the methodology to overcome such changes, tend to its displaced members, and reorganize itself to accommodate the displaced talents. We need to introduce facilities that would serve to train individuals in new avenues and such facilities should be introduced in parallel to the introduction of new facets of automation.


In 2002, you proposed the theory of ‘Intention Awareness’. Put simply, how would you explain it and what implications does it have for society?

In the ’90s, there were a lot of military engagements by the United States, where unfortunate accidents occurred that we term as “friendly fire”. The solution that was put into place to combat the occurrences, unfortunately, did not decrease the rate of friendly fire. That led to an investigation, which I participated in, in my graduate research. I discovered that a majority of these cases were due to misinterpretation in the communication between commanders. We realized that misinterpretation and lack of action architecture around what was being ordered was a responsible cause, greater than 60%.

The theory of intention awareness when applied to specific scenarios led to the development of Google Earth, Language translation tools, etc. We’re also working on identifying unique signatures in regards to how a person is moving in 3-dimensional space to provide definitive identification of an individual. The theory has applications in many more cases.


What implications does the fourth industrial revolution have for developing nations?

The fourth industrial revolution a great opportunity because now, you never know where you’re going to find the next unicorn. It could be Silicon Valley, or it could be right here in Bangladesh, or in Moldova. The 4IR has led to the democratization of the tool-sets and knowledge which has resulted in the potential to create unicorns anywhere. We no longer need to think of Silicon Valley when we think of innovation. It just becomes a location like no other. The faculty, will, desire, and capability can, therefore, be invoked anywhere.


What advice would you give to the young generation of individuals starting out their careers?

Seek wisdom, not information. There is an abundance of information in this day and age, but there is very little wisdom that the information conveys. The ability to isolate the relevance and some of the inherent noise that can be found in the information can become a challenge. Seek wisdom by having a goal-oriented, mission-driven inquiry when you dive into this ocean of information. I’m almost convinced that you create an attraction for the relevant type of information or knowledge to you if you have that sense of purpose.

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