Nov. 14, 2006 SVEC Bernard Widrow

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On Tuesday November 14, 2006, the Silicon Valley Engineering Council (SVEC) held an Open House hosted by Ultratech in San Jose.

SVEC has representatives from every sort of engineer: electrical, mechanical, telecom, biotech. It was one of the few places where you will meet union pipefitters and heart valve manufacturers. I guess engineers just see it as different plumbing. You walk away with the impression that together these people could solve any problem you throw at them.

They came to see Keynote Speaker Dr. Bernard Widrow, an Engineering Hall of Fame winner talk about Cognitive Memory. Widrow thinks that advances in computer memory can help create artificial neural networks similar to those in the human brain.

This was not some colorful feelgood sales presentation. The lecture alternated between slides of plain text and black and white schematic diagrams of how memory is collected, stored and retrieved. Widrow suspects that sense memories are collected in ‘folders’ rather than in dedicated parts of the brain. In other words rather than all the visual memories in one place and auditory memories in another, they are linked and stored together. For instance, when the phone rings and you hear a friends voice, you also recall what they look like.

He also ventured to wonder why all robins nest’s look the same or how a newborn colt knows how to get up and walk. He suspects that this inborn knowledge is stored in what scientists call junk DNA. They call it junk because the can’t explain what it does yet. Over 90% of the human genome falls into this category, so who knows.

Widrow hopes that technological advances will act as prosthetics aiding failing human memory. He also thinks they will be able to store and retrieve information beyond the reach of our senses like infrared light or ultrasound. Imagine being able to see an aerial view of your current location without using GoogleMaps.

Delving into dreams, he suspects that the REM state shuffles images in dreams like an iPod. Sometimes this rearranging of images results in new inspiration. Widrow talked about his personal experience of waking with a breakthrough and immediately writing it down. Eventually it lead to a solution to a previously insoluble problem.

It’s funny that with all the logic and technology, in the end the future may depend on dreams.

Copyright 2006 All rights reserved.